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40-Man Review: Starting Pitchers

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A clear strength for the Mariners, most of the starting rotation should return in 2015.

Otto Greule Jr

Last week, I started a series of posts that will examine the Mariners' 40-man roster, both a recap of 2014 and a look forward to 2015. I'll do my best to try and figure out who might be dropped from the roster before the season starts and who might be added to the roster. I won't speculate on any specific free agents or trade targets -- there will be plenty of time for that later -- I'll only comment about where the Mariners could stand to upgrade for 2015. I'm also using the recently released Steamer projections via FanGraphs to estimate 2015 production. These projections are pretty conservative and the playing time estimates are based on FanGraphs' depth charts.

Previous Posts: Primer | Catchers (2 40-man roster spots) | Infielders (9) | Outfielders (8)

Today, I'll take a look at the Mariners' starting pitchers:

Pitchers

Age

Org. Level

2014 Salary

2015 Salary

Felix Hernandez

29

MLB

$22,857,143

$24,857,000

Hisashi Iwakuma

34

MLB

$6,500,000

$7,000,000 (1M buyout)

Danny Hultzen

25

DNP

$1,700,000

$1,700,000

James Paxton

26

MLB

$503,500

ML Minimum + service

Taijuan Walker

22

MLB

$502,400

ML Minimum + service

Roenis Elias

26

MLB

$500,000

ML Minimum + service

Erasmo Ramirez

24

MLB

$511,800

ML Minimum + service

Anthony Fernandez

24

AAA

Minor League Contract

Minor League Contract

Chris Young

35

MLB

$1,250,000

Free Agent

2014 Recap

Pitchers

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

ERA

FIP

WAR

Felix Hernandez

236

9.46

1.75

0.61

0.258

2.14

2.56

6.2

Hisashi Iwakuma

179

7.74

1.06

1.01

0.287

3.52

3.25

3.2

Chris Young

165

5.89

3.27

1.42

0.238

3.65

5.02

0.2

Roenis Elias

163 2/3

7.86

3.52

0.88

0.294

3.85

4.03

1.4

Erasmo Ramirez

75 1/3

7.17

4.06

1.55

0.307

5.26

5.38

-0.5

James Paxton

74

7.18

3.53

0.36

0.270

3.04

3.28

1.3

Taijuan Walker

38

8.05

4.26

0.47

0.282

2.61

3.68

0.4

Anthony Fernandez

25 2/3

9.47

4.91

1.05

0.313

3.86

4.75

The pitching staff was a clear strength for the Mariners this year. Both the starting rotation and the bullpen were able to carry this team for long stretches when the offense was struggling. Most of the starting rotation will return next year along with increased innings for Paxton and Walker. Let's dive in.

There isn't much that hasn't already been said about how amazing Felix was this year. He's a clear frontrunner for the Cy Young and one of the best pitchers in the league. Felix is ours and you can't have him.

Hisashi Iwakuma had a pretty interesting year. A finger injury cost him the first month of the season but once he was back on the mound, he continued to pitch at a very high level. However, his age might have contributed to a very poor finish down the stretch. His ERA in September was over seven and it seemed like he was worn out after a long season. There are two indicators we'd want to check to see if he was tired down the stretch, control and velocity.

His walk rate spiked to over seven percent in September but according to Brooks Baseball, his zone percentage was pretty consistent throughout the year:

Kuma zone

What about his velocity? Brooks Baseball shows a slight downward trend in September but nothing too alarming:

Kuma Velocity

His control and velocity aren't showing anything too worrying. What about his "luck" statistics? The batting average on balls in play against Iwakuma was .371 in September and his left on base percentage was 51.8%. So, it seems like a run of unlucky starts were his undoing down the stretch. Still, Iwakuma will be 34 next year so this kind of decline in performance maybe closer than we think.

James Paxton took a huge step forward this year and established himself as the clear #3 pitcher in the rotation. He continued to force batters to pound the ball into the ground and maintained his high velocity after returning from an oblique injury he suffered in his second start of the year. His xFIP, which substitutes a normalized, league average home run rate, was 3.54 this year and I think that's a much better indicator of his true talent. He'll get strikeouts (although not as many as you might expect from someone with his velocity) but he'll also struggle with walks at times and his home run rate should regress -- although, the movement on his pitches indicates he'll probably be able to run a lower than normal home run rate.

