Previewing the '21 Mariners: Starting pitchers
Marco Gonzales once again leads the Mariners' staff on the mound
March 11, 2021
In last year's mini-season, the Mariners opted to use a six-man starting rotation rather than the customary five. There was some logic to this, mostly based on the fact that there was no minor-league baseball being played and the club didn't want to deprive the likes of Justin Dunn and Nick Margevicius of development time. Plus, with the strangeness of the interrupted spring, the long layoff, and fairly abrupt ramp-up to the brief 60-game season, giving the starters an extra day of rest each time through seemed like a reasonable precaution. This year, even without those issues, the M's are doing it again. Is it smart? Probably not, but that remains to be seen; last year's workload was so light in total that using extra rest between starts as a bridge back to normalcy next year might make sense. It could also be a factor if the idea was to stretch out the starter to go deeper into his game on any given day, but that's apparently not part of the plan. It's a curious decision, and it'll be interesting to see if the team sticks with it over the course of the season.
The M's aren't the only MLB club to be toying with the idea—the Angels, Tigers, Cubs, and others have made noises about potentially going the same route—thinking that extra rest equals lesser risk for pitching injuries, but to me that seems a bit dubious. It might be beneficial to the first- and second-year starters, young guys still developing and coming off a year with no minor-league action, to have more time for between-start practices and less in the way of game-day pressures, but will it be good for the veterans or just deprive the club of their services in important games? A full season's worth of starts will be 27 under this structure as opposed to 32. So the M's would get five fewer games started by Marco Gonzales in favor of five from someone like Dunn or Margevicius. Will that be relevant? Maybe. Perhaps we'll find out. Some pitchers (including Gonzales) have a better track record with five days' rest, some have been better with four.
In any event, the staff will once again be led by the Rodney Dangerfield of pitchers (kids, ask your parents), under-the-radar ace southpaw Marco Gonzales. The pitcher former Mariner team president and baseball simpleton Kevin Mather referred to as "very boring" is anything but if your interest isn't limited to 100-mph fastballs. Marco can barely top 90 on the radar gun, but he pitches with smarts, location, and guile and gets results. In fact, for the thinking fan, Marco can be the most interesting pitcher to watch since Greg Maddux hung up his spikes—he plans ahead, adapts as he goes along, and can choose from four other pitches should one not be working for him on a given day. In the words of Seattle pitching coach Pete Woodworth, "Marco's starts are fun to watch." Control is the name of his game, and in this three full seasons in the bigs (including last year's truncated schedule), Gonzales has issued just 95 walks over 74 starts, or roughly one for every five innings pitched. In 2020 he walked seven—seven!—out of 277 batters faced and led the American League in strikeout-to-walk ratio with 9.14 Ks per walk. He's also a model of consistency, with fairly even splits when it comes to home and road, day or night; the one area that is notable is versus lefties and righties—in those three full seasons, righties have hit .251 against him while left-handers managed a .286 average, an odd reverse-split. Because he relies on painting corners and spotting his pitches with precision, the home-plate umpire can be a significant factor for Gonzales: if Ed Hickox is behind the plate, Marco needs to pitch to contact and trust his defense, as he's not going to get calls on the black; on the other hand, if Kerwin Danley or Doug Eddings is calling balls and strikes, he can go for punchouts on the corners. But above all, Gonzales wants to keep the batter guessing. "One thing I’ve leaned on is being unpredictable," Gonzales said. "I have five different weapons to get you out [and I want] to go deep into a game. Really, I’m trying to get an out with less than two pitches."
Yusei Kikuchi has been a bit of a disappointment so far for the M's, posting a rather unimpressive 8-15 record and 5.39 ERA since 2019, but hopes are still high on the Japanese lefty. After all, he did compile a stellar 2.77 ERA over more than 1,000 innings in Japan and has shown flashes of brilliance with the Mariners—he shut out the Blue Jays in Toronto in August of 2019 and had some outstanding starts in 2020 including two against Oakland for which he got no run support. Of course, there were also some flops in there when facing the tough Dodgers and Padres. Adapting to life in North America and learning the ins and outs of MLB may have been factors in his first year and nothing from 2020 can be considered normal, but ’21 is going to be critical in determining Yusei's future—his unique contract structure makes this a do-or-die season. Is he all settled in and ready to prove he can be consistently good? If so, then the M's can feel good about exercising their option to retain Kikuchi for another four years, which they'll need to do shortly after the 2021 World Series. Otherwise they could opt for a one-year option or simply let him go as a free agent immediately. Another muddled season of inconsistency would complicate that decision. One thing that would go a long way for him is to show some endurance—Kikuchi has lasted past the sixth inning only five times since crossing the Pacific and has had a tendency to throw a lot of pitches early in games. Some of that redounds to bad luck on balls in play, but it's a pattern that needs to change. He certainly has the stuff to succeed; the command is where the problems have lay.
