Sometimes, it can be difficult to get excited for individual baseball games. Seattle fans are no stranger to this phenomenon, particularly since they've spent most of the last decade watching the Mariners simply play out the string. The frequency of regular season games makes it easy to take baseball for granted, and it's impossible to get legitimately excited for every contest. Opening Day gets the juices flowing and there's always a little more buzz when Felix is on the mound, but for the most part, a single baseball game lacks the emotional investment one might find in football or at a soccer match.
As fans then, we look forward to games that can stimulate a bit more passion. Many of us will watch someone like Blake Beavan and be happy to do it because we enjoy baseball, but for the most part, we're not excited to watch Blake Beavan. It takes something out of the ordinary to generate excitement. Pennant races do the trick, but of course, we haven't had one of those for a while.
Excluding games with legitimate playoff implications, nothing gets me excited quite as much as the debut of a top pitching prospect. I may follow a highly touted minor leaguer for years without actually seeing him pitch, and his first outing allows me the chance to get my first look at a potentially game-changing player. All in all, it's a bit of a spectacle, and with that in mind, hell yeah, it's Brandon Maurer's debut today.
Though he wasn't a member of the "Big Three" that captivated Mariner fans and prospect junkies alike last year, a run of good health allowed Maurer to pitch a full season in 2012, giving the talented righty an opportunity to establish himself as one of the best arms in the system. A strong spring, a minor injury to Erasmo Ramirez, and the weird Jon Garland saga, then propelled Maurer into Seattle's starting rotation this year. After Joe Saunders muddled through yesterday's game, I imagine many are looking forward to seeing the newest member of the Mariner rotation in a regular season setting.
I also get the sense that, even after all the spring training discussion surrounding the 22-year-old, many fans remain unfamiliar with Maurer and I thought it might be useful to a do a little preview on him.
If Maurer is the most big league ready of the team's pitching prospects, why was he not as widely discussed as Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, or Taijuan Walker?
Two reasons: first, while he's always had a good arm, Maurer didn't establish himself as one of the organization's best young pitchers until just last season. Injuries wiped out most of his 2010 and 2011 campaigns, and even when he did get on the mound, he wasn't terribly sharp. It didn't help that he took a battering in the California League upon a promotion to High-A ball two years ago. It's also hard to get on the national radar without appearing on several top prospect lists. Having pitched sporadically prior to last season, Maurer wasn't a household name, and he was bound to receive less attention than the well-hyped trio of Hultzen, Paxton, and Walker.
Second, there was a perception that Maurer lacked the raw stuff of someone like Walker (true) or the maturity of Hultzen (not true) that held through this past winter. Prospects without a dynamite arsenal don't tend to get a ton of press until they reach Triple-A, a level where Maurer hasn't appeared. My guess is that most people -- including national prospect evaluators -- underestimated how close to the majors Maurer really was as late as last month.
Most importantly he stayed healthy last year, throwing a career high 137 innings. He was then able to prove that injuries hadn't robbed him of his natural stuff, sitting around 92-94 MPH while showing a plus slider, a decent curve, and a fringy change as Jackson's ace. By midseason, the "Big three" had very much evolved into a "Big four."
What are reasonable expectations for Maurer?
Maurer has a good fastball and decent offspeed, but nobody will compare him to Felix Hernandez. He generally throws strikes and can locate pitches within the zone, but he's still liable to leave a few too many pitches in a hitter's wheelhouse. Essentially, he's a rookie who will have his ups and downs. On the aggregate, it's not unreasonable to think he could be a league average starter as early as this year. The front office's careful handling of Danny Hultzen indicates that they're not going to promote someone like Maurer if they didn't think he could handle it.
It's worth mentioning that Maurer is a volatile figure. The Newport Beach product has just 137 innings above A ball under his belt, meaning that he doesn't have a ton of experience working against elite hitters. While he has impressive raw stuff, we don't really know how it'll play against big leaguers. He has a lot of weapons, but he's going to take a pounding once in a while.
Long term, scouts worry that Maurer's injury history indicates that he has a limited number of bullets in his right arm. At 6-foot-5 and 215 pounds, he has the size of a prototypical workhorse, but I doubt the M's push his pitch counts until he's physically mature. If everything breaks right, he's a No. 2 starter, a fantastic return on investment for a 23rd round pick.
What are reasonable expectations for him in today's game?
I don't know if there is such a thing as a reasonable expectation for a particular game. He could pull a Matt Harvey and ride a wave of adrenaline to an afternoon full of 96 MPH fastballs in his debut, or nerves could push him a little out of sync, as Tim Lincecum looked in his first start as a San Francisco Giant. Impossible to say.
Ultimately, today's game says little about Maurer long term. It'd be great if he threw a gem, but he's a big part of this team's future no matter how well or poorly his outing goes. I'm just looking forward to watching a top prospect face major league competition in a regular season game for the first time, and enjoying that another product of the Mariners lucrative farm system has arrived in Seattle.