PEORIA, Ariz. — It wasn’t until the last few weeks of spring training in 2017 where the premise of the projected starting rotation was thrown into chaos by the “soggy” left arm of Drew Smyly.
And that expected group of five starters were never once together during the regular season. Heck, at times, the Mariners only had one of the five not injured — Yovani Gallardo — and he was their worst performer.
The Mariners made it exactly three days into camp before their expected rotation needed editing when Erasmo Ramirez started feeling tightness in his latissimus dorsi (lat muscle) and was shut down from throwing for two weeks.
While there is some hope that Ramirez could be ready to go when needed at the start of the season, aided by an April schedule field with off days, when exactly have the Mariners had recent luck with starting pitchers returning as expected?
It’s prudent to plan for the possibility that Ramirez’s injury follows the more typical path of lat strains, which is a six-week recovery to full strength.
It’s why the two top candidates to replace him — left-hander Ariel Miranda and right-hander Andrew Moore — pitched two innings each in Friday’s Cactus League opener. On the organizational depth chart for starting pitchers, Miranda and Moore sit sixth and seventh. Both seemed headed for Class AAA Tacoma to start the season, but with Ramirez’s status uncertain, they will vie for that open spot in the rotation.
“Both those guys did have some highlights last year,” manager Scott Servais said prior to Friday’s game. “They also had some lowlights. Going out of the chute today, it’s the first time out and you have to be realistic. Throw strikes, get in good counts, try to stay ahead in the count. You’re going to give up some hits, it’s going to happen, it’s Arizona. But that would be more what I’m looking for, their ability to command the strike zone and get after it early in the count, stay on the attack and take what happens.”
Not much could be gleaned from their work in a 3-2 win against the Padres. Miranda started the game and was a little shaky with his command early, walking the first batter of the game and later allowing a run in the first inning. He worked out of the trouble, aided by nice diving catch from Ben Gamel and timely 5-4-3 double play.
Moore pitched two scoreless innings, not allowing a hit with a walk, a hit by pitch and three strikeouts.
What the Mariners are hoping to see over the next few starts is that each has addressed the problems that plagued them during those “lowlights.”
Expected to be in Tacoma to start 2017, Miranda moved into the rotation when Smyly was injured after pitching in the World Baseball Classic. He was solid to start the season, but struggled in the season’s final three months, eventually being demoted to the bullpen. He posted a 7-4 record with a 3.82 ERA in first 17 starts. But he was just 1-3 with a 6.71 ERA in his final 12 starts while allowing a whopping .905 on-base plus slugging percentage and 17 homers. For the season, Miranda gave up 37 homers, second most in all of baseball.
There was some belief that Miranda was tipping his pitches and teams could differentiate his pitches from his windup, which led to all the homers and extra-base hits.
“In some situations, I think I did, but it’s something I’ve really worked on,” Miranda said through Rainiers performance coach Derek Mendoza. “I feel like I’ve made that adjustment.”
Servais wouldn’t use it as a complete excuse for it.
“Some teams will say they have things or whatever,” Servais said. “The reason he gave up a lot of home runs, there were a lot of fastballs up in the middle of the plate. These players nowadays are so locked in. Our guys are good at it, too. They’re trying to come up with any advantage they can. Our guys spend a ton of time looking at pitchers and trying to figure out if it’s a fastball or offspeed on tips. Teams may have something. They probably try to get something on every one of our guys. It’ll be something we keep our eye on today. Our hitting coach also keeps an eye on our own pitchers. That’s something that Edgar (Martinez) is really into, too, and has been able to do his whole career. That’s something we’ll certainly keep our eye on.”
Beyond tipping pitch to pitch, hitters also know that Miranda has been essentially a two-pitch pitcher for his career — fastball and changeup. He’s never had much of a breaking ball to speak of. It’s certainly not a pitch that hitters feared.
“My main focus this offseason was working on my slider,” he said. “That’s what I put all my time into. It’s progressing really well. In order for my fastball to work, I need that other secondary pitch to work.”