Returning to the Mariner fold is fan favorite James Paxton, a free-agent signee after spending two years in the Bronx with the hated New York Yankees. The Big Maple didn't much love New York, as it turned out; though he won 15 games in a solid 2019 campaign, he found himself on the injured list much of the time and wasn't a factor in last year's Yankee mini-season. Seattle is glad to have him back, and his Maple Grove cheering section is poised to return to the Ballpark by Elliott Bay whenever crowds in stadiums are part of our everyday lives again. As always with the Canadian lefty, success will depend on health—he's yet to go a full year without an injury and his career high in innings was 1601⁄3 in 2018—but when he isn't hurt he can be spectacular. Paxton, author of the Mariners' most recent no-hitter, lives in Kirkland, so coming back to Seattle was more appealing than signing somewhere else. "I had more lucrative offers, but this is where I wanted to be," he said. "I’m loving being here again. It’s great seeing everybody. I’m excited to be a Mariner again."
The other free-agent addition to the starting staff is right-hander Chris Flexen, one of the few people for whom the global pandemic was a good thing. Drafted by the Mets out of high school in 2012, Flexen had a couple of dominant seasons in the low minors and was prematurely promoted to the bigs. He was thumped but good with New York (3-11, 8.07 ERA) and was eventually released, freeing him to sign last year with the Seoul-based Doosan Bears of the Korean Baseball Organization. Since the KBO was able to play a full season thanks to their country's superior handling of the pandemic, Flexen is the only member of the M's to have had a real year's playing experience in 2020—he missed some time with a foot injury, but still made 21 starts and posted a very nice WHIP of just 1.089. With no games being played for much of the summer stateside, Mariner scouts watched a lot of video from the Asian leagues and were impressed with Flexen; he appeared much more composed and was certainly more effective than one might assume from his history. Skipping the high minors on his way to the Mets clearly hurt Flexen's development and his year in Seoul was a welcome dose of healing. "I was able to find myself again," Flexen said of his year with the Bears. Now, the KBO isn't the Major Leagues; though the top players might be big-league capable, on the whole the talent level is probably less than what you'd see in Triple-A. Still, the M's thought enough of Flexen's performance there to give him a two-year contract with an option for a third. We'll see how he handles it.
Justus Sheffield had a nice rookie season in 2020, assuming we can call it a season. He was 4-3 in ten starts with a respectable 3.58 ERA, a drastic improvement over what we saw in his late-season callup in 2019. The former first-round draft selection (2014) has learned from fellow southpaw Marco Gonzales that stuff alone isn't enough. “I’ve always been told my stuff was good enough to get guys out,” Sheffield said, but getting hit around in the big leagues (and at Triple-A) showed him otherwise. "Learning how to pitch, there was one final key, and obviously that was location." Sheffield ditched his traditional four-seam fastball for the Gonzales-style two-seamer that has less velocity but more cut and sinking action on it, resulting in a lot more soft contact from batters and fewer hard liners. “You can’t just go out there and think you’re going to blow heaters and then get guys out with sliders in the dirt every time,” Sheffield said. “That’s what I thought coming up . . . growing and evolving and learning location is huge.” Having Gonzales as a teammate has been equally huge. "Marco really relies on location over his stuff," Sheffield said, "and watching him, I’ve kind of learned to [use that approach] in my game. I've always been stuff over location, and I'd gotten away with that early on in my career [in] the minors. But just watching him be able to put the ball where he wants to put it and set hitters up and watch him attack hitters, it's helped me a lot.” Sheffield has the potential to be a dominant pitcher—that's why the M's traded for him, after all—and it should be interesting to see him develop further along that path this season.
Finally, there's right-hander Justin Dunn. Under normal circumstances, Dunn likely would have pitched in Triple-A last year, but since there was no Triple-A to pitch in, he got to skip that level entirely and jump to the big club. And for a raw rookie, he did pretty well—4-1 in ten starts, 4.34 ERA—including a pair of outstanding starts in August against the Rangers and Angels. He's yet top top six innings in a start, but the former first-round draft pick (2016) has the makings of an impact pitcher. The M's were concerned about his conditioning last year and put him on notice that he needed to get in better shape, and he's responded by diving headlong into diet and weightlifting. "I feel like I’m in the best shape of my life," Dunn said early in spring camp. Said GM Jerry Dipoto, "If you were giving awards to players who have taken the notion of process and embraced it, Justin Dunn wins the award. He’s this year’s Cy Young winner in going home and doing everything we asked him to this offseason, and my guess is it’s going to show up for him on the field." Still, he has to win the starting job. He and Nick Margevicius are competing for the sixth starting slot, and though Dunn is the strong favorite, Margevicius was impressive at times in 2020 and will have a chance to win the job.
Next: The Bullpen.