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The Mariners impending starting rotation crunch

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The Mariners starting rotation is getting healthier. That means some difficult decisions are on the horizon.

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Update: An hour after publication, the Mariners called up Andrew Moore and optioned Christian Bergman to Triple-A. John and Kate have a wonderful write up on Moore you should definitely read.

Every major league team dips into their starting pitching depth at some point during the season. The current environment of the game doesn’t exactly promote pitcher longevity. In the American League, the Indians have used the fewest number of starters this year—just seven. The Mariners have used twelve different starting pitchers this season, the most of any team in the majors by a wide margin. That’s far more than anyone could have reasonably predicted just three months into the year.

After sifting through so many starters (remember Ryan Weber and Chris Heston?), Christian Bergman and Sam Gaviglio have emerged as the stopgap options that have stuck in the rotation. For better or worse, those two pitchers have compiled 15 starts for the Mariners this year and both have performed admirably. Even Ariel Miranda, the pitcher who has accumulated the most innings for the Mariners this season, wasn’t supposed to be part of the rotation to begin the year. With Felix Hernandez returning from the disabled list on Friday and Hisashi Iwakuma and Drew Smyly following soon thereafter, the Mariners face some difficult decisions about who to keep in the rotation.

Below you’ll find a table listing the current rotation plus Felix and Iwakuma and their performances to-date.

Mariners Starting Pitchers

Player IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
Player IP K% BB% HR/FB% GB% ERA FIP
Ariel Miranda 84 2/3 19.2% 9.0% 13.3% 35.1% 4.04 5.18
Yovani Gallardo 75 2/3 16.9% 9.5% 14.5% 46.1% 6.30 4.82
James Paxton 55 2/3 26.4% 8.5% 5.7% 42.1% 3.23 2.68
Christian Bergman 46 1/3 15.1% 7.0% 18.0% 37.3% 5.44 5.95
Sam Gaviglio 39 1/3 15.7% 7.6% 25.7% 53.4% 3.43 5.82
Felix Hernandez 26 2/3 18.6% 2.5% 27.3% 50.0% 4.73 4.96
Hisashi Iwakuma 31 12.5% 9.4% 16.7% 40.8% 4.35 6.38

That is not an inspiring group of pitchers. James Paxton is the only one with a FIP under 4.00 and there are only two pitchers who have an ERA under 4.00 (though Miranda is close to that threshold). It’s a minor miracle the Mariners have somehow managed to stick around .500 this season. Felix’s adjustments he showed off in his five starts were pretty encouraging. He only allowed three walks and was probably a little unlucky to post such a high ERA (his BABIP was an outrageous .388). He’s a big part of the heart and soul of this team and he should be a valuable piece moving forward.

With the current rotation in mind, I want to try and figure out what the Mariners should do as each starter comes off the disabled list.

Who does Felix Hernandez replace?

After three rehab starts in Tacoma, Felix Hernandez is set to come off the disabled list on Friday. That day is Christian Bergman’s slot in the rotation though the team has said that both Bergman and Gaviglio are possibilities to start on Saturday. We also know that whoever doesn’t make the start on Saturday will be sent back to Triple-A to stay stretched out as a starter.

Both pitchers have posted remarkably similar peripherals, with Gaviglio keeping the ball on the ground far more often than Bergman. They’ve both been very good while pitching at home, with ERAs under 2.00 inside Safeco. The Mariners have gone 4-4 in Bergman’s eight starts and 6-1 in Gaviglio’s seven starts. Gaviglio has been the beneficiary of some excellent run support but he’s also managed to avoid the explosive starts we’ve seen from Bergman. But if you ignore Bergman’s two disaster starts, he’s actually been pretty consistent. In his six other starts, he’s allowed just nine runs and has looked rather competent. When it comes down it to it, there’s very little separating these two pitchers. I think Bergman stays with the team while Gaviglio is sent back to Triple-A.

What do you think?