The Mariners admit that Moore was rushed to the big leagues because of the rash of injuries to the rotation. He made his big league debut on June 22, picking up the win against the Tigers. His produced quality starts in his first three outings. But that success was short-lived. Teams adjusted to him and he posted a 6.16 ERA in his final eight outings — six starts and two relief appearances.
“It’s the first time he’s ever struggled in his career,” Servais said. “He took a lot of that to heart. When you never struggle anywhere you’re at and all the sudden it hits you and you doubt yourself a little. That’s human nature. Can I survive at this level? The things he’s focused on, there are a couple mechanical things, just the consistency, release points, consistency of secondary pitches, executing them, those are the biggest things for me.”
Moore admitted to searching at times in 2017. His arm slot was so inconsistent it made his pitches lose life and movement. That’s not ideal for a command pitcher that lacks overpowering stuff.
“That was a tough stretch for me,” he said. “I’ve never really gone through something like that before, honestly. Going through that and seeing I could fight through it having some success at times was big. But at the time, it was tough.”
Moore will also re-focus on his changeup instead of trying to force breaking pitches to be his strength.
“That’s my best pitch and I’m getting back to throwing it a decent amount,” he said. “The little adjustment with the arm slot has given more bite toward the bottom where it’s going to get weak contact or swings and misses instead of just floating in there.”
SportsPulse: The Houston Astros looked primed to repeat as World Series champs. Recent history suggests otherwise. USA TODAY Sports
PEORIA, Ariz. – Felix Hernandez no longer lives year-round in Seattle, his offseason home during most of his 13 years with the Mariners. The rainy winters finally drove him to the warm comforts of Miami.
However, Hernandez’s desire to bring the playoffs to the only major league home he has known remains just as intense.
When the Buffalo Bills squeaked into the playoffs on the last day of the NFL season, the Mariners’ 16-year postseason drought went from the longest in baseball to the longest in major American pro sports. Yes, even the Cleveland Browns can boast of a more recent playoff appearance.
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The topic comes up regularly in the Great Northwest, and as the Mariners’ elder statesman – even though he’s six weeks shy of turning 32 – Hernandez takes that failure to heart.
That’s fine with the Seattle brass, because without him returning to form the club has little chance of ending its stretch of futility.
“If he gives us 30 starts, we’re in great shape as a team,’’ manager Scott Servais said. “The secondary pitches, the weapons, I really like our chances to get in the playoffs if he’s able to do that.’’
A Cy Young Award winner, six-time All-Star and the author of a perfect game, King Felix has long reigned as the ace of Seattle’s staff. But he didn’t reach that exalted level over the last two seasons, when calf and shoulder injuries and a downturn in his fastball velocity appeared to signal the beginning of his decline.
After starting at least 30 games for 10 years in a row, Hernandez made 25 and 16 appearances, respectively, in 2016 and ’17, his ERA swelling to 3.82 and 4.36. Not coincidentally, a fastball that once touched triple digits slowed down to 91-92 mph.
Despite his relative youth, Hernandez has thrown more than 2,500 career innings, so it’s fair to wonder about the toll such a workload has taken on a pitcher who broke into the majors at 19.
But you won’t get Hernandez to buy into that notion, as he proclaims there’s plenty of high-quality baseball left in him.
“I’m still Felix Hernandez. I’m still King Felix,’’ he said in Spanish. “If I’m healthy, I know I can help this team win a lot of games.’’
The calf injury that sidelined Hernandez for nearly two months in 2016 seemed more like a freak occurrence, but last year he spent two extended stints on the disabled list – totaling 92 games – with shoulder woes.
Hernandez said his efforts to get stronger and reshape his body in the 2016-17 offseason may have backfired.
“I think I developed too much muscle and the arm didn’t have enough flexibility, and supposedly that’s why I got hurt,’’ Hernandez said. “I was stronger in the upper body, but that’s not essential for a pitcher. I felt robotic. I couldn’t repeat my delivery.’’
