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Breaking Down the M’s 6-Man Starting Rotation

"Mariners-Twins May 29 2016" by hj_west is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

With just a week before the season opener in Houston, it appears the Mariners are going with a six-man starting pitching rotation. Earlier this spring it seemed to be a battle between Justin Dunn, and Kendall Graveman for the 5th starter spot. Both guys pitched well in the spring and have looked sharp in their limited work during summer training. Making the decision to go with a six-man rotation easy for the team.

General Manager Jerry Dipoto said in a recent Zoom call with reporters that they weren’t originally planning on going with a six-man rotation, but Dunn’s solid numbers (2.70 ERA, 1.05 WHIP across 6.2 innings) during Cactus League play, and what he’s done during summer camp, made it pretty obvious that they want Dunn starting in 2020.

For the second year in a row Marco Gonzalez will be the opening day starter, he’ll face veteran and future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander.

The starting rotation this year will be very interesting to watch. It’s filled with highly talented prospects like Justus Sheffield, and Justin Dunn. Guys who are talented but underachieved last season, like Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi. Then you also have two pitchers in Taijuan Walker and Kendall Graveman who missed the 2019 season because of Tommy John surgery.

The talent is there, four of the six starters are former 1st round draft picks. If the starters can stay healthy, and be consistent, then I think the 2020 rotation for the M’s could surprise some people. Some might view that as a bold statement, there’s still a lot of uncertainty with this staff. I just look at the skill set of these pitchers and can’t help but be a tad hopeful. There will be some struggles, it might be a bit of a roller coaster at times, but again the talent seems to be there.

Let’s look at the projected starting rotation for the COVID shortened 2020 season.

Marco Gonzales – Lefthander 6-1, 195lb

This is his 5th MLB season and his 3rd full season as a starter in Seattle. He’s a former 1st round pick by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2013 from Gonzaga University.

He was the Mariner’s best pitcher in 2019, at times showing that he has the stuff to be a solid #1 or #2, just had some troubles with consistency. He finished 16-13 with a 3.99 ERA, 147Ks in 203 innings. Marco pitched in an intra-squad game last Sunday, he was solid, not great. He pitched 2 innings, struck out 4 hitters, and gave up 2 runs on 2 hits. The positive takeaway was the 4 strikeouts, afterward, he told reporters that he feels great, and is ready to go.

Yusei Kikuchi – Lefthander 6-0, 194lb

This will be Kikuchi’s 2nd season with the Mariners, he was signed in 2019 after spending 8 seasons playing professionally in Japan. He was an All-Star pitcher during his time in Japan, finishing with a career record of 73-46 with a 2.77 ERA. Kikuchi came over to the MLB with some fairly high expectations but unfortunately struggled in his first MLB season. He finished 2019 with a 6-11 with a 5.46 ERA and just 116 strikeouts. A disappointing season for a very talented young pitcher.

Kikuchi had an up and down spring, finishing the shortened Cactus League season with a 1-1 record and 4.05 ERA. What was very promising about his spring was his improved velocity and spin on his pitches. He was averaging 94-96 mph on his fastball, and his slider had noticeably more movement on it. Also, scouts were noticing that he seemed to be more aggressive on the mound, challenging hitters with his power pitches. So far during the summer training, all these same things have been observed. These are all very good signs that Kikuchi might be on the verge of a breakout season.

Taijuan Walker – Righthander 6-4, 235lb

Mariner fans should be very familiar with Taijuan Walker, he was once a top prospect in the organization, and even deemed “untouchable” at one point. The Mariners drafted Walker in the 1st round of the 2010 MLB draft, he spent 4 years with the Mariners before getting traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2017.

The talent and athleticism are off the charts for Taijuan Walker, it’s been a lack of consistency that’s plagued him. His first two seasons (2015, 2016) as a full-time starter in Seattle were a disappointment, finishing with a 4.59 ERA in 2015 and 4.22 ERA in 2016. His 2017 season in Arizona was improved, he finished that season with a 3.49 ERA. Unfortunately for Walker he injured his arm at the beginning of the 2018 season, which required Tommy John surgery, and hasn’t pitched since.