Poll

Who loses their spot in the rotation when Felix Hernandez returns?

This poll is closed

  • 49%
    Christian Bergman
    (696 votes)
  • 11%
    Sam Gaviglio
    (162 votes)
  • 38%
    Yovani Gallardo
    (538 votes)
  • 0%
    Ariel Miranda
    (10 votes)
1406 votes total Vote Now

Who does Hisashi Iwakuma replace?

The easy answer is Christian Bergman. He has one option year remaining (since he was signed to a minor league contract, the team technically hasn’t used up an option year yet), so he can be easily sent down to Triple-A without exposing him to waivers.

However, Hisashi Iwakuma’s beginning to this season was scary. The 36 year-old had a career low strikeout rate of 4.65, while running a career high walk rate of 3.48. Additionally, his average fastball was down nearly three miles per hour from the year before, down to just 85 mph. In his two rehab starts, he’s continued to struggle with his command and his fastball velocity is just as low as it was earlier this year.

There’s an argument to be made that he shouldn’t be plugged into the rotation at all when he returns. Pushing Iwakuma to the bullpen probably won’t solve his issues though, as I doubt his stuff would play up in shorter stints. As a pitcher who prepares meticulously for each start, I think he has the ability to leverage his repertoire and pitching knowledge for the rest of the season—not unlike late-career Jamie Moyer. I think he’s earned a shot to salvage something positive from his season, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Mariners use the 10-day disabled list liberally to manage his workload as the season wears on.

What do you think?

Poll

Who loses their spot in the rotation when Hisashi Iwakuma returns?

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Christian Bergman/Sam Gaviglio
    (434 votes)
  • 44%
    Yovani Gallardo
    (569 votes)
  • 0%
    Ariel Miranda
    (11 votes)
  • 21%
    Hisashi Iwakuma shouldn’t start
    (275 votes)
1289 votes total Vote Now

Who does Drew Smyly replace?

The timeline for Drew Smyly’s return is a little hazy still. He’s recently threw his first bullpen session of his rehab and could graduate to pitching in a simulated game soon. He’ll still need a number of rehab starts after that as well. My guess is that he’s still at least three weeks away which would mean he’d return right after the All Star break. Assuming everything goes to plan, and no one else gets hurt in the meantime, the Mariners will have an even tougher decision when Smyly returns.

Based on performance alone, Yovani Gallardo would probably be the odd man out. He’s been really unlucky to post such a high ERA. He’s stranding just 63.1% of the runners he’s allowing and his xFIP is a barely acceptable 4.73—lower than both his 4.81 FIP and almost two runs lower than his ERA. Still, Ariel Miranda has definitely outpitched him and probably has more upside for the rest of the season and beyond. But bumping Gallardo out of the rotation would mean eating a large chunk of his salary if he’s designated for assignment. Miranda still has minor league options available which would allow the Mariners to keep their depth intact in case of emergency. Depending on how he performs after returning from the disabled list, Iwakuma could be an option here as well, but eating his salary would be a concern as well.

There is an unorthodox plan that could solve a lot of problems for the Mariners: a six-man rotation. With all the injury concerns and a very unfavorable schedule in August, a six-man rotation would mitigate some of the wear on the rotation and would allow the Mariners to keep all of their starters and their depth in place. It could be a straight six-man rotation—though this is less likely because of the rigid routines starting pitchers have—but the 10-day disabled list opens up some flexibility here as well. The Dodgers have done a very good job of exploiting this system to maintain healthy workloads for their fragile starters.

What do you think?

Poll

Who loses their spot in the rotation when Drew Smyly returns?

This poll is closed

  • 53%
    Yovani Gallardo
    (696 votes)
  • 3%
    Ariel Miranda
    (51 votes)
  • 10%
    Hisashi Iwakuma
    (135 votes)
  • 32%
    No one—move to a six-man rotation
    (428 votes)
1310 votes total Vote Now