His command wasn’t sharp, and Hernandez became much more vulnerable to the longball, surrendering an average of 1.8 homers per nine innings, more than twice his career mark of 0.8.
Servais said Hernandez nibbled too much and often fell behind in the count, forcing him to come over the middle of the plate and paying the price.
After focusing his offseason workouts on shedding fat instead of adding muscle, Hernandez says he feels fully healthy this spring. He also tinkered with a cutter while working out in Miami with veteran pitcher Anibal Sanchez, a fellow native of Venezuela. If effective, the pitch would give him another weapon in addition to his outstanding changeup and curveball, plus a slider he uses on occasion.
Hernandez acknowledges his fastball doesn’t have the same zip it used to, but points out he no longer overpowered hitters in 2014 – when his 2.14 ERA led the American League – or in 2015, when he went 18-9 with a 3.53 ERA. In those years his heater sat at 93-94 mph.
“My style doesn’t change because I still have the same pitches, and they’re pretty good pitches,’’ Hernandez said. “The only thing is my fastball is not quite as fast.’’
Those who see him regularly say Hernandez’s competitiveness has not diminished, and the Mariners will need every bit of it if they’re going to reach October. They’re facing fierce competition in an AL West that features the defending World Series champion Houston Astros and the much-improved Los Angeles Angels.
Seattle has boosted an already-solid lineup with the addition of leadoff hitter Dee Gordon and designated hitter Ryon Healy, once he returns from hand surgery in a month or so. But the starting corps, which ranked ninth in the league with a 4.70 ERA last season, remains a question mark.
Talented left-hander James Paxton has yet to make more than 24 starts in his five seasons, and No. 3 starter Mike Leake – who looked sharp after being acquired in an Aug. 30 trade – is coming off back-to-back losing seasons. After that the likes of Erasmo Ramirez, Marco Gonzales, Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore are battling for the last two rotation spots.
“I love our offense. I think our bullpen is deeper than it’s ever been since I’ve been here,’’ Servais said. “The starting pitching, we’ve got to have a few guys step up there. We’re probably one of many teams that would say the same thing.’’
Few have a pitcher with Hernandez’s resume, but that matters less than what he can give the Mariners this year. Shortstop Jean Segura, who joined the club in a trade before last season, is eager to see the dominant Hernandez he faced in August 2013, when Segura was with the Milwaukee Brewers.
Commanding all his pitches beautifully, Hernandez threw eight innings of four-hit ball as the Mariners prevailed 2-0. Segura singled once in the only three at-bats he’s ever had against him.
“He had already made his name in the big leagues, and not just because of his talent but also because he’s a warrior on the mound,’’ Segura said. “If we have a healthy Felix, along with Paxton, Leake and some of the other guys we have, we can make it to the playoffs.’’
Nothing would be more pleasing for the Mariners and their decorated ace.
Mariners pitcher Ariel Miranda is working on adding another breaking ball to his arsenal. (AP)
PEORIA, Ariz. – One down, 31 to go.
The Mariners won their Cactus League opener, beating the Padres 3-2 on a cool and windy Friday afternoon in Peoria. We saw offense from the veterans, including a Dee Gordon double in his first at-bat as a Mariner, a good inning of relief work from Dan Altavilla, an up-and-down day on the base paths and some nice defense from Ben Gamel in left field.
We also saw what could be the beginning of the competition for a temporary spot in the rotation as Ariel Miranda and Andrew Moore pitched back to back. With Miranda giving up a run on two hits and two walks, it would appear the first round went to Moore, who pitched two scoreless innings.
“I thought Andrew Moore threw the ball very well,” said manager Scott Servais after the game. “He made a couple of adjustments over the winter trying to get more consistent. He threw the ball really well today.”
