Seattle Mariners 2012 starting rotation preview

Felix Hernandez is walking the fine line between workhorse and over used. (Brandon Wade/Getty Images)

There’s hope on the horizon for Seattle Mariners fans. A slew of fine young players have begun to make their way to the big leagues. The prospect parade includes several terrific young arms that are already making an impact at the big-league level and will be for the next half decade.

Caption:    (Brandon Wade/Getty Images)

1. Felix Hernandez (RHP)

2011 Salary: $10MM
2012 Salary: $18.5MM
2011 Stats: 233.2 IP over 33 starts, 8.5 K/9, 3.47 ERA, 3.13 FIP, 5.5 WAR

Hernandez endured a regression to the mean on balls in play in 2011. It was the primary reason his ERA spiked to 3.47, up from his Cy Young-winning 2.27 ERA in 2010. Hernandez wasn’t any worse of a pitcher this past year, his defense just didn’t help his cause as dramatically as it did during the 2010 run. You’re likely to hear trade winds blowing about Felix again this offseason. I have serious doubts about that. If Seattle’s decision makers don’t think the club will be able to contend by the end of Hernandez’s contract in 2014 and/or have serious doubts about their ability to retain him once he hits free agency, then maybe they’ll take some calls. However, I think the rumor about GM Jack Zduriencik’s pursuit of Prince Fielder indicates the M’s are intent on winning sooner rather than later.

A question in the back of Mariners fans’ minds should be whether you want Zduriencik to bring back Hernandez beyond 2014. Yes, he’s one of the best pitchers in all of baseball right now, but before you assume he’ll sustain that well into his 30s, you should know about some interesting trends. Felix has thrown 1,388 major-league innings before his 26th birthday. In 2008, the Hardball Times did a nice little write up on pitchers who had heavy workloads prior to that age. All of the contemporary examples (the Fernando Valenzuelas and Dwight Goodens of the world) burned out. Hernandez’s average fastball velocity has tailed off from nearly 96 mph in 2005 to 93.3 mph in 2011. Curiously, over that same time span, his slider velocity has climbed up from 83 mph to 86 mph and his change-up velo is up from 85 mph to 89 mph. Throughout all this, Felix’s power curveball velocity has held steady. What does all this mean? We’ll have to watch how Hernandez performs in the near future, but it’s becoming clear that a guy who once had an entire arsenal of above-average to plus pitches is losing a little bit of his gas. While he’ll probably be on the short list of Cy Young contenders again in 2012, his long-term viability is something to monitor. Enjoy it while it lasts.

2. Michael Pineda (RHP)

2011 Salary: $414M
2012 Salary: $415-420M
2011 Stats: 171 innings over 28 starts, 9 K/9, 3.74 ERA, 3.42 FIP, 3.4 WAR

Pineda far exceeded my expectations in 2011. I didn’t think the change-up was ready to get left-handed hitters out. Neither did he, evidently, as he only threw the change six percent of the time. Instead, he survived almost exclusively on his mid-90s fastball and his mid-80s slider, which he prefers to work back-door to lefties. It worked just fine. He held lefties to a reasonable .234 batting average in 2011. Understand that, like Felix’s 2010 season, Pineda enjoyed an unsustainable batting average on balls in play last year. He’s due for a bit of a statistical regression next year with an ERA somewhere in the 3.3-3.5 range, but he’s still an absolute monster. He tossed 140 innings in 2010 and 171 innings last year. That’s a fairly standard 30-inning bump, but his performance waned as the season went along. There may be some amount of physical conditioning Pineda can do in order to maintain excellence throughout an entire 200-inning season.

3. Jason Vargas (LHP)

2011 Salary: $2.45MM
2012 Salary: $4-4.5MM range through arbitration
2011 Stats: 201 innings over 32 starts, 5.87 K/9, 4.25 ERA, 4.09 FIP, 2.4 WAR

Vargas has always had a change-up that would play in the big leagues but little else to go with it. His curveball is a get-me-over pitch at best and his fastball is fringy and getting worse. In 2011, he scrapped his in-between slider/cutter in favor of a true cut fastball, and it became the primary reason for his success. He’s a back-end starter who will get a pretty substantial raise through arbitration over the winter, but if he eats innings like he did in 2011, he’ll be worth the extra dough. Teams need guys like this, too.

4. Danny Hultzen (LHP)

Hultzen signed a five-year, $10.6 million contract as the second overall pick in the 2011 draft. A low-risk selection, Hultzen doesn’t have the upside you look for in a draft pick of that ilk. He’ll likely walk the line between a #2 and #3 starter during his career. That’s nothing to scoff at, and the near certainty with which he’ll attain that level of performance, in my opinion, totally justifies his selection toward the top of round one.

Hultzen’s three pitch mix starts with an above-average fastball that was flashing plus in the Arizona Fall League. It has some arm side run to it, and he’ll work with it on both sides of the plate, willing to come inside to jam righties. The heater plays up a bit against lefties thanks to Hultzen’s true three-quarters arm slot. Hultzen’s mature use of his average, mid-70s slider is encouraging. He’ll obviously run it away from lefties, but he’ll also backdoor it for strikes early in counts against righties. His meal-ticket is a true swing-and-miss changeup that sits in the upper 70s with fade. Hultzen maintains arm speed identical to that of his fastball when throwing the change. It’s a pitch that will get swings and misses at the major-league level right now.

Hultzen’s mechanics aren’t a major cause for concern. Yes, he cuts himself off a bit during his delivery which isn’t ideal, but that’s part of what allows him to release the ball behind left-handed hitters. He uses his lower half efficiently and generates his velocity with relative ease, especially from the windup. He’ll likely get a little bit more seasoning in the minors for service-time reasons (though this could change depending on the new CBA) but should be up sometime in 2012.

5. Inning-eating veteran TBD

After trading away Doug Fister and Erik Bedard, the Mariners will seek someone to act as a bridge between 2012 and late 2013 when some of their pitching prospects will be ready. Speculative candidates I like for that spot are the ageless Livan Hernandez, the rotund Bartolo Colon and sentimental favorites Freddy Garcia and Joel Pinero. I think Pinero is a fine fit on a two-year deal. Pinero can go and rebuild his own value in cavernous Safeco Field after an abysmal 2011, and the Mariners can look to deal him once either Taijuan Walker or James Paxton is ready, anytime between mid-2012 and the 2013 deadline. If anyone’s got any other ideas about what Zduriencik can do to fill out the roster (and you should, there are probably dozens of cool scenarios), I’d love to discuss them in the comments section.

Some internal possibilities include Blake Beavan, part of the return on the Cliff Lee trade of 2010. Beavan is really more of an up-and-down, long-reliever type with a decent fastball and little else. Anthony Vasquez got a shot late last year, but it was a disaster. He is an organizational arm. I haven’t seen Larry Bernandez pitch so I’ll refrain from commenting on his potential.

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