Previewing the Mariners' 2014 rotation

Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

We'll always have Felix.

Slow and steady is the name of the game in the Mariners' camp these days. Taijuan Walker is taking bullpen sessions at a slower clip, as is Felix Hernandez, as is Brandon Maurer, as is Erasmo Ramirez, as is Stephen Pryor. You get the picture.

As we examine the ever-expanding list of contenders for a rotation spot, keep in mind that there's very little to be gleaned from one or two long tosses and bullpen sessions. We'll know more as the Cactus League competition kicks off this week.

Right-handed starters

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"After Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, there are no locks for roster spots among the contenders. Top rookie prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton both have a chance to win starting jobs, as do veteran non-roster invitees Scott Baker and Randy Wolf as they come back from Tommy John surgeries. Returners Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan are also in the mix, along with Maurer and newcomers Matt Palmer and Mark Rogers."

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

"While most bullpen sessions go 10 minutes, the youngster [Walker] threw only about five minutes and then called it good, but pitching coach Rick Waits said that was exactly what the club was looking for in his first outing. [...] Walker threw only fastballs under the watchful eyes of trainer Rick Griffin and the Mariners coaches, but he will now get the thumbs up to proceed on a normal buildup."

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

"[Ramirez has] found a conditioning program that works for him. He's also comfortable in his mechanics and his command. [...] After seeing Ramirez battle injury issues the past two seasons, the Mariners are being cautious in their optimism with him. 'We have to give him every opportunity to be one of our starters,' Zduriencik said. 'He should come in here figuring he's going to grab one of those spots.'"

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

"The Mariners, [Scott] Baker said, struck him as the perfect spot, one with both a potential opening and what he saw as a competitive upside. His main competition in the camp appears to be Erasmo Ramirez, although the situation is fluid beyond Hernandez and Iwakuma -- assuming the latter recovers quickly from his finger injury. [...] Manager Lloyd McClendon has liked what he's seen so far from Baker, but he wants to see how all the candidates do in game situations."

-- Larry Stone, Seattle Times

The Mariners are nursing at least five pitchers with various health issues, from Danny Hultzen's season-ending shoulder surgery to Brandon Maurer's stiff back and Hisashi Iwakuma's sore finger. Taijuan Walker sensed some soreness in his shoulder and hasn't thrown off a mound since last week, though he successfully completed several long tosses this morning.

If we prune the list above to healthy pitchers who can comfortably handle baseballs, we're left with Felix, Blake Beavan, and three non-roster invitees: Scott Baker, Matt Palmer, and Mark Rogers. While he's already a lock for the front end of the rotation, Felix has been working on conditioning over the offseason to regain some strength that he lost over the past two years and threw his first live batting practice on Sunday.

Blake Beavan will follow Erasmo Ramirez in the lineup for Thursday's Cactus League kickoff against the San Diego Padres. So far this spring, he's tossed two bullpens and one batting practice session. It's too early to guesstimate where he might end up in the Mariners rotation, but as the Seattle Times' Ryan Divish reported this morning, the 25-year-old agreed to a contract for 2014 with the team today.

As for the veterans of the bunch, Scott Baker appears to be recovering ahead of schedule after undergoing Tommy John surgery in April 2012. He threw a BP session yesterday alongside relievers Zach Miner and Carson Smith. As noted above, his progress has been pleasing to the higher-ups, but they're not about to pencil him in the rotation without a look at his in-game abilities. He'll get his first Cactus League start on Saturday against the Los Angeles Angels.

Matt Palmer and Mark Rogers have made little noise since entering the camp. Palmer has thrown two bullpen sessions and a live batting practice in the last week, and figures to start behind James Paxton in Friday's game against the Padres. Rogers will get a little less time to prove his skills and is slated for one inning of work in Saturday's game.

Both pitchers have track records that would suggest they’re long shots to make the rotation. Palmer’s last full major league season was back in 2009, when he started 13 of 40 games. He made his last MLB appearance in 2012 and sat out during the 2013 season after undergoing knee surgery.

Rogers has a history of shoulder injuries, and at 28 years old, has only produced two seasons in the majors. Since his last outing with a major league team in 2012, Rogers has posted just 22 2/3 innings in the Milwaukee Brewers’ farm system, and was demoted from Double-A to High-A in 2013.

Left-handed starters

Contenders:

Buzz around camp:

"McClendon has been impressed with how Walker, James Paxton and others have handled the first week. 'They're going about their business and getting their work in,' McClendon said. 'The energy level has been good. I've been pleased.'"

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

"Fourteen pitchers threw their first live batting practices on Friday, including Scott Baker, Randy Wolf, and Zach Miner, a trio of veteran non-roster invitees who are coming back from Tommy John surgeries in 2012. 'I thought the ball came out good for all three of them,' said McClendon. 'They're obviously a little rusty, but that's OK. They came through it good and it looked free and easy.'"

-- Greg Johns, MLB.com

"'I found out that you don't have to be perfect,' Paxton said. 'You don't have to nibble on the corners so much, you can get those guys out in the strike zone. I didn't necessarily have to be on the black. It was just get it on the outer third of the plate and make sure it's down in the zone.' [...] Their success starts with the fastball command. Both can hit mid-90s with the pitch, but so can a lot of other pitchers. Command is the separator. [...] Paxton's change-up is a work in progress and he's added a cut fastball."

-- Ryan Divish, Seattle Times

Anthony Fernandez and James Paxton agreed to terms with the Mariners on Thursday, though MLB.com's Greg Johns points out that this is more of a technicality than anything else. Fernandez, 23, is the only candidate without major league experience. He spent seven seasons with the M's minor league affiliates, graduating to Double-A in 2012 and maintaining a 4.43 FIP in his first full season with the Generals last year. Fernandez had a bit of a rough start this afternoon, bested by Stefen Romero and Jesus Montero during the team's intrasquad game. The right-hander lasted 2/3 of an inning with three hits, a walk, two earned runs, and a strikeout.

As for Paxton, a key member of the Mariners' "Big Four," optimism appears to be running high in the M's camp. Unlike his top prospect counterparts, Paxton has suffered no physical setbacks so far this spring. He has handled a couple of bullpen sessions and is scheduled to start Friday's game in Peoria. Although numerous accolades from players and coaches seem to hint that Walker and Paxton have strong chances of cracking the rotation, much remains to be proven.

Randy Wolf appears to be going the same route as right-handers Matt Palmer and Mark Rogers. The 37-year-old made 26 starts with the Brewers and Orioles in 2012, but succumbed to a recurring elbow injury in 2013 and was sidelined with a second Tommy John surgery. McClendon noted that the southpaw has not exhibited signs of injury during camp, but the health risk will be something to keep an eye on.

What does your ideal rotation look like? Do Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer have what it takes to compete for a rotation berth?

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