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Mariners 2020 Spring Training Preview: The SPs

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The shakiest part of the rebuild looks to take shape in 2020

Chicago Cubs v Seattle Mariners Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Spring Training is upon us ladies and gentlemen! People’s opinions of ST vary, what matters and what doesn’t? It can be hard to figure out what to look for when you have players like Mike Trout and players who would usually be in AA sharing the same field. Over the days and weeks leading up to ST, I will be interviewing some of the writers here at LL to try to see the things that they will be looking for in each position group. After going over the INF and OF with Tim and Eric the past two weeks I will be talking with one of our editors, John, about the pitching rotation heading into 2020. With a few new faces and plenty of young guys figuring to be fighting for playing time by years end this group should be one to keep your eye on throughout ST and well into the 2020 season.

Nathaniel Baird: Hey John, super happy to have you here to talk about the starting rotation heading into this 2020 Spring Training! This should be a really great group to look at as there figure to be quite a few storylines to look at as this Spring Training progresses into March. The biggest addition to this group would pretty easily be former M’s top prospect Taijuan Walker. Walker hasn’t pitched much at all over the past two seasons after needing TJ surgery, considering this it appears that the M’s will be bringing him along slowly this Spring. While it certainly appears that a job in the rotation will be Walker’s to lose heading into 2020, what do you want to see from him specifically this go around in ST to feel like he is in a good spot heading into the games that count?

John Trupin: Good to be here, Nat. It’s roomier than I expected. I agree that Tai is the most notable “new” face in the rotation, and I’m pretty fascinated to see what the team intends for him. There’s two levels of production I’d like to see from Walker. Number one, I want to see the stuff back to pre-injury levels. He’s long had an above-average fastball, and he’s flashed a good curveball inconsistently his entire career. The split-change he throws had some promise in his first Arizona season but it’s now been two and a half years since then. If he’s showing that initially, then number two is seeing him extending his outings, consistently. It’s hard to ask a guy to go 160-180 innings after two seasons off, but Tai is athletic and ostensibly full-health. If he’s doing both those things I think the next question becomes whether he’s someone Seattle looks to trade or extend, but the stuff and results have to manifest first.

NB: Yeah, I’ve just been here at LL HQ a little under two months but the office cubicle closet is coming together nicely isn’t it? I agree with your comments about Tai’s stuff, while the reports about the numbers he was throwing in his BP’s earlier this Spring were a bit concerning, it’s clear that it’s early and still needs to be built up quite a bit. While the D-Backs continually claimed that Tai was back to 100% at the end of last season, his release, ensuing lack of takers in FA and the carefulness that the M’s appear to be taking with him do worry me a bit. I’d love to see him get a few extended starts once we get a bit deeper into Spring Training to just show more than anything that he is back to a healthy level. I see the only way that Tai doesn’t have a spot on the opening rotation is if he is unhealthy which the Mariners seem to be trying to mitigate to the highest degree.

Let’s talk about the guy that Tai will likely be replacing in the 2020 rotation to start the year, Justin Dunn. What do you see his ST looking like? This is obviously a huge year for him as he (and fellow young gun Justus Sheffield who we’ll get to later) will be looking to prove that he can stick as a starter. I know that the concept of a 6 man rotation has been thrown out quite a bit which I am personally a big fan of, but if they ultimately just stick with five what do you see him having to do this Spring Training to pry a starting job from Tai or Graveman?

JT: It’s been a few years since the Mariners had good enough young guys being kept in the minors to worry about this! The annual Daniel Vogelbach blockade finally broke down, but now Justin Dunn seems like the best player with a big league debut who isn’t set to break camp in Seattle. Regrettably for Dunn, his contract situation defines his future as much as anything. The M’s can send Dunn to the minors without incident, whereas both Graveman and Walker have to be in the bigs per their contracts, or get a chance to hit waivers and/or become free agents. My guess is with Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Sheffield, Graveman, and Walker, Dunn begins the year in AAA-Tacoma. Hopefully that is seen as an opportunity and not an indictment, because at the first injury or potentially a trade if Graveman or Walker show out nicely in 2020, Dunn is the next guy up.

