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The Rotation, The Sequel

Three starters who nobody can seem to agree on.

Paxton Greatness

This is the Fun Grab Bag of the exit interviews, where I get to profile three spare parts who now have very different roles with the team than most imagined a year ago. Let’s roll.

James Paxton

What a year for everyone’s favorite Canadian lefty. It may be easy to forget, given everything that’s happened since then, but Paxton started the season in Tacoma, the odd man out in the rotation battle. He pitched decently well in AAA, but that should be expected - after all, he turns 28 next month. Paxton’s role was effectively starting pitching depth, with a transition to reliever not out of the question down the road.

Even when Paxton was recalled on June 1 to replace the injured King, things didn’t look too bright on the surface: He was shelled for 10 hits and eight runs (though just three were earned) in 3.2 innings against the Padres. On the news of his recall, Zach wrote:

Yet that start also portended greatness, as Paxton’s fastball suddenly jumped to the high-90s. And sure enough, less than three weeks later...

Paxton Happy

That’s Swelmet Winner James Paxton to you! Or, as Nathan called him, “the Mariners’ best starting pitcher.”

The mechanical adjustment made by Tacoma pitching coach Lance Painter worked wonders, as Paxton’s new arm slot resulted in a major increase in fastball velocity. He proceeded to remain in the rotation for the rest of 2016, making 20 starts (a career-high) and throwing 121 valuable innings.

How valuable? Well, Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs disagree pretty severely. BBRef has him worth just 1.0 bWAR, with an ERA+ of 107. Fangraphs, meanwhile, pegged his season at 3.5 fWAR (!!!), making him the most valuable Mariners pitcher. Our favorite Hariyama was cursed with some bad luck, posting a BABIP of .347 and stranding just 66.3% of his baserunners.

Either way, his dramatically increased velocity, and the strikeouts that accompanied it, have cemented Paxton’s role in the 2017 M’s rotation. In addition, because he spent the first two months of this season in AAA, he still has four more years of club control at a fairly cheap price, certainly nice for a team that’s got over $90 million tied up in just five players next year (Félix, Canó, Cruz, Iwakuma, Seager).

Nate Karns

Karns was the centerpiece of the Brad Miller trade, a 28-year-old righty with five years of club control who looked prime to hold down a rotation spot for cheap. Instead, he kept his spot until July, as Paxton’s rise, combined with the acquisition of Wade LeBlanc, pushed him into the bullpen.

From there on, Karns appeared in a handful of games, serving as a multi-inning reliever until suffering a back injury swinging a bat on July 29 (yet another point in favor of the DH). He remained out for the rest of the season, though he should easily be ready for spring training.

Karns’ biggest problem was his inability to pitch deep into games, completing seven innings just once in 15 starts and making nine starts where he failed to pitch into the sixth. He also struggled with his command, posting a career-worst walk rate at a gaudy 10.8%.

The bright side is that advanced stats didn’t see him as a materially different pitcher, with a FIP of 4.05 (actually the best in his nascent major league career). Look for Karns to compete for a rotation spot next year, though nothing is guaranteed thanks to...

Ariel Miranda

When the Mariners dealt Wade Miley in late July, I think most Mariners fans were generally happy. That is, until they learned of the return. Ariel Miranda had all of two major league innings to his belt, in which he allowed four hits and three runs. He defected from Cuba in 2015 and spent the ’15 and ’16 seasons bouncing around various minor league levels. It seemed as though Trader Jerry had gotten fleeced, giving up on Miley at his absolute lowest value.

Perhaps the most generous interpretation came courtesy of Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs, who wrote:

This season, Miranda...basically was that slightly above-replacement kind of lightning. Once again, Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs disagreed on his value, with the former appreciating his 3.54 ERA and putting him at 0.9 bWAR, while the latter blanched at his .222 BABIP and gave him just 0.1 fWAR.

If you want to be optimistic, focus on the fact that his fastball reached previously-unseen levels, topping out at 97 MPH. You can also take comfort in his September, where he posted a 2.62 ERA and was clearly a better pitcher than in August. Perhaps he’s figuring it out! Then again, the advanced stats, what with his subpar strikeout rate and the extreme batted-ball luck in 2016, indicate that he might not amount to much.

What’s the truth? Likely somewhere in the middle. He should absolutely factor into the Mariners’ future, and stands a good chance at slotting into the No. 5 spot in next year’s rotation. But he could also become AAA depth should the M’s acquire a starter or two this offseason.