Way back before the season started, I predicted the Seattle Mariners to have one of the best rotations in baseball. I called it a dark horse pick at the time, but it was not a particularly daring one, given that the projected rotation featured one of the best pitchers in baseball (Felix Hernandez), a No. 2 starter who had been excellent since coming over from Japan in 2012 (Hisashi Iwakuma), and two of the top pitching prospects in baseball (Taijuan Walker and James Paxton).
Then, well, April happened. Iwakuma missed the first month with a finger problem, Walker went on the shelf with a shoulder injury, Paxton followed him with shoulder issues of his own after only two starts, and the Mariners spent the early part of the season giving regular innings to rookie Roenis Elias, Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez and eventually Chris Young. The pitching Chris Young. That pitching Chris Young.
Maurer has been as much of a disaster as might have been anticipated, though he has been impressive since his return after going down to the minors and converting to relief, but the rest of the rotation has dazzled. Seattle’s rotation has allowed just 3.43 runs per game, the fewest in the majors, and while that requires park adjustment due to Safeco being an extremely pitching-friendly environment, the Seattle staff as a whole still has a 117 ERA+ — the third-best in baseball. Young is having his best season since 2007, his lone appearance in the All-Star Game; Iwakuma has helped stabilize the rotation since his return; and Hernandez is having his best season in years. It’s helped the starters that their bullpen has been categorically excellent as well.
And now, finally, Walker has joined the fun. Walker made his 2014 debut against the Houston Astros on Monday night to ease him into facing big league hitting — he gave up three earned runs, five hits, struck out six and walked two in six innings — and barring any further shoulder problems should, from here forward, get a permanent spot in the rotation of a team looking to contend down the stretch.
The great news for Seattle is that unlike other franchises with great pitching on the horizon, the Mariners don’t need Walker to immediately step up and be the guy the way that, say, the Yankees have needed Masahiro Tanaka to be the guy — they already have Hernandez on the staff, and he’s already performing at the top of his game. Walker doesn’t need to transition from “best pitcher in the farm system” to “best pitcher on the major league club;” he just needs to settle in, pitch his game and get acquainted with the big leagues. Hernandez, Young, and Iwakuma are, for the moment, taking care of the heavy lifting three out of every five days, even if few believe that Young can maintain his pace all season long.
And should Paxton make his way back off the disabled list soon — “soon” being a relative term, given that he is just now progressing to 25-pitch bullpen sessions and still has simulated games and then rehab starts to get through — the Mariners might actually have the rotation they looked like they might have at the beginning of the season, combined with one of the league’s best (if not the best) bullpens.
Considering how anemic the offense has been overall, it’s that kind of quality pitching they’ll need if they’re going to catch the Angels, let alone the Athletics. But as hard as a climb as that’s going to be in 2014, the Mariners have already shown enough in the first half that a healthy Walker — along with one or two bats at the deadline — might be enough to help them sneak into a wild card berth in the second.