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40 in 40: Justin Dunn

Justin Dunn will have a chance to prove what kind of an artist he is in 2020

Oakland Athletics v Seattle Mariners Photo by Rob Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Robust tones of dijon mustard and sweet onion teriyaki sauce grace my green Subway shirt as electric door dings bounce around my mostly empty head. I stare in disbelief at a piece of Italian Herbs and Cheese that was just murdered by my own latex-gloved hands. My face, red with embarrassment, matches the red of the hat of the construction worker looking on in disapproval from the other side of the smudged ingredient glass. Somehow now in three (three?!) individual pieces I toss the bread in the trash, pulling a fresh loaf from the box oven behind me, ready to make the best tuna sandwich spicy Italian sandwich cold cut combo sandwich? “I’m so sorry sir, w-w-what kind of sandwich would you like again?” I say, shaking as the construction worker appears to be on the verge of bringing his business to the deli in the Albertsons next door. “I’ll just take a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie and I’ll be on my way, thank you.” I give him a couple extra cookies and waive the charge, reaching forward to empty out my first day pity tips into the cash register as three more customers file in through the aluminum industrial door. I look on in disbelief as “No Tears Left To Cry” plays through the tinny Subway speakers for the fourth time today. My face, as white as our provolone cheese product, musters a welcoming smile through a thick curtain of rage, held together solely by the thought of of freezer burned cookie dough and damaged chip bags waiting in the back for me.

The first day beginning a new job is almost never easy. While working in an industry where everyone can see exactly what you’re doing all the time, the pressure to perform at an adequate level immediately is immense, although it almost never happens. One can have an entire life’s worth of experience before them, yet each new job will have its own unique or unknown intangibles that are bound to throw you off.

Compared to the minor-league ballparks to which Justin Dunn was accustomed, the lights at T-Mobile Park shined much brighter, the crowd roared louder, the opposing batters looked just a bit meaner. The jump to baseball’s biggest stage, just days removed from tossing pitches in Little Rock, Arkansas, is bound to prompt some nerves and growing pains.

Nerves and growing pains happen to be a pretty massive understatement for Justin Dunn’s first cup of coffee in the bigs this past September with the M’s.

The secondary piece of the now infamous Cano/Diaz/Kelenic trade, the season both started and ended in unfamiliar situations for the right-handed pitcher out of Boston College. Even though he was viewed as the secondary piece of the blockbuster deal, the pressure to become a back to middle of the rotation starter was immense from the time Dunn stepped foot in Peoria for Spring Training. This would be the first chance that fans would get to see of a player who was traded for an organization’s biggest free agent signing and its best player the year prior—an electric, homegrown fan favorite at that. The pressure to win at the big-league level had was transformed into pressure for the kids to perform—an off-screen pressure, but pressure nonetheless. For Dunn, that off-screen pressure turned into literal on-screen pressure when he was summoned to the bigs for the first time in mid-September; a debut further magnified by an ignominious bit of history for the Mariners, as Dunn was an MLB-record 41st pitcher used by the floundering team in 2019 (Art Warren, subject of tomorrow’s 40 in 40, would become the 42nd when he made his debut later in the same game).

Justin Dunn, like most mere mortals, had serious nerves during his MLB debut. With the weight of his thousands of hours of work, countless sacrifices from his parents, and his burgeoning career on his shoulders, Dunn made his MLB debut as an opener at home against the Cincinnati Reds.

37 pitches, 5 walks and two pop flies later, he returned to the M’s dugout, sans pucks of freezer-burned cookie dough to help soften the blow.

Although never a wizard of command, Dunn’s five straight walks to open the game can be read as nerves up and down. Dunn was able to turn down the nerves some in his final three outings, giving up three walks in his next two-inning appearance but just one walk in his next two opening appearances. After collecting just two strikeouts over his first three MLB appearances, Dunn showed flashes of the near-30% strikeout monster he was for Double-A Arkansas, notching three strikeouts over two innings in his final appearance of 2019. Dunn’s shaky start means he finished the season with an appalling 30% walk rate, but chances are that this number falls closer to meet the 7.1% BB rate he turned in last season for Arkansas. Our friends at FanGraphs seem to think the same, with their Steamer projections having him at a much more manageable—although not ideal—9.7% walk rate.

Heading into the 2020 season Dunn will have a shot to fight for the fifth starting pitching role, hoping to slide in behind the rotation locks of Marco, Kikuchi, Sheffield and new addition Kendall Graveman. Dunn figures to be fighting against trade addition Nestor Cortes, recent acquisition Nick Margevicius, and fellow Traveler Ricardo Sanchez for the right to open the season in the rotation. As the highest profile player of that group, barring injury or trade, Dunn will spend most of 2020 working to prove to the front office that he can be a viable big league starter.

While Dunn figures to pitch most if not all of his 2020 pitching appearances as a starter, some analysts fear that he will not stick. Although Dunn has four pitches, his fastball and slider appear to be his only above average offerings, while he does appear to have the makings of an average changeup if he can take it down a couple of ticks. This has caused some scouts and Keith Law to see a future fit as a two-pitch late-inning reliever. While this would certainly make Dunn a valued player on the 2020 and beyond Mariners, it likely means he fails to live up to the expectations put upon him since going in the first round to the Mets. If Dunn is a reliever, that also puts more pressure on other Mariners pitching prospects to make is as starters, including fellow trade acquisition Justus Sheffield, who had his own struggles at the big-league level. This would leave the Mariners little room to miss with recent picks Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Brandon Williamson, as if similar career trajectories occur for them, the Mariners rebuild will likely bust as quickly as it began.

While Dunn’s cup of coffee jitters have likely subsided, now the challenge of proving he is an MLB-quality starting pitcher begins. According to his GM, Dunn has little reason to worry. “Justin is really the total package,” Jerry Dipoto has said. “When it all comes together, (he has) a slider that misses bats and a fastball that touches 95 MPH. He throws strikes, he moves it in and out of the zone. He’s an athletic pitcher and he’s really smart.”

It has been known since Dunn was first acquired that the Mariners 2020 season would be a season highlighted by growth of their young players, so it makes sense that Dunn will be given every chance to win the final starting job out of Spring Training this year. “Long term, he probably winds up — because of what we think is coming in the system — he probably winds up in the middle of the rotation,” said Dipoto. “I know there has been talk of Justin Dunn as a bullpen guy coming out of the draft, but I don’t know see he would be. He throws strikes, he has the pitches. He has developed the command. He does everything well.”

The Dunn starter-or-reliever discussion remains up for debate and will not be settled until months into the 2020 season, if it’s settled at all. However, there is one certainty regarding Justin Dunn’s 2020: he will be given an extended opportunity to show everyone who he is. As Jerry Dipoto said last Thursday at ESPN 710:

“Get on board and watch these guys. They’re going to be here for a long time.”

Welcome, Justin. The gloves are on the right. And the cookie dough is in the back, if you need it.