I doubt we see the true six-man rotation, which is a shame considering their roster is well-suited for it, but with Graveman and Walker working off significant injuries, I’d love to see some piggy-back starts on occasion with Dunn and the starter each working 3-4 innings. There’s still some question if Dunn sticks in the rotation, or if he’s better suited as a relief weapon, but until he’s failing every five days I think now is the time to see him go long as best he can.

NB: I agree, there is truly little that could be done by Dunn to warrant a drop of Tai or Graveman from the rotation; however, I do hope that he shows enough ability this spring for the M’s to have him start in the bigs to take starts here to there from Graveman and Taijuan until they deem him ready to go deep in some real big league appearances. While the selfish baseball consumer in me just wants to see Dunn as quickly as possible I do worry how these shortened starts would affect the rest of his season if the front office decided to go this way. As someone who many are projecting to be a reliever, Dunn could very likely not be too stretched out as a result of these starts and struggle to go deep in his starts later this season. After his shakey nerve related innings last season I just hope that he gets plenty of opportunities to shake those appearances off this Spring.

As for our other young pitcher who looks to be breaking ST with the rotation, Justus Sheffield is beginning likely the most important season of his young career where, like Dunn, he is going to work to show that he belongs as a starter and not in the pen. I really enjoyed your 40 in 40 on Justus where you talked about all of the reasons you liked him and how he will need to work on his command among other things for 2020 be a success. What kind of start would you like to see from Top Sheff this Spring to make you think he’s on track to meeting these goals?

JT: Oh Sheff. Are you a decade too late? Or arriving at the cusp of a return to your style’s vogue? I’m glad you enjoyed the 40 in 40 on Sheffield. One of the biggest challenges for him is going to be that his fastball is on the absolute opposite end of the spectrum of what teams are emphasising right now. Teams have recognized the value in four-seam fastballs that have near-perfect backspin as resisting gravity’s pull and creating the illusion of “rise” for the hitter relative to their brain’s expectation. Sheffield’s four-seam spins less than almost anyone going for how hard he throws, creating the opposite effect; he throws a four-seam fastball that is in effect a sinker, and sinkers are getting clobbered these days. Félix was a quintessential late 00s/early 10s sinkerball savant, and hitters have adjusted.

Justus has a tricky needle to thread. He’s never been a command master, but he has to be more precise than most, because his fastball, left up, is absolute meat, sinking less but dropping right into the heart of the plate. Can he find a way to throw deceptive/enticing fastballs in the upper half of the zone or above that don’t subsequently drop into meatball territory? Or does he have to cede the upper half of the zone for the most part and shrink his target even more for himself to aiming at the belt or lower, with his three sinking pitches (four-seam, slider, changeup)? That’s where all three of his pitches are most effective, but will he suffer from diminishing returns living there too much? It’s a difficult decision, paired with tricky execution, so I’m going to be extremely interested to watch the targets Tom Murphy and the rest of the catchers are setting for Sheffield as the spring goes along.

NB: Yeah I was really glad that you touched on his fastball / pseudo sinker. I have had a similar interest in Justus and while scouring his Baseball Savant page earlier this offseason I noticed just how sinker-ish his fastball is. Per BS, on average Justus’ four seamer drops 22 inches, which is five more than the league average drop of 17! Oh yeah and the four seamers spin rate? It comfortably resides in the 0th percentile.

JT: Something for us all to aspire to.

NB: Sometimes I wish that everyday life were measurable in the sense that certain intangibles in baseball are. Wouldn’t it be nice to know what you were in the 0th percentile in and what you were in the 99th percentile in? Anyways, I will certainly be looking at Justus’ control as well this Spring. While I have never particularly minded the brevity of his appearance in the minors, I am also hoping more than anything he can make it deep-ish into a couple of his starts this Spring as a result of his aforementioned command. If there is anyone on this 2020 M’s team that I want to succeed this year, it would certainly be Top Shef. Another starter that is in need of proving himself is Yusei Kikuchi, it has been well documented all of the outside forces that could have contributed to his horrific stateside debut last year. A big deal has already been made about his much simplified throwing motion which should help to improve his numbers from last year (mainly because they couldn’t have gotten much worse :/) What are your thoughts on this recently unveiled throwing motion and what do you wish to see from YK down in Peoria this Spring?

