Pitching staffs commonly undergo upheaval during the season. Injuries and ineffectiveness force swaps to be made, but the 2016 Seattle Mariners have gone above and beyond expectations. They have used 28 different pitchers (and Luis Sardiñas!), including 12 different starting pitchers, and we haven't even made it to September call-ups. While it has been strange to see it from the home team at Safeco Field, the offense has been the stronger side of the ball this season. The opening day rotation of Félix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Wade Miley, Taijuan Walker, and Nathan Karns has seen... adjustments, to say the least. Can the M's still make a playoff push with the staff we have? Perhaps.
The rotation as it stands right now is in a particularly gooey mire. Walker is rehabbing in Tacoma and looked subpar in his last outing. Paxton was scratched from tonight's game and will see time on the 15-day DL because his elbow contusion is still causing him trouble. Nathan Karns is listed as being on the 15-day DL as well, but doesn't appear to be close to returning either. Things are rough.
The Mariners team depth chart currently lists five starters, not counting Paxton: Félix, Kuma, LeBlanc, Ariel Miranda, and Joe Wieland. Fangraphs currently projects the Mariners to have the 14th best rotation for the rest of the season, assuming they will be worth exactly 4.0 fWAR, but there are uncertainties abounding within that. This assumes 49 innings of Paxton and just three from Wieland. Considering this tweet dropped as I was about to hit publish for this piece...
#Mariners recall RHP Cody Martin from AAA Tacoma, and place LHP James Paxton on the 15-day DL (retro to 8/8) with a left elbow contusion.— MarinersPR (@MarinersPR) August 16, 2016
...that seems unlikely. Paxton will be on the DL until at least August 22nd, which means at least one or two more replacement level starts (or Wielandings) from just-recalled Cody Martin or similar folk. Perhaps Taijuan Walker will return by next week to fill in, but his struggles with health and execution are significant as well. Additionally, although Félix and Kuma are solid pitchers, neither have extraordinary track records of health over the last couple years.
Perhaps most crucially, this projects Wade LeBlanc to be above replacement level in six starts, which is likely short of the eight or nine starts he will actually need to make and optimistic about his value. LeBlanc has been almost an exact facsimile of this team's original starting pitcher named Wade, which might seem like a lazy comparison, and is, but is also statistically realistic. He is rocking an FIP of 5.64, a BABIP against of .270, and is stranding runners at the highest rate of his career. This is not to say he is terrible, or that he can't put up decent production for the rest of the year, but he was acquired as a replacement level player and has performed largely like a replacement level player. He's a wonderful man and makes spectacular faces almost effortlessly.
LeBlanc has made it through nearly six innings a start, giving our excellent offense a chance to win, and giving our bullpen a chance to rest. That is great value for a fifth starter, and not bad for a fourth starter, but if Paxton can't jump right back in where he left off, Wade LeBlanc is the third starter on this team, meaning he would be a certain starter in a playoff series. That is not ideal.
Returning to the initial question of this article, the playoff teams from 2015 had a range of levels of starting pitching.
|Team 2015||Starting Pitchers fWAR||Innings Pitched||Top 3 Starters by fWAR|
|Mariners (w/ 2016 RoS Projections)||11||955.2||6.7|
Using the projections I discussed, the M's would have been among the poorer playoff teams last year in terms of their starting pitching. They would also have had one of the weaker tops of the rotation, and that is assuming Paxton is able to go full strength after returning from the DL. If we were to sub in LeBlanc to the third spot, the fWAR projection would likely drop to around 6.0 for the pitchers who would see most of the work in a playoff series. What this would lend evidence to is that, while our rotation is fragile and unimposing, it is not fatal. Both the Rangers and Royals had strong offenses, and the recent iteration of the Mariners is one with a striking resemblance to that of the Royals of last year. With a strong offense and a steady bullpen that only asks its starters to lead the opponent to the den of their late inning dragons, these M's might just have some magic in them, and in spite of all the concerns, I believe they do.
They're just pitching on thin ice.