It isn't official, but it might as well be. Taijuan Walker will be a member of the Mariners' starting rotation come Opening Day and, in all likelihood, lefty James Paxton will slot in behind Felix Hernandez on a staff that is widely expected to be among the best in the American League.
Manager Lloyd McClendon has yet to make the official announcement but in taking a look at the probables that will take them inside of a week to Opening Day, it's clear.
That's your 2015 rotation. And come Opening Day, with Felix moved up top, that's the order of it through at least the first few turns. Beyond that, there are no promises. And that's why I wouldn't get too worked up about, say, Taijuan Walker slotting in behind J.A. Happ—or, like me, being a little bummed we'll be seeing less of Roenis Elias this year.
As we saw through last year, McClendon will shuffle things around. He'll get guys an extra day of rest if he thinks they need it just as quick as he'll skip a guy if he's hit a rough stretch. Then, of course, there are those times where he'll line up his three best for a big series.
So this is bound to change. But that doesn't mean it isn't big news, that we can't pause and consider.
For all the talk about Nelson Cruz, the platoon bats and young players taking a step forward offensively, the team will go as this rotation goes. The offense will be better, because it has to be better, but the five men listed above are pistons in the engine that drive this team toward its first playoff appearance in 14 years.
And there's a lot of youth there. You can't ignore it and the risk that comes with depending on two unproven commodities to pitch a full major league season for the first time in their careers. But there's justifiable excitement as well.
We talk a lot about Jack Zduriencik's first wave of prospects—on Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero—and how they largely failed to live up to expectations. So we're on to the next wave, one that includes Brad Miller and Mike Zunino and whoever might be coming next.
But here's the thing, that vaunted cerberus that included Walker, Paxton and Danny Hultzen was always part of that first wave of talent. Walker and Paxton were each taken in Zduriencik's second draft, though Paxton took some time to join the organization.
Six years is a long time, in almost any sense, but we were never going to see the full potential of Jack Zduriencik's rebuild without finding out how this young pitching talent would progress through the system, and then fare in the major leagues. Depending on young pitching is risky, and we saw the toll attrition can take with the injury to Hultzen, but now we find out how it all comes together.
Taking a look around the league, it's difficult—if not impossible—to find a back-end starter with more talent and potential than Walker. Really, this spring has been the ideal outcome for all Mariners fans, with Walker dominating and giving McClendon no choice but to give him a rotation spot. Now, Brandon Maurer owned the Cactus League once, and one can't cling too tightly to spring training pitching lines, but if Walker's command takes the step forward it appears it has, his stuff is more than capable of carrying him to the front-end of a major league rotation.
Then, with Paxton, he's already there. Much of McClendon's decision to slot the Canadian lefty in behind Felix centers on breaking up the lefties, but there's no denying this organization is high on him. When Hisashi Iwakuma went down last year, there was no hesitation to put him third to open the season. He went out and did this in game three:
Obviously, the pieces and potential are there. This can be the best starting rotation in the American League. Or, it could cause issues later. There's no ignoring the risks, even beyond the youth. They need Felix to pitch like the generational pitcher he is, J.A. Happ to pitch better than he ever has before and Hisashi Iwakuma's late-season collapse to be but a blip. And that's all possible—but we have to see how it plays out.
And we're going to see it play out very soon. Come Monday, we're a week from Opening Day. There are still questions on how the bullpen looks, but as for the rotation, the lineup and the bench, it's all set. And as we've said all along, this is the most complete team Seattle's seen in years.