JT: You hate to look at any adjustment a guy makes and think “it can’t hurt, right?”, but that’s the situation Kikuchi is in this spring. He had a whole mess of alterations in his motion, back and forth between his hitch, a more streamlined delivery, something in between, and just plain old struggles, but he was best able to adjust with the streamlined motion Seattle was encouraging and he appears to have taken to heart and arrived to Peoria with. Guys don’t typically dominate NPB and then flop completely in MLB these days - and there’s enough public info in Kikuchi to know he has the stuff to be successful. If he’s looking like he’s coming to the park each day with the same motion, and releasing the ball reasonably consistently in the same spot, I think that’s the best we can hope for this spring. The stuff is good enough that it can translate to in-season success if it’s consistent and commanded.

NB: I agree, I think that nailing similar release points for all of YK’s pitches will be a huge step towards him becoming a serviceable MLB pitcher. Any time a pitcher is able to make their throwing motion more repeatable is a good sign to me, I’m excited to see it in real live game action here very soon!

Before I ask you about your final predictions for this year’s rotation we’ve got to talk about the staff ‘ace’ Marco Gonzales. He just signed an extension this offseason and it’s clear that Dipoto and Co. continue to love the guy (some Marco praise even snuck its way into your Top Sheff article) Considering how consistent Marco has been over the past couple of seasons there should be very little to worry about this Spring, but nonetheless, what are you looking for from the former Zag this ST?

JT: I think you nailed it - there’s not much for Marco to show us on the field this spring. He got the extension because he’s been everything the organization has asked for, but I’m not sure where he goes from here. I think unfortunately the biggest impact we can see from Marco this year is off the field, in an explicit leadership role or as a model for the other young players in the organization. If guys like Sheffield and Dunn and Gilbert and Kirby can emulate Gonzales’ consistency with his delivery, as well as his excellence with all the other components of pitching (pickoffs, mixing up timing, consistent focus, etc.), Seattle will be in great shape in the next few years. Hopefully Marco can be that sort of guiding example.

NB: Yes, I agree. One of the highlights of last season for me was watching Marco step effortlessly into a leadership role with the team. Hopefully even should he decline over the coming years, his mentorship can be seen through the Dunns, Sheffs, and Gilberts of the team.

On to the final question of this article, could you give me your rotation projections on opening day, all star break and the final game along with your fWAR predictions for the top six rotation guys this year?

JT: I love it. Okay…

Opening Day:

Gonzales, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Graveman, Walker

All-Star Break:

Gonzales, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Walker, Gilbert

End of Season:

Gonzales, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Gilbert, Dunn, Walker

Season fWAR:

Gonzales (3.0)

Kikuchi (2.5)

Sheffield (2.1)

Gilbert (2.0 assuming he gets around a midseason call up)

Walker (1.3, limited by innings/health but solid)

Dunn (0.8)

Graveman (0.3)

I’d be surprised, unfortunately, to see Graveman AND Walker make it all season healthy and in the rotation, but if they have hopefully they’re outdoing expectations. I think the Gilbert projection is aggressive, but I’m taking the organization at their word to some degree that as guys are pushing through the minor league ceiling they’ll get an opportunity in Seattle by mid-season. It’s something they’ve said in reference to Gilbert and Jarred Kelenic, and I think LoGi Bear is going to make it very tough on the club to keep him down long.

NB: I like it, hopefully there isn’t ever movement from the top three guys in the rotation at all throughout the course of the season.

Opening Day:

Gonzales, Kikuchi, Sheff, Graveman, Walker

All-Star Break:

Gonzales, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Walker, Dunn (While I think that Gilbert will be more than able to get called up here, I think they are going to have to give Dunn some consistent starter innings before putting him away in the pen)

End of Season:

Gonzales, Kikuchi, Sheffield, Walker, Dunn, Gilbert

Season fWAR Predictions:

Gonzales (3.3)

Kikuchi (1.9)

Sheffield (2.0)

Gilbert (1.4 with the midseason call up)

Walker (1.1 based off of health)

Dunn (0.5)

Thank you for doing this with me John! While this group likely won’t be particularly good this upcoming season, there are a lot of fun storylines that people should be taking note of with lots of young guys trying to become future pieces of this ball-club.