Mariners Rotation Filled With Intrigue

Remember that old fantasy baseball format that required you to choose a starting pitching staff rather than individual players? If that is still being played today, then give me the Mariners rotation. Intriguing arms abound in the Northwest with a nice mix of elite level veterans and exciting young hurlers.

Once again, the King heads up the staff and despite seeing his velocity continue its downward trend to a new career low, Felix Hernandez just posted the best skills of his life. In fact, if you begin in 2008, you’ll see his strikeout rate rise and walk rate fall in almost lock-step fashion. That’s pretty incredible. Velocity decline is almost always a warning sign, but since he continues to prove that he could compensate, he appears as safe as always atop the starting pitcher pyramid.

On some teams, Hisashi Iwakuma would be the ace, but he’ll just have to settle into the number two slot in the rotation. Already a strike thrower, Iwakuma took his control up another change, pumping in more first pitch strikes and total strikes, which caused his walk rate to tumble. He’ll have to do it again though to prove that he is capable of maintaining a sub-5% walk rate though, as it ain’t easy to do. Only 11 qualified starters accomplished the feat in 2013. Although his pitch mix was essentially the same as his 2012 debut, his fastball’s SwStk% nearly doubled, which is surprising since it actually lost a bit of velocity. I cannot imagine that being repeated, so I’d expect closer to his 2012 K%. Since he significantly outperformed his SIERA thanks to a low BABIP and gaudy LOB%, he may very well end up being overvalued, but still a strong performer ignoring cost.

After Iwakuma comes the fun part. Well, that’s a bit insulting to the top two guns, as they surely rate highly on the fun scale themselves. Erasmo Ramirez, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton will slot in whatever order behind the two aces. I was a fan of his heading into the year based on his 2012 performance, but shared my disappointment with his results a couple of weeks ago.

Ramirez threw fewer strikes and induced fewer swings and misses. That’s not a good combination. Curiously, he threw is changeup less frequently, even though that’s his best pitch, opting instead to feature his slider as his primary secondary offering. I remain cautiously optimistic, but my enthusiasm has obviously been dampened. Good thing is that he should come quite cheaply to be worth the risk.

Taijuan Walker was named as the top prospect in the Mariners system back in November and it’s easy to see why. His fastball averaged nearly 95 mph, but his secondary pitches don’t appear all the way there yet. The analysis is based on a tiny sample size of pitches, but his cutter induced a below average rate of whiffs and ground balls and that was his secondary pitch of choice. His curve ball appears pretty good, but the sample is even smaller. Still, he could live off an electric fastball for now and be good enough to be worthy of mixed league consideration. His control can’t regress back to his Triple-A level, however.

Perhaps rounding out the rotation is James Paxton, the southpaw who ranked third in our prospect rankings. Despite middling (okay, poor) results at Triple-A, I’m more excited about his fantasy prospects this year than Walker’s. Eno Sarris summed up Paxton’s up and down ride recently. What I see is a hard-throwing ground ball machine with above average strikeout potential. In limited action during his cup of coffee, his curve ball was fantastic in inducing swinging strikes and it also caused batters to chop it into the ground half the time. Control is going to be the last thing to come around, which gives him further upside.

Possibly battling for a rotation spot is Brandon Maurer, who endured a forgettable first half that saw him post an ERA approaching 7.00, fully backed up by weak skills. But he returned in a relief role at the end of July before making four starts at the end of the year and his skills surged. His whiff rate improved on all three of his secondary offerings, the changeup, slider and curve ball, while he threw his changeup and curve for strikes more frequently. He had struggled with his control in the minors throughout 2013, but hadn’t done so previously, so it appears he has corrected what afflicted him. One other problem is as primarily a fastball/slider guy, he’s prone to platoon issues, as his strikeout rate plunged versus lefties. That said, if he wins a rotation spot, could produce some profit in AL-Only leagues.

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Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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IIRC still using the pitching staff format.