Miranda and Moore are working on different things while preparing for the season. For Moore, it is refining what he has and learning how to better use his stuff. Miranda, on the other hand, is working on a better secondary pitch to help him avoid predictability when he falls into hitters counts. The slider is his new pitch of choice and a pitch he says is committed to throwing.
“It’s progressing very well,” Miranda said. “In order for my fastball to work I really need to work on my slider. It’s very important.”
This isn’t a pitch he worked on over the offseason. Instead the idea to throw it came from a teammate while they were playing catch last week.
“We were playing catch and I said, ‘Dude, why don’t you throw a slider or something different than the changeup and split?’” Felix Hernandez said. “‘I think you need to throw a slider. You need it for the lefties and maybe even the righties.’”
When Miranda told Felix his slider was not good, Felix showed him the grip he uses and encouraged him to give it a go.
“‘Just try it. Try it,’” Felix said he told Miranda. “‘Nothing is going to happen if you try it.’ He started throwing it and it feels good.”
Edwin Diaz told me a similar story earlier this week of Felix sharing experience and offering encouragement to him as well. It’s leadership that is not always easy to see but certainly good to hear. Both the encouragement and the help with the slider could go a long way for Miranda, who survived a big league season last year but needs a more reliable weapon added in to his repertoire to eventually solidify a position on a big league roster.
Pitching depth will be used this year and whether they break camp with the Mariners or not, Moore and Miranda have the opportunity to get good work in this spring, as they did Friday against the Padres.
This spring I will list those who follow the starters as pitchers “scheduled to pitch.” Most actually are scheduled to pitch, some are extra. The games can dictate how some pitchers are used so if a pitcher listed as “scheduled to pitch” does not pitch, it is not safe to assume that the pitcher was scratched for some reason.
Miranda and Moore are scheduled to pitch two innings each.
Some familiar names are missing from the first lineup, and that is mostly because manager Scott Servais wants to hold back some of his veterans and bring them along more slowly with games starting earlier on the calendar this spring. There is plenty of time to get the hitters their at-bats, and Servais will schedule some of his hitters a little differently as part of the rest-and-recovery plan. The aim is to get them their work but have them fresh at the start of the season.
Today’s game can be heard on 710 ESPN Seattle at noon with Rick Rizzs and Dave Sims on the call.
• Nelson Cruz has been a little under the weather and left camp a little early on Thursday. He is back Friday but not in the lineup.
• The Mariners will join all MLB teams in honoring the Parkland, Fla. shooting victims by wearing Marjory Stoneman Douglass caps in their warmups today. The Mariners and Padres have decided to wear the caps throughout the game. The caps will be signed after the game and auctioned off to benefit the official victims fund via the Broward Education Foundation.
PEORIA, Ariz. — In spring training’s past, Hisashi Iwakuma’s days were planned to the minute with an almost compulsive diligence and structure.
Disciplined to his craft and experienced to know exactly what he needed/wanted to do to prepare for the upcoming season, Iwakuma rarely had free moments to himself other and a quiet cup of coffee in the clubhouse following breakfast. There was always running, strengthening, stretching and drills to work on his mechanics to go with the regular on-field workouts and throwing programs. He was always doing something to get ready.
For now, he’s been forced to follow a different plan — one that isn’t quite his own. After having shoulder surgery at the end of last season, Iwakuma is still working through his recovery from the procedure. And it can be a frustratingly slow incremental process. Such is the routine for a player recovering from surgery or injury during spring. While everyone else is preparing for Cactus League and later regular season games, Iwakuma is now just trying to build up enough to actually throw off the mound.
“Overall, I feel pretty good,” he said through his interpreter Antony Suzuki. “I’ve only played catch for three weeks now. So obviously it’s still sore inside because I’m still building strength, but that’s normal. I get that when I normally go through mini-camp. I just need to keep resting and building strength and go from there.”
According to Iwakuma, the “debridement” procedure performed by Dr. Keith Meister in Dallas on Sept. 27 was just an arthroscopic clean up to remove some scar tissues and loose bodies in the shoulder that seemed to be causing the discomfort and inflammation.
