Optimism about the Mariners starting rotation in the future is so high that it tends to overshadow the Mariner starters here and now.
Manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis can see a 2013 or 2014 rotation that might include two former first-round draft picks of their own, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker, and a first-round pick of the Toronto Blue Jays, James Paxton.
Scouts also rave about a 21-year-old from Nicaragua, Erasmo Ramirez, but he doesn’t have quite the same street cred as the other three, all of whom rank in Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list for 2012.
All that’s fine, but the club can’t live in Tomorrowland. So what about the 2012 rotation? It’s clear that Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas are 1-2 as starters, but after that, what can Mariners fans expect?
Expect Paxton, Walker and Hultzen to start the season in the minor leagues. Ramirez, too. The starting staff for Triple-A Tacoma should be loaded.
It’s not just a random guess that the Mariners are putting off their youth movement. Look at what Wedge and Willis are doing this spring in Arizona. In the first week of play, starts have gone (or will go) to Hernandez, Vargas, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kevin Millwood, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi, experienced pitchers.
Walker started a "B" game Monday with Paxton, Hultzen and Ramirez following him, so it’s not like the kids are being overlooked. But typically, "B" game pitchers either are veterans who just need the work or kids who need mound time that isn’t available in regular Cactus League games.
There is some reason to be optimistic about the starting staff. In the first six Cactus League games, starters allowed just three runs (two earned) in 17.1 innings. But the Mariners have had an extra week’s work in Arizona due to the early start necessitated by the club’s upcoming trip to Japan. If the pitchers weren’t ahead of the hitters, that would be a major matter for concern.
Two weeks before the Mariners head to Tokyo for an eight-day excursion that will culminate with the first two major league games against the Oakland A’s, here’s where the rotation sits:
LOCKS: Hernandez and Vargas. Both are off to good beginnings with no hits or runs allowed in a combined seven Cactus League innings. They are topics for another day.
LIKELY: Iwakuma and Millwood.
The Mariners don’t have too much invested in either man in terms of money, but they have plenty invested in terms of hopes and expectations.
Iwakuma, the MVP in Japan in 2008 when he went 21-4, is just 30 and theoretically in the middle of his productive years. Healthy, he should have four or five good years in front of him. The shoulder injury last year in Japan doesn’t seem to be a problem.
At the same time, the transition from pitching once every six days in Japan to once every five days in MLB isn’t insignificant. Language is one thing. So are the rhythms of baseball. Both have to be learned, and the learning curve can be steep.
Millwood has a long history with Wedge and Willis from their days in Cleveland, and the manager and coach credit Millwood’s influence as helping bring the best out of eventual Cy Young Award winners C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee with the Indians.
Wedge and Willis would like the 37-year-old Millwood to have the same kind of impact in Seattle, but he has to show he has enough left in his right arm. He was hit around in an early relief appearance (two innings, three hits, three runs), but he came back with three innings Thursday, allowing just one run against the Cubs in Mesa.
"Kevin has been around for a good number of years now," Willis told reporters earlier in the spring. "He’s had a few stops along the way with some different pitching coaches and he knows himself very well. I think everyone sees it.
"He’s very comfortable in his own skin, he knows how to prepare and I think he’s a great example for our younger guys to watch."
END OF THE ROTATION CONTENDERS: Beavan, Noesi and (maybe) Charlie Furbush.
A low-strikeout, low-walk guy, Beavan never pitched in the big leagues before coming to Seattle last year from Texas. He wound up with a 5-6 record and 4.27 ERA. He followed that with two Cactus League starts in which he’s allowed just one run. If there’s a front-runner for the fifth spot, he’s it.
He’s gone out in his first two starts as if he’s the man -- 6.1 innings, one run allowed, including four scoreless innings against the Angels Wednesday, a showing that can’t be overstressed. The Angels are a team that has given Seattle massive headaches the last few years, but in three starts against them last year, Beavan was 1-0 with a 2.53 ERA.
The Mariners were 7-12 with a 3.51 ERA against the Angels last year. If Beavan can add "Angel beater" to his resume, his spot in the rotation will be locked in.
Noesi was generally overlooked in the trade of last year’s rookie phenomenon Michael Pineda to the Yankees because the Mariners were getting the Yankees’ best hitter, catcher/DH Jesus Montero. Seattle has lusted after Montero’s power for years.
