Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to the exciting and invigorating duel for the last two slots in the Mariners' rotation! Gasp as Brandon Maurer strikes dudes out! Thrill to the impressive movement on Erasmo Ramirez's changeup! Watch in awe as the wily Jon Garland tricks opposing hitters into hitting ground balls! Be shocked to discover that Jeremy Bonderman can still kind of throw baseballs! Drink in the incredible spectacle of Blake Beavan oh who the hell am I kidding?
God help me, this is actually the most interesting story of spring training so far. Do you know how absurd that is? That a competition between two reclamation projects, two prospects, and the world's blandest pitcher is the most exciting thing that's happening? I mean, last year we had Ichiro batting third and Jesus Montero being a Mariner and Michael Saunders changing his swing and Munenori Kawasaki existing, and this year we get Blake Beavan vs. Jon Garland? Jesus. I keep waiting for something interesting to happen, anything at all, and... nothing. Just nothing. Wow, the guys who were brought in specifically to hit lots of dingers are hitting lots of dingers? What a shocker! Justin Smoak is playing well in a meaningless small sample? You don't say! Franklin Gutierrez and a reliever are out with minor injuries? Stop the presses!
I suppose I shouldn't complain. Lots of boring news is better than lots of not-boring news, if the not-boring news is bad. At least the Mariners aren't the Yankees. (God, have you seen the Yankees? Their starting left fielder is Brennan Boesch.) On the other hand, wouldn't it be great if we could pay attention to what's going on with the Mariners without passing out from sheer boredom?
So anyways, the rotation battle. It's pretty darn dull, yes, but if you want to spice up your Mariners fandom you can pretend that it's a five way duel to the death! The contestants are literally pitching for their lives! And they are...
There's an argument to be made that Erasmo Ramirez is the third-best pitcher currently on the major league roster, behind only Felix and Hisashi Iwakuma. That argument, however, is rather precariously built on small sample sizes and theoretical plateau leaps. Until last year, Ramirez was a minor-league control specialist: he walked about two guys per nine innings and he had a fastball that wasn't terribly fast. Then he went and added velocity and suddenly started striking guys out in the major leagues. Erasmo's deadliest weapon is his changeup, which is one of the only legitimate strikeout pitches anyone in this competition has. Last year, by Fangraphs' pitch value rate stat for changeups (wCH/C), Erasmo had the ninth-best changeup in all of baseball (min. 50 IP). That's ten spots ahead of well-known change artist and former Mariner Jason Vargas. Last year, Erasmo's change produced a higher percentage of whiffs than any of Craig Kimbrel's pitches did. What I'm saying here is that his changeup is really good. He has plus-plus command to go with it, too, and for the record scouts likewise love his arsenal. He's also very young; last year he was the youngest player in the major leagues on opening day. There's room for growth here.
On the other hand, there is some downside. Erasmo missed time last year with an elbow injury, and it's been shown that the biggest "warning sign" of an impending injury for a pitcher is an injury during the previous season. Erasmo is no guarantee to last the whole year. There's also no guarantee that he can sustain the improvement to his K rate that he made in his jump to the major leagues last year. Most pitchers, intuitively, do not increase their strikeout rate when they move to the major leagues, even if they have terrific changeups. Most projection systems think that his strikeouts will regress backwards and project him for somewhere between 1 and 2 WAR. That's pretty good for a back-of-the-rotation starter, but it's not what we fans are hoping to see from him.
Odds: Decent. He's probably the best choice, but the Mariners have shown that they don't always make the best choice.
Blake Beavan's walkup music is Vanilla Ice, and that is perfect. Whoever picked that song gets a thumbs up from me. Beavan (not Beaven) has been in the rotation for the better part of the last two years, and he's been steadily and reliably bad. Not the kind of bad that makes you hate yourself for watching it (2010 Mariners), or the kind of bad that makes you laugh because it's so terrible (2012 Astros), but the quiet kind of bad that you think maybe isn't all that bad but then you look at the numbers and it really is. It really, really is. Beavan's biggest strength is his control, which is quite good. Note that this is distinct from his command, which is less good. Beavan is great at throwing balls over the plate, and he is less great at throwing balls to specific places over the plate. Dingers ensue.
Still, he's constantly tweaking his repertoire, and that usually bodes fairly well for pitchers. It's been said that any replacement-level pitcher can figure out a way to be league average if you give them enough time in the major leagues to do it, and Blake has certainly gotten a lot of time. He'll probably get more, even if it's not with the Mariners, since he's still very young (younger than James Paxton!) and there are a lot of teams that could use a 0.5 WAR starter at the back of their rotation. Notably this spring training, he's moved his release point up a few inches, and it appears to have added a significant amount of rise to his fastball. He's sitting on nine strikeouts, zero walks, and three home runs, which means nothing but also everything. He's also got the advantage of being the most durable, by far, of these five rotation candidates, which may end up being the difference-maker.
Odds: Decent. He's the safest bet of the pitchers to produce lots of innings, which the Mariners may be attracted by.
