Jerry Dipoto says he’ll gladly go to YouTube and watch a major league baseball game from 40 years ago.
But the game is a bit different now.
Starters going five, six innings. Everyone throwing in the mid-90s. And a starting rotation of six pitchers. Who would have thought of such a thing 40 years ago?
“That is something we will employ at some time this year,” Dipoto said.
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Because there are fewer 200-inning starters every year. And the ones who can are generally the most expensive on the free-agent market. Notice how you haven’t seen the Mariners chasing after the bevvy of starters still available to sign?
Dipoto said the Mariners have been setting themselves up or two years now to be versatile enough with their position players to include 13 pitchers as part of their 25-man roster, giving them the flexibility to add a sixth starter to the rotation or extra bullpen depth.
“You might not see us break out of camp that way, but at some point during the season we could pull back and put an extra guy in the rotation,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said.
“But to do that, you got to have six guys that you feel comfortable about giving the ball to, and not just run out there. But you’re only lasting 2 1/3 or 3 1/3 innings. So you got to not just have the quantity, but the quality to do it. It’s something we think we can do.”
So what does that look like?
Pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Wednesday in Peoria, Arizona. Felix Hernandez, James Paxton and Mike Leake are locks, barring injuries, for those first three rotation slots (though the order might be up in the air).
Then there’s Erasmo Ramirez, Marco Gonzales, Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore.
The Mariners have three off-days in their first nine days of the season. But that six-man rotation might especially come into effect, say, during a 20-game stretch without an off-day from the end of July into August.
There are more off-days in the 2018 schedule, but there are still five spans of 10-plus consecutive games. Though the problem with a six-man rotation is that the team aces get fewer starts.
“That’s something we don’t want to do until the circumstances dictate we have to,” Dipoto said. “We aren’t going to cut our pitchers short if they’ve shown us the ability to get through six or seven innings.”
But part of the reasoning – if not the primary reason – is health.
The Mariners had to use 17 starting pitchers last year – the most in the major leagues and tied the club’s record previously held by the inaugural 1977 season. And both Felix and Paxton made two separate trips each to the disabled list.
They began the year planning a rotation of Felix, Paxton, Drew Smyly, Hisashi Iwakuma and Yovanni Gallardo. And you saw how that turned out. None of them threw more than 136 innings, with Ariel Miranda leading the team with 160 innings pitched.
In 2001, the last time the Mariners reached the postseason, they had four pitchers who logged more than 160 innings, and three with more than 200 (Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele and Jamie Moyer).
Then again, the Astros won the World Series last season without any pitchers logging more than 160 innings. And the team they beat, the Dodgers, had just one (Clayton Kershaw).
“A guy like James Paxton, when he’s on let him go until he stops,” Servais said. “But it’s almost without exception that pitchers are worse the third time through the lineup.”
In 2017, the Mariners had a player age 26 or younger pitch about one in every three innings (429 2/3 of 1,440 1/3 innings).
“Sometimes we will consider going into the game that it’s going to be a 15-out appearance,” Dipoto said. “If one of every three of your innings is being thrown by rookies, you are trying to throw them a life preserver.”
Gonzales seems to enter camp as the favorite for a spot in the rotation, especially considering the left-hander is out of minor-league options. But instead of expecting he and Ramirez to get through six innings, the Mariners could bridge them with their deeper bullpen, and sliding in someone like Miranda or Moore as a sixth starter when needed.
Dipoto said the Mariners had need for an “impact pitcher” this offseason, not specifying a rotation or bullpen guy. He got his marquee arm in right-handed reliever Juan Nicasio who led the National League in appearances last season.
But no extra starting pitcher.
Let Dipoto explain this philosophy shift from when the first big-league staff he pitched for, the 1993 Indians, had just 10 pitchers on their roster.
In today’s game, there are more pitchers who throw hard, and velocity is prized for starters and relievers. Younger pitchers are being rushed to the majors, often without the command of three pitches, which means starters who can’t get deep into games. Getting through a lineup three times is tough without that extra, third pitch.
But that’s not a problem with a deep bullpen of players who can run it up there 95 mph, Dipoto said.
“I was a reliever. I never started a game in the big leagues,” Dipoto said. “But I knew fundamentally going through the minor leagues that the reason I went to the bullpen was I couldn’t figure out the third pitch and the five guys that we were going to start were probably better than I was. That’s no longer the case. A majority of the time the best stuff on your staff is sitting in the bullpen.
“The number of 200-inning pitchers is (small). That’s why we were interested in acquiring a player like Mike Leake. He takes his 30-plus starts, his 185 innings and he generally keeps you in the games and gives you a chance to win.