He’s healthy again and looking to get his career back on track. During spring training, and intrasquad games in summer camp his fastball is averaging mid-90s. The power seems to be returning. The delayed season has benefitted someone like Walker who’s missed 2 seasons because of injury. “It gave my arm a chance to heal,” Walker said. “Anytime you can do that, you should feel good and strong. And that’s what I feel like right now. I feel really strong. I like where I’m at. Now it’s just about building the innings and getting comfortable with the ups and downs. We’re getting there.”

Justus Sheffield – Lefthander 6-0, 200lb

Another talented former top prospect in the Mariner’s rotation, he was a 1st round pick of the Cleveland Indians in 2014. At one point he was ranked the 27th best prospect in baseball. The Mariners acquired Sheffield in 2018 via trade with the Yankees for pitcher James Paxton. Sheffield made just 7 starts for the M’s last season, going 0-1 with a 5.50 ERA. It was a struggle for Sheffield in 2019, but hardly enough of a sample size to make any kind of judgment.

Sheffield is the most exciting pitcher in the rotation, he has the talent to be a solid #2, possibly #1 starter. He had an excellent spring training; most analysts agree he was the best pitcher for the Mariners during the shortened Cactus League season. He had 12 strikeouts in 8 innings, showing off his new two-seam fastball which really impressed catcher Tom Murphy. “Honestly, from pitch one, today, beginning in his bullpen, that was the best I ever caught from [Sheffield],” catcher Tom Murphy said. “He threw his two-seamer exclusively. That was something he wanted to do. He put it on himself. It was the most natural that I’ve seen his fastball move.”

So far during summer camp, Sheffield has picked up right where he left off this spring. He looked solid during his two innings of work in the intrasquad game, continuing to raise the expectations of his coaches. He’s the 4th starter now, but by end of the season, he could be considered the #1 pitcher in the rotation.


 Kendall Graveman – Righthander 6-2, 209lb

Graveman is a bit of an unknown for most Mariner fans, probably most people not named Mrs. Graveman. He hasn’t pitched in a real game since May of 2018 due to Tommy John surgery. Graveman was picked by the Toronto Blue Jays in the 8th round of the 2013 MLB draft. He made his major league debut in 2014 with the Blue Jays, then was traded the next year to the Oakland Athletics. He spent four years in Oakland, his best season was in 2016 with a 10-11 record, a 4.11 ERA and 108 strikeouts.

The Mariners signed Graveman November 26th, 2019 to a 1-year deal. Going into this season there really wasn’t much expectation given that he hasn’t pitched in two years. Graveman has done nothing but impressed coaches in spring, and so far during summer training. His first game action since Tommy John surgery came during Cactus League play late February, he was sharp, pitched two scoreless innings with one strikeout. His arm looks like it’s fully recovered, maybe even stronger than before. His fastball was consistently hitting 96-mph during spring training and averaging 94-96-mph during summer camp.

Graveman is a nice story, a devastating injury that could’ve ended his career, but due to hard work, it appears his career is back on track. He’s one of those players that Mariner fans should become familiar with, and root for.

Justin Dunn – Righthander 6-2, 185lb

Dunn is one of the top prospects in the Mariner organization, picked in the 1st round of the 2013 MLB draft by the New York Mets. The Mariners acquired Dunn along with superstar prospect Jared Kelenic in a trade with the Mets for Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano. This trade might possibly go down as one of the best trades in Mariner history, and the worst trade in Mets history.

Dunn has very little MLB experience, pitching in just 6.2 innings last season with a 2.70 ERA and 5 strikeouts. Obviously not much of sample size, but it was clear at times that he’s got the talent to succeed at the MLB level. Going into the 2020 season it wasn’t clear what the plan was for Dunn, was he going to start the season in the minors, or possibly the bullpen. All those thoughts were thrown right out the window after Dunn’s excellent spring training. Along with Justus Sheffield, Dunn is probably the most exciting Mariner pitcher. In 6.2 innings of work during Cactus League play he struck out 10 hitters, which translates to 13.5 strikeouts per 9 innings. He looked completely dominating at times, granted its spring, and pitchers tend to be ahead of hitters. But can’t deny that he was overpowering hitters.

Dunn threw a 20-pitch live batting practice session against Dee Gordon and other teammates during Saturday’s summer camp session and was particularly impressed with his breaking pitch, Shannon Drayer of 710 ESPN Seattle reports. “It’s a big year for Justin,” said manager Scott Servais. “I like where he is; he knows what is ahead of him. I think the fact that we are going to go with a six-man rotation gives him an opportunity to make 10 starts.”

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