Brandon Maurer was the least-heralded member of the Big Three coming into camp, mostly because he isn't actually a member of the Big Three. Still, he's impressed both the media and the Mariners brass enough that there's some talk of him earning a rotation spot out of camp like Pineda did in 2011. This talk is not entirely unjustified, because Brandon Maurer is actually really interesting. Despite having been extremely fragile during his run with the Mariners, he's got more career minor league innings pitched than Paxton, Walker, or Hultzen and last year only Hultzen was better in AA. That's actually a little misleading to say, too, because Maurer really picked it up at the end of 2012 and started getting pretty remarkable results (23% K, 9% BB, 3.07 RA in his last 16 starts). He's got a fairly diverse repertoire that features a good slider and curveball to go with a somewhat fringy change. Of interest is his fastball, which until this spring was sitting at 91-94 but in some outings this month has been hovering around 95. He's big and strong and built like Blake Beavan. Like Blake Beavan, he's also very young.
But he's not exactly a front-runner for the job, mostly because of his youth and his fragility. Maurer has been plagued by incessant injury issues, and 2012 was the first year that he really had a lot of innings to put it together in. He's also never seen AAA, and if the Mariners were inclined to promote pitchers from AA straight to the major leagues without any AAA time we probably would've seen Danny Hultzen last year. Maurer might be a decent choice right now, but he might also need a lot of seasoning before he's ready, and while he's in this in theory I don't really think he's a strong candidate to win the job.
Odds: Negligible. He hasn't even seen AAA yet, so he'd have to blow the front office away in order to earn a spot.
Jon Garland, when signed, seemed like a guy who might have a shot at making the rotation. Now he seems like an inevitability, mostly because he's got an opt-out clause in his contract that lets him hit free agency again and go to another team if it looks like the Mariners aren't going to let him into camp. This is kind of a bummer. Garland, even in his heyday, was sort of reminiscent of Beavan. In the "I don't strike people out" way, that is. For his career he's got less than 5 K/9 and more than 3 BB/9, which is not a very appealing combination. What's more, he's been injured, and is unlikely to recapture his glory days. Honestly, he's kind of old and washed up, and he's blocking younger pitchers. Jon Garland is just not a very interesting pitcher, and I'd rather not watch him.
He's got a few things going for him, though. He does get a lot of ground balls, which means he'd be relying on the Mariners' excellent infield defense and explains why he always used to manage pretty good ERA numbers despite his lack of strikeouts. For his career he's got a 7 WAR gulf between rWAR and fWAR, which may be somewhat predictive as a result of his ground balls. Perhaps most importantly, he offers the Mariners rotation depth. If he's cut, and he leaves, the Mariners' sixth starter (after Felix/Kuma/Saunders/Erasmo/Beavan) would be either Jeremy Bonderman or Hector Noesi. No one wants that. He'll probably stick around to offer sage advice, and to be a cheap and mediocre starter. That's not the end of the world.
Odds: Very good. The opt-out clause and his veteranocity make him the most likely rotation candidate.
For the first four candidates, I wrote a "good" paragraph and a "bad" paragraph, with the order changing based on how much I like the pitcher. For Jeremy Bonderman, there is only one paragraph. Guess what I think of Jeremy Bonderman! I can't buy him as a serious candidate for this job. It's been so long since he's pitched in the major leagues, and even longer since he's been good, and even when he was good he could never get his RA to match his FIP. As far as I know, he doesn't have the same opt-out that Garland does. Bonderman is like the Jason Bay of pitchers, except that Jason Bay is probably going to make the team.
...Now I'm depressed.
Odds: Negligible. It's just been too long since he's pitched, or been good, in the majors.
This isn't a terribly exciting deathmatch. For one thing, only Ramirez and Maurer have anything approaching actual weapons, and for another thing only Beavan isn't prone to injuring himself. For a third thing, the outcome is a pretty foregone conclusion: Garland will probably make the rotation, and either Ramirez or Beavan will be in the fifth slot with Maurer going to AAA and Bonderman vanishing into the either. Personally I'd go with Ramirez for the rotation, since he's to my eyes clearly the best candidate, but the team may go with Beavan because they want durability. That's stupid, because Beavan can provide rotation depth from AAA just as well as he can from the majors, but it's not the end of the world because Beavan is not totally unpromising.
Another reason this is an awful deathmatch is because the loser won't actually die. Which is good, because it means that none of the winners will be arrested for murder, but also bad, because Jesus Christ I want something to happen. Casper Wells, you can convert to a reliever any day now.
Note: I wrote this up as a FanPost before I found out that I'd be a new contributing regular. I could publish it on the front page, I guess, but somehow it feels right to bid one last adieu to my FanPosting days before starting the main-page coverage. Besides, this is kinda silly and trivial, and I didn't want to boot Jeff and Matthew's farewells off of the front page for it. So instead, it gets to be my last FanPost. For a while, anyways. Thanks for reading; I hope you enjoy seeing my work on the front page!