“In today’s game that’s an effective starting pitcher because after that you can run out Nick Vincent, Juan Nicasio and David Phelps and Edwin Diaz and James Pazos. Now you get into the stuff that’s really hard to hit. More and more you’re seeing it especially in the postseason. More teams want to get to that overpowering stuff and that’s how we’re doing it.”
WHO’S IN CAMP? (Nine on 40-man roster)
RHP, 6-3, 225
The soon-to-be 32-year-old might not have that 97-mph fastball of the Felix of old, but his changeup is still among the best pitches in baseball. He began to transform himself as a pitcher last season and the Mariners just want to see him healthy to show the world what that looks like. He missed almost two months in 2016 with a calf injury and had two stops on the DL last season with shoulder inflammation.
CHASE DE JONG
LHP, 6-4, 205
De Jong (dee-YOUNG) was one of 22 different rookies to play for the Mariners last season, which was tied for the second-most in the major leagues. The 24-year-old made his first start on April 30 at Cleveland, but also pitched for Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Tacoma. Former second-round draft pick by the Dodgers.
LHP, 6-1, 195
2017 was his first season back from Tommy John Surgery and the Mariners believe he’ll be able to add a third pitch back into his repertoire in a cutter, which he didn’t use at all last season. He’s out of minor-league options so he’ll be given every opportunity to run with the fifth-starter slot. The 26-year-old was acquired in a July trade with the Cardinals for former top prospect, outfielder Tyler O’Neill.
RHP, 5-10, 170
Made five starts for the Mariners after they acquired him from the Cardinals for his steadiness – he’s one of four active pitchers in the major leagues who have had six consecutive seasons of at least 30 starts. Had cumulative 10-13 record with a 3.92 ERA and 130 strikeouts in 186 innings last season.
LHP, 6-2, 190
Was supposed to be the Rainiers’ No. 1 starter entering 2017. Ended up being the Mariners’ most-relied on pitcher, leading the club with 160 innings pitched. He was 7-4 with a 4.31 ERA in his first 21 starts, but the Mariners admit his struggles at the end of the season were a result of them using him too much – because they had to.
RHP, 6-0, 185
The 23-year-old had such success at Oregon State, Double-A Arkansas and Triple-A Tacoma that the Mariners view his struggle in the big leagues last season (1-5, 5.34 ERA in nine starts) as big-league jitters and adjustment. He’ll be in contention for the fifth-starter spot, but he’ll likely start the season in Tacoma. They like his command (he didn’t walk a batter until the fourth inning of his third Mariners start).
LHP, 6-4, 235
That season went about as well as they could have hoped from Big Maple – save for two stints on the DL (forearm strain, strained pectoral). Finished 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA in 24 starts, and remember July? He went 6-0 with a 1.37 ERA with 46 strikeouts in 39 1/3 innings to earn American League Pitcher of the Month. The Mariners have now seen the talent, the confidence, now how about health?
RHP, 5-10, 215
Pitched his way into the Mariners’ 2018 plans in his return from the Rays, where he was pitching out of the bullpen. He was 1-3 with a 3.92 ERA in his 11 starts with the Mariners after they picked him up on July 30. The 27-year-old from Nicaragua held teams to two or fewer runs in seven of his 11 starts.
RHP, 6-2, 220
It was a rough season with Triple-A Tacoma last season, going 0-7 with a 6.58 ERA, but Jerry Dipoto has said this offseason that they’re expecting a big comeback season after they picked him up in 2016 as part of a trade to the Braves that sent outfielder Alex Jackson. Had one start with the Mariners last year (5 ER in 5 1/3 innings).
Christian Bergman (RHP, 6-1, 195): Another one of the Mariners injury plug-in pitchers last season. He made 16 starts with Triple-A Tacoma and eight starts with the Mariners, going 4-5 with a 5.00 ERA in 54 innings. He should provide Triple-A depth again this year.
Hisashi Iwakuma (RHP, 6-3, 210): The 36-year-old is now trying to rebuild himself on a minor-league contract after making just six starts last season and undergoing arthroscopic right shoulder debridement surgery on Sept. 27. But the last update was that he was ahead of schedule, with whispers of maybe a mid-May, early-June return to a mound.
Casey Lawrence (RHP, 6-2, 170): Had a pretty rough 2017 as far as his big-league appearances went: 6.34 ERA with two starts in 55 1/3 innings pitched. But he did set the Mariners single-game club record for strikeouts in relief, with nine Ks in five innings on June 1 against the Rockies.
Ljay Newsome (RHP, 5-11, 210): Got a spring-training invite because of his “60 feet 6 inch award” – which recognizes the Mariners’ top pitcher in 0-0 and 1-1 counts. They want pitchers to dominate the strike zone and this is their club incentive.