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40 in 40: Ariel Miranda

The Mariners’ Cuban lefty could hold down the back of the rotation, but might be best served delivering fire (and extinguishing it) in the bullpen.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

When a player is involved in a one-for-one trade, their perception is inextricably tied to their counterpart in the transaction. Last year, Ariel Miranda was the beneficiary of many things. Hitters ran a .205 BABIP against him as a Mariner. He arrived as the mysterious replacement for a largely unpopular Wade Miley, whose innings-eating turned to game-gobbling and left fans feeling ill. He also materialized as the Mariners were in the midst of a crisis in the rotation, with Wade LeBlanc, Joe Wieland, and Cody Martin starting games for a team that had slipped from 10 games over .500 on May 25th to just 52-51 after July 31st. Whether you would rather have Miranda for pennies over several years or Miley for $9 million and a $12 million team option next year is moot at this point: Miranda is here, and he will likely need to contribute for the 2017 Mariners to succeed.

Miranda will be 28 a week from today, an age that often signals the end of “prospect” status for players. To look at Miranda as a finished product right now, however, would be cynical. By age 28, Félix Hernández had over 2,000 professional innings on his arm. Hisashi Iwakuma had over 1,000. Fellow 28 year-old lefty and hopeful 2017 ace James Paxton has had a career riddled with setbacks and false starts, and even he has thrown 763.0 innings entering 2017. Ariel Miranda, who defected from Cuba at the age of 25, has just over 600 innings on his arm, and has plenty of growth still to come.

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

In Spring Training, Miranda will be competing for a role as a starter in the opening day rotation. Jerry Dipoto has said as much, and his work in 2016 earned him a shot, especially when lined up with his competition. If you like results, Miranda was a breath of fresh air in 2016, with a pleasant 3.54 ERA and a 4.02 Runs Allowed per 9, and generally served to put the Mariners in a position to win each time he took the hill. He C’d the Z respectably, with 44 Ks to just 18 BBs in his first 58 MLB innings. His BABIP was unsustainably low, yes, but his snuff film-worthy 13.8% HR/FB is likely to settle down too. Extracting conclusions or narrative from barely a third of a season’s work is tricky, but the arc of Miranda’s performance trends upward.

The last time I saw Miranda pitch in person was his final appearance of the season, wherein the slender lefty decided to let loose on young Athletics slugger Ryon Healy.

Most starting pitchers have the means to rear back for a few extra mph on their fastball when they want to blow someone down. Ariel Miranda appears to have at least that, and lefties who can scratch or surpass 97 mph are often the ones you see at the front of rotations (hey Pax) or the back of bullpens (both relief aces in the World Series, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman, to name a few). Miranda hasn’t seen much work as a reliever in his career, but the idea of a power lefty with a Big Freeze change-up coming in for two or three full effort innings as a reliever could allow Miranda to maximize his ability. Since the departure of Mike Montgomery, the Mariners bullpen has lacked a consistent ferryman from the 6th inning to the 8th, and an improved Miranda seems well served to sashay into the MiMo role. If Seattle needs a spot start, Miranda can absolutely provide, and should still be viewed as someone capable of developing into a starter in the next several years. If Jerry Dipoto ever gets around to adding another starting pitcher, a relief role seems to best suit Miranda’s talents, at least in 2017.

His arsenal was enough to lead the Cuban leagues in strikeouts the year prior to his defection, but an FIP above 5.00 and a short track record gives me the willies when composing a rotation for a team that wants to make the playoffs. The pride of La Habana might become the fifth starter by default, due to an ever-worrying lack of SP depth, or he might earn the job. Steamer projects him to be reliable enough, with 1.1 WAR and 21 starts in 119 IP, and a 4.64 FIP, which I would be thrilled with, and I believe the Mariners would be as well. The Mariners are not built to luxuriate and experiment with serviceable starting pitching, and dreaming of Miranda the Fireman will likely come to nothing. Instead, as we watch Miranda toe the rubber in the 1st inning this June, remember that he will be here for years to come. Remember that he will continue to grow this year. Remember, I suppose, that he and Jean Segura are being paid the same amount, cumulatively, as Wade Miley is by himself this year. Remember that change takes time to feel natural.