Last night—that's what pitching depth looks like. This was a team that entered 2015 with very little questions. Obviously, there were more that should have been asked, but among the ones that were, perhaps the loudest was what the Mariners had as far as contingency plans for their young and fragile starting rotation.
Turns out they had the contingency plans. We can debate forever on whether they had enough pitching talent (they probably didn't), but if you're talking about depth, this is that. Depth steps in when you need someone to step in, and if you assembled it right, it doesn't kill you.
Roenis Elias didn't kill you, and Mike Montgomery has been even better than that.
I mean, one last point on this—look at the Dodgers. They have a payroll most of the way to what the Sonics were sold for, and a front office super-team with which to deploy it, and here are the names of the people and things that have started games for them in 2015: Mike Bolsinger, Scott Baker, Joe Wieland, David Huff and Juan Nicasio.
Assembling good depth isn't easy. Because depth, most of the time, isn't on the roster. And if it isn't on the roster, it's for a reason—hopefully, the reason is that they're young and not talented enough just yet, but are about to be.
The Mariners, I maintain, managed to pull this off. But now, with the return of Hisashi Iwakuma, depth goes back to being depth—and that means someone is headed back to Tacoma.
Let's walk through everyone involved and how they fit into the rotation going forward.
Kuma, obviously, has a rotation spot waiting when he's ready to return. For a long time, it didn't even make sense to raise the "what happens when Iwakuma returns?" questions, but now he's just about here. He's made three rehab starts, the most recent of which being last night in Tacoma, where he went pitched 5 2/3 innings, allowing a run and five hits with six strikeouts to go with one walk.
But there's a bit of a developing situation, as Iwakuma exited after 90 pitches with an injury, a blister to be specific. He doesn't think it's anything, as relayed by LL's own Brendan Gawlowski, who was on-hand in Tacoma this evening.
Iwakuma says he gets blisters frequently, and that he can adjust his game. Does not expect to miss time.— Brendan Gawlowski (@GawlowskiB) July 1, 2015
Iwakuma also added that his back feels fine and that he feels physically and mentally ready to return to the Mariners.— Brendan Gawlowski (@GawlowskiB) July 1, 2015
The possibility exists the Mariners have Iwakuma make one more rehab start, to test the blister, but even if they do—which seems unlikely—they're only delaying the inevitable. So then, it's on to the demotion candidates.
Montgomery's AL ranks for June: CG (2) 1st, SHO (2) 1st, IP (44 1/3) t-1st, ERA (1.62) 2nd, WHIP (0.90) 4th, oAVG (.178) 4th. #Mariners— Rick Randall (@randallball) July 1, 2015
It's not happening. The kid just spun back-to-back CGSOs, so of course he's not going down.
But, so as not to leave this space mostly empty, and instead fill it with things you don't want to read, there's a couple things to keep an eye on with Mike Montgomery—beyond the strikeout and walk peripherals not being quite as sexy as you'd like.
First, home runs. Montgomery's barely given up any of them. That's really good. Of course that's good. Thing is, we don't know if that'll stick. Only 2.6 percent of fly balls surrendered by Montgomery have left the yard. That's the best in baseball for starters who have pitched at least as many innings as he has. I mean, there are some good names on this leaderboard, but some bad ones too, so it's worth watching.
Second, stranding runners. He's been great at leaving men on base and, again, of course that's good. But sustainable? Don't know. Among starters, he's fifteenth in baseball at stranding baserunners. Once again, some good pitchers on that list, but it remains to be seen if he's one of them.
And that last point is one of the biggest points in Montgomery's favor: the Mariners have to see what they have. In sending out Erasmo Ramirez, they obtained a guy who they could send down—but they can only do it for a year, which is this year. Starting next year, he's on the 25-man or gone. It makes sense to find out now just what role he's going to fill going forward.
For a while, there was a thought that had begun to circulate, at least among some: why let the mediocre Happ stay around and collect a paycheck so you could send one of two talented young starters down to Tacoma? Well, even ignoring the fact that one's pitched mediocre as well recently, there's a good reason: you're going to need all three of them.
They're not going to DFA Happ, and I think most people around here understand why. It's at the beginning of this post. You need that depth, and if you get rid of Happ you get rid of the safety net. Even if Happ were definitely a bit worse than Roenis Elias going forward, which you could make an argument for, it makes sense to go with the former over the latter as it's the only route to having both when, with a lot of guys on innings limits, you're going to need that.
Now, there's the whole "send him to the bullpen!" route, but I just don't see it. They'll want to keep him stretched out and Happ has little to no experience pitching out of the bullpen in his career.
So that leaves us with
I love this kid. I do. I think we all do. But when Iwakuma returns, this is probably the guy heading back down to Tacoma. Is it a bummer? Yeah. But this is a good bummer to have, as he'll be down there ready and, if the Mariners need to, they can lighten his workload a little bit so he's ready later in the season.
And it's a tough move to make because Elias has been so solid for them. From July 21st of last year through May 25th of this year—a span of 16 starts—Elias didn't allow more than three runs in any game. Thing is, since then, he's allowed more than three runs in half of his six starts, including a pair of seven-spots in two of his last three.
So, in all likelihood, down he goes. Back, once again, to being depth. This is what depth looks like. It's a 26-year-old Cuban junkballer who, every now and then, will get touched up a bit—but he's just as liable to twirl eight scoreless fanning 10.
There are other possibilities, sure, with the potential for a modified six-man rotation being one of them. With the innings limits, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but so long as the team is intent on having a backup shortsotp (as every team is) and a seven-man bullpen, I'm not sure how they make that work.
Then, there's James Paxton—whose rotation spot you should not be worried about. Yesterday in speaking with Ryan Divish and other members of the media, Lloyd McClendon said "This is going to be a slow process for Paxton," and that "We might as well concentrate on other things. Paxton is going to be out for a while."
But for now, this is what the Mariners have. And for as much as people decried the state of the starting pitching depth before the season, what they have on this front really isn't all that bad.