“No repairs, nothing was torn,” he confirmed.
And yet, there is still the unknown of “will it ever feel the same?”
“I feel better,” he said. “But at the same time, I feel some anxiety. I’m going to be honest with you guys. I did have the cleaning done and we’re all hoping for a full recovery but you have to fight the situation and fear.”
The surgery capped off a disappointing 2017 season for him. Following a 2016 season where he tied a career high with 33 starts and threw 199 innings, Iwakuma started slowly last season, going 0-2 with a 4.35 ERA in six starts. He was placed on the disabled list on May 7 with shoulder inflammation and never returned despite repeated attempts that even included rehab starts with Tacoma.
“It was tough,” he said. “It was very frustrating. I wanted to come back at the end, and I just couldn’t come back. I didn’t do my job. The least I could’ve done was come back and help the team in some way. I didn’t contribute. I let down the fans. I worked hard in those four months of rehab and I’m still going through rehab right now and hoping all this hard work will pay off in the end. And all that frustration and hardship I went through last year will pay off this year.”
The regret and failures of 2017 provided the motivation to sign a minor league contract to return to the Mariners in the offseason instead for looking for another opportunity as a free agent.
“To be honest, I didn’t think about signing with any other teams,” he said. “This is the team I wanted to play for. This is the city I wanted to play for. And these are the teammates I wanted. And these are the fans I wanted to play in front of. When they offered me the invitation, I was very excited to get that chance again. I need to pay it back and make up for the loss and the work that I didn’t put in last year. That’s all I have in mind. That’s why I wanted to come back to Seattle.”
The process to get Iwakuma back to Seattle and pitching in regular seasons games could be a lengthy one. He is only playing catch out out to 120 feet at 70-80 percent effort. He isn’t scheduled to throw off the mound until the first week of March, meaning there’s a good chance he may have to remain at extended spring training to complete his throwing program and then pitch with Class AAA Tacoma to prove himself ready.
“I’m working hard every day to make the team when we break spring training on the 29th of March,” he said. ” If I have the chance, that’s my goal. If not, we’ll just have to listen to what my body says and go from there. You want to make the team but at the same time you don’t want to rush.”
To help aid in his recovery and performance when he returns to the mound, Iwakuma trimmed about 12-15 pounds off his frame this past offseason by conditioning and giving up rice — his favorite thing. He was never heavy, but he felt this was a necessary change.
“This being my seventh season in the majors,” he said. “I’ve done a lot of weight training with James Clifford and I feel like I’ve gotten much stronger. But at the same time, when you get stronger you give up a few things like flexibility and fluidity … and that’s what I wanted to bring back. That’s always been my style to get that range of motion back and have the looseness of the arm and body in general. When you think about that long process of a season, you obviously need to be light and you need to be fit and flexible.”
After a distinguished career in Japan followed by seven seasons with the Mariners, compiling a 63-39 record in 150 appearances and career 3.42 ERA, it’s easy to wonder why the 36-year-old Iwakuma wants to endure this uncertain path with little guarantee of getting back to where he wants to be. He admitted to considering retirement and giving his body a permanent rest from all those innings logged, but he wasn’t ready to walk away without at least trying one more time. He has his reasons.
“You have a special attachment to the city and the team and the guys and the fans,” he said. “It was a big motivation to try and come back.”
The series will mark the third time that the A’s will begin their season in Japan, first doing it in 2008 against the Red Sox and then again in 2012 against the Mariners.
This is just the latest of Major League Baseball’s moves to expand the the game internationally. In addition to those previous series in Japan, the Dodgers and Diamondbacks opened their season in Australia in 2014 and the Dodgers and Padres will play a series in Mexico City this May. There has likewise been talk of the Mets playing a series in London, though those details have not yet been worked out. Obviously the World Baseball Classic represents the league’s effort to broaden the global scope of the once national pastime.