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About Five Nights ago: There’s something hot at the sixth starter spot

Justin Dunn and Nick Margevicius are whipping up a nice little roster battle.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

First, an apology. I was signed up to recap last Thursday night and whoops I did whiff on it. It was a solid game, albeit near interminable, and a reminder I don’t relish the return of 7:10 starts over the 6-6:30 variety we got near universally last year. The 3.5 hour advertisement for pitch clocks nonetheless had plenty of excitement once the ball started getting delivered, with Kyle Lewis, Taylor Trammell, and Ty France showcasing the positive possibility of the offense, which has spent much of the spring looking dormant. But the most interesting battle outside of left field in M’s camp is between two players all but certain to both break camp in Seattle: RHP Justin Dunn and LHP Nick Margevicius.

Dunn and Marge are scrapping for the 6th spot in the rotation, which the Seattle Mariners have left up for grabs between the young arms. Ahead of them are five names of varying certitude: Marco Gonzales, James Paxton, Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, and Chris Flexen. The loser for the sixth spot in Seattle’s second season of six in the rotation will most likely be the long relief option to start 2021. Last year, that was Margevicius, who impressed in the role and slid up when Kendall Graveman was injured and Taijuan Walker was traded. But Dunn has long been projected to the pen, as a former college reliever with a big fastball and a solid slider but suspect tertiaries beyond that and command that’s fluctuated with his physicality. This spring, and last night, both showed parts of what could make them worthy starters, while unable to shake the doubts entirely.

There are two extremely general ways general pieces to improving your results as a pitcher, and while they are not mutually exclusive, some pitchers clearly find one easier than another. One route is locating your pitches with greater acuity, attempting to force hitters to swing at things they’ll struggle to drive. The other is reducing the hitter’s decision-making window, by boosting velocity and/or movement to force a quicker swing decision and more mistakes. Improvements in either capacity increase the pitcher’s room for error and ability to overcome shortcomings.

For Dunn, who got the start yesterday, it’s been promising seeing strides in the latter direction. His fastball has sat 94-96, giving him a sizable boost in success potential over 2020’s 91-93 if it can sustain there. He missed bats and froze big league quality hitters with the heat and his breaking ball.

But as Dunn himself put it, “2019 Justin” made an unfortunate appearance in the third inning. Three walks and just a single hit helped yield three runs and an early exit despite cruising at the outset. Dunn has looked undeniably better this spring, and his velocity and improved flexibility clearly raise his ceiling. But innings like the 3rd last night are what could put him at risk of a bullpen move ultimately, particularly with Margevicius looming.

For the lithe lefty, the benefit of the doubt will be extended just a little less far than for someone who pumps it in like Dunn. His 91-93 four-seamer comes in with solid extension and command, but his best bat dodger is a curveball not quite as vicious as Dunn’s slider. But even still, Margevicius has had solid numbers in 2020 and this spring thanks to everything playing up just a bit more than it should on paper.

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The M’s rotation is southpaw heavy, which might matter or might not, but their bullpen is trending towards just a single locked lefty in Anthony Misiewicz, meaning Seattle might tilt the scales towards Dunn in the rotation for versatility’s sake. But Dunn has the type of stuff that would be more inclined to play up in shorter outings, with pure fastball/slider coming hot and heavy. I suspect Dunn gets the last rotation spot to open camp, but this could truly be decided by how well each player holds together in their final outing of spring.

What is striking, however, is that as Seattle has a roster of young talents, including all but one member of its rotation coming in under the age of 30, this is a roster battle with all the intrigue of potential and far less of the frantic desperation of years past. The M’s depth in the farm rotationally makes this face-off far less stressful than, say, 2017, when the club broke camp with Félix Hernández, James Paxton, 84 mph slingin’ Hisashi Iwakuma, Yovani Gallardo, and Ariel Miranda, who had outdueled a mix of lesser or post-prospects and journeymen like Dillon Overton, Chase De Jong, Erasmo Ramírez, Christian Bergman, and co. on a roster expected (at least internally) to compete for a playoff spot. This year, young prospects with more potential for the future are making their case, with enough arms on the horizon that it does not feel make or break for either. It’s a solid place to be for the Mariners, and makes the competition easier, at least for me, to enjoy.