In Chris Young, the Mariners found a diamond in the rough. All signs pointed to Scott Baker or Randy Wolf making the rotation out of spring training but it was Chris Young who rose to the top of the pile. We're all pretty familiar with his FIP defying wizardry but in case you need a refresher, his 2.4 RA9-WAR was tied for 26th in the AL but his FIP-based 0.2 fWAR was last among qualified pitchers.

Another pleasant surprise for the Mariners was Roenis Elias. Making the jump from Double-A straight to the majors, he was an above average starter in the #5 spot in the rotation. He was able to contribute pretty consistently until he hit his innings cap in September.

The sixth starter was a mix of a disappointing Erasmo Ramirez and a still raw Taijuan Walker. Over the last three years, Erasmo has maintained a solid strikeout rate but his walk rate has ballooned to over ten percent. He's also continued to deal with a home run problem. Taijuan Walker wasn't able to take the step forward everyone hoped he would this year. Outside of his excellent start in Toronto, his other major league appearances were pretty mediocre.

2015 Outlook

Pitchers

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

ERA

FIP

WAR

Felix Hernandez

192

9.29

2.00

0.63

0.295

2.94

2.73

4.9

Hisashi Iwakuma

192

7.32

1.79

0.85

0.293

3.51

3.40

3.2

James Paxton

173

7.55

3.82

0.73

0.297

4.14

3.86

1.9

Taijuan Walker

163

7.89

3.75

0.93

0.288

4.14

4.14

1.2

Roenis Elias

153

7.59

3.47

0.93

0.288

4.05

4.09

1.2

Erasmo Ramirez

63

6.47

2.71

1.20

0.287

4.40

4.46

-0.2

Danny Hultzen

38

8.65

3.87

0.95

0.285

3.92

3.99

0.4

Anthony Fernandez

5.91

3.48

1.13

0.328

4.70

4.72

It would not be reasonable to expect the Mariners to enjoy as much success from their rotation next year as they enjoyed this year, as currently constructed. Steamer sees some regression from Felix and Iwakuma. Paxton, Walker, and Elias form a decent, young core but Steamer isn't sold on Paxton's improvements and Walker still seems like he isn't ready to claim a role in the rotation. Elias is a wild card: he could continue to hold down the #5 spot as a league average pitcher or the Mariners could send him to Triple-A to continue his development.

It's possible that the Mariners deal one of their young pitchers for offensive help. The pitching market is pretty full this year and they could sign a second- or third-tier, free agent pitcher to a pretty reasonable contract. Jack Zduriencik has shown an ability to find cheap pitching to use as rotation depth too. It's possible that a non-roster invitee makes the team out of Spring Training a la Chris Young this year.

I'm not sure how the Mariners handle Erasmo Ramirez. He was disappointing as the sixth starter this year and its obvious Lloyd McClendon doesn't trust him. There are number of pitchers the Mariners could sign to minor league deals and reasonably expect the same performance. But Erasmo is a known quantity for the Mariners as rotation depth so I'm not sure they cut him outright.

Danny Hultzen is also working his way back from injury and should be ready by Spring Training. Next year will probably be spent entirely in Triple-A, proving that he can pitch through an entire year injury free. He may see a call up in September but I wouldn't count on any significant innings from him at the major league level next year.

Down on the farm things could get a bit complicated. Anthony Fernandez had Tommy John surgery in May and is an easy DFA candidate. Replacing him could be any of Stephen Landazuri, Jordan Pries, or Forrest Snow. All three are eligible for the Rule 5 draft but I think there's only room for one of them (depending on Erasmo's situation) on the 40-man roster. So the Mariners will have to decide which one is closest to the majors and, therefore, most likely to be selected in the draft. Both Snow and Pries spent time in Triple-A so they stand out as the more likely candidates but neither impressed at that level. Steamer projects Snow to have the best FIP out of the three next year but he's a year older than Pries and three years older than Landazuri. My gut says they'll go with either Snow or Landazuri but it could be any of the three.

With the established rotation, its depth in Ramirez and Hultzen, and adding a free agent (either a free agent or NRI) and one of Landazuri, Snow, or Pries, that brings us to nine projected starting pitchers on the 40-man roster. Add that to the nineteen spots taken by position players and we've got twelve spots left for relievers. I'll take a look at the bullpen on Thursday.