The Mariners were elated to get Noesi, however, figuring he could easily slip into the rotation. Only two of his 30 appearances for the Yankees last year were starts, but 64 of his 84 minor league appearances were as a starter, so he’s no stranger to the role.
The Yankees used him as a starter in winter ball in Venezuela before the trade, figuring he’d have a shot at their rotation. They had him pitch for Licey, where he had current Mariners Carlos Peguero, Carlos Triunfel and Mike Wilson as teammates. He went 3-3 with a 2.70 ERA while hitting 97 mph on the radar gun.
The Yankees’ foresight may pay off for Seattle. Noesi started the "B" game Thursday and allowed one run in three innings against the Rockies.
For the moment, at least, it seems that Furbush is the odd man out. He made 10 starts with Seattle in 2011 after coming over from the Tigers, where he mostly pitched in relief. He showed talent but little success as a Mariner, going 3-7 in 11 appearances with a 6.62 ERA.
He has yet to be given a start in the first week of games, getting two appearances in relief. He’s scheduled to throw in relief again in Saturday’s home game against the Dodgers behind Iwakuma, so it seems he’ll make the roster as a reliever or not at all.
SEE YOU LATER (BUT NOT TOO MUCH LATER): Paxton, Hultzen, Walker and Ramirez.
If you are lucky enough to be in Peoria this weekend, you’d have a chance to see all four, plus right-hander Matt Fox, pitch in Saturday night’s game in Scottsdale against Arizona. Ramirez will get the start, and it’s Ramirez who may be closest to the big leagues despite having less buzz surrounding him.
"Publicity is one thing, and a lot of the time when people talk about our young pitching, they talk about Hultzen, Paxton and Walker," GM Jack Zduriencik said. "But when I talk about our young pitching, I always talk about Erasmo.
"I don’t see it as him flying under the radar, because we have always liked him. He has kind of shot through the system. And he has pitched at Triple-A, which the other three haven’t."
The right-handed Ramirez, 25, doesn’t throw hard, like the other three. What he does do is throw strikes – 32 walks in 152.2 innings last year, then just one walk in 30.1 innings in winter ball, numbers that have opened eyes.
Paxton, like Hultzen, is a hard-throwing lefty, although Paxton throws harder – he topped out at 98 mph last year and can throw pitch after pitch at 96, about 4 mph better than Hultzen.
"His command of the strike zone is OK right now, and it’s going to get better," Pedro Griffol, a minor league coach who used to run the Seattle scouting system, said. "He’s powerful, there’s no getting around that. But the really impressive thing is how he uses the changeup and the curve. Those are the pitches he’s going to need."
Hultzen, the second player taken in the draft last year after a record-setting career at Virginia, has yet to throw an inning in the minor leagues. He did pitch in the Arizona Fall League, however, and well enough (1-0, 1.40 ERA) to start the AFL’s All-Star game.
The Mariners don’t want to talk about a timetable, although they don’t want to hold him back.
"There is no concrete timetable," Zduriencik said. "As an organization, we’re going to be realistic and cautious. We’re not expecting Mike Leake, but you never know, either."
Leake was taken by Cincinnati with the eighth pick in the 2009 draft, pitched in the AFL, then bypassed the minor leagues by making the Reds’ 2010 roster. He won his first five decisions and was 7-1 before tiring and finishing an injury-shortened season at 8-4.
The fact that Zduriencik is willing to invoke Leake’s name gives substance to just how seriously the Mariners are taking Hultzen this spring.
Hopes are equally high for Walker, who has minor league experience, but only at the Class-A level where he had a 2.89 ERA and 112 strikeouts in 96.2 innings.
He has perhaps the best fastball in the system, topping out at 99 mph, a curve that is potentially a big strikeout pitch for him and a changeup that is getting better. He has a high ceiling and at this point needs nothing as much as experience.
New scouting director Chris Gwynn will probably start Walker at Class-A High Desert or Double-A Jackson, but Gwynn admits Walker could force the club’s hand on where he goes, comparing him to San Diego starter Mat Latos.
"Latos skipped High-A and Triple-A, so it does happen," Gwynn said. "What it’s about now for Walker is throwing strikes and being confident. That’s just what he’s doing.All the signs seem to say he’s really going to be good."
What the Mariners need with Walker – and with Hultzen, Paxton and Ramirez, too – is patience.
But if the current crop of starters doesn’t pan out, Seattle won’t have to look far for replacements.