This post continues our Depth Chart Discussions. In an effort to suss out every team, we’ve divided them into four parts (infield, outfield, rotation, and bullpen) and will continue to break them down for you over the next few weeks. You can find the Depth Chart Discussion posts gathered here.
The Mariners’ rotation might not boast the immense quality of, say, the Washington Nationals, but fantasy owners will find plenty of useful pieces in the Pacific Northwest. Of course, the party is led by one of baseball’s undisputed aces, but he’s joined by two solid rotation men and a host of talented upside guys on the back end. Meanwhile, the Mariners, coming off a strong 87-75 record last year, should give their starters plenty of chances to cash in on wins, especially with a bullpen that was among the league leaders in WAR, a lineup that just added Nelson Cruz and a ballpark that caters toward pitchers.
Felix Hernandez / 29
We get it: King Felix is the ruler of all that lies before him, a fantasy despot who tortures hitters and continues to conquer new lands in his nearly decade-long reign of excellence. For a guy who already has 47.2 WAR to his name at the age of 28, it’s hard to find new ways of flattering The King, but I’ll take a crack at it: 2014 may have been his best season yet. ERA-wise, his 2.14 mark was a career low, his 27.2% strikeout rate a career high, a 5.0% walk rate a career low, and his 11.8% whiff rate a career high. After years of leading a mediocre Mariners team, Felix finally was rewarded with 15 victories, his most in five seasons, he continued to generate ground balls at an insane rate and he remains a model of durability; the man hasn’t made less than 31 starts in any season dating back to 2006. If you want to nitpick, some minor regression in his BABIP and his strand rate could tilt his ERA back toward three, but if you come away with nothing else from this blurb, know this: on a contending Mariners team that can now provide victories for Hernandez, he’s a candidate to finish as the best fantasy starter in 2015.
The No. 2
Hisashi Iwakuma / 34
Iwakuma isn’t going to carry a fantasy team with his strikeout prowess, but so far as complaints go, that’s just about where they end with the Japanese right-hander. He went 15-9 last year, put up a perfectly acceptable 7.7 K/9 and posted a 3.52 ERA that, if you were to ask his FIP, xFIP and SIERA, was actually too high. Oh, and did I mention the 3.0% walk rate? Iwakuma was once again bitten by the home run bug, and with a lifetime HR/FB rate above 13%, we may just have to accept that that’s part of the ride with him. Then again, with a ground ball rate north of 50%, it’s not like hitters were able to reach for the fences often. For a guy entering his mid-30s with a history of shoulder injuries in Japan — not to mention a finger injury that cost him all of April last year, as well as a terrible stretch run — age is a reasonable concern for owners, but until further notice, Iwakuma remains a top 30 starting pitcher.
The No. 3
James Paxton / 26
Paxton was supposed to break out last year, but a left lat strain robbed him of most of his 2014. The good news is that a) Paxton was still able to pitch well upon returning in August and b) the abridged season will probably help knock down his price on draft day. Thirteen starts doesn’t give us a ton of sample size, but Paxton’s 2.43 GB/FB rate, backed by a strong 54.8 GB%, bodes well for his future, and a guy with a mid-90s fastball and a career 25.2% strikeout rate in the minors should be able to improve upon his 7.2 K/9. The biggest question is injury risk: the lat is critical to shoulder function, and there are reasons to believe that the changes Paxton made to his delivery in 2013, including his curveball release point, pose a threat to his health. But to be clear, Paxton’s fastball velocity was the same upon his return as it was before the lat injury, and he ended up throwing his curveball more often than he had before his DL odyssey. Paxton has yet to earn the trust of a full-time rotation spot in standard leagues, but as a depth arm, he offers significant upside in the late mid rounds.
The No. 4
J.A. Happ / 32
Happ has toiled mostly in Mono League Land following his 12-4 breakout season with the Phillies six years ago, though improvements he made in 2014 give hope that the flyball-generating lefty could enjoy his stay at Safeco. Jeff Sullivan has already noticed Happ’s increasing average fastball velocity — in fact, it’s ticked up each season since 2008 — and relying on his heater more in 2014 allowed him to post the highest strike percentage of his career. Naturally, that translated to less free passes, and his 7.6% walk rate was the lowest of his big league tenure. As for the switch in ballparks, 14 of the 22 long balls Happ surrendered last year took place at the home-run-happy Rogers Centre, and his xFIP believes his ERA should have stayed under four. We’ll see if he can maintain the improved walk rate, but if so, Happ has a chance to keep his WHIP at a reasonable level, and although he doesn’t do anything terribly flashy, he’s not so awful as to be completely ignored in deeper mixed leagues.
• Here’s where things really get interesting. Elias might have the edge as spring training begins, as he has more big league experience than Walker and pitched fairly well in his 29 starts last year. Considering that the 26-year-old made his major league debut last April, it’s hard not to be impressed with the results: fine K% and SwStr% rates, perfectly acceptable FIP, xFIP and SIERA numbers, and peripherals that check out. Meanwhile, the splits for the southpaw are pretty good: he pitched similarly on the road compared to Seattle, he compiled a better FIP in the second half (3.45) than he did in the first (4.29), and, armed with a changeup that generated an above-average whiff rate, he kept right-handers in check. The biggest red flag, perhaps, was a mediocre walk rate, an issue that carried over from his minor league tenure, and owners should note that his September ended prematurely due to an elbow strain. But the latest reports suggest he shouldn’t be limited in spring training, and if he lands a rotation spot, he could have some sleeper appeal in mixed leagues.
• Walker, on the other hand, outranks Elias on the pedigree chart, and should get a fair chance this spring to make his case for the fifth spot. I don’t have much to add to the analysis of Walker that one can find here and elsewhere, other than to say that he pitched competently in his eight appearances last year (five starts), putting up a solid 8.1 K/9 that one would expect from a guy with mid-to-upper 90s heat. On the other hand, the 11.3 BB% was a reminder that Walker has at times struggled with his command. The shoulder injury that sidelined him early in 2014 seems to be behind him, but with just 53 major league innings under his belt, there’s no way to project with any confidence whether Walker, 22, is ready to begin making good on his immense promise in 2015. The possibility that he could, however, makes him an extremely tempting draft target in all leagues, regardless of whether he opens the season in the rotation.
• It was just a year ago that Ramirez was generating some sleeper buzz, but boy, what a difference a year makes. It was a sorry 2014 for the 24-year-old, who was torched in 75.1 innings (14 starts) en route to generating -0.5 WAR and, at one point, being demoted all the way to Single-A. Although he maintained a very good 10.8% whiff rate and his changeup remained effective, the fastball velocity was down a mile from 2013 and his slider was annihilated to the tune of a .413 ISO. Ramirez is out of options, so he could find himself on another team if he doesn’t make the Mariners’ 25-man roster out of spring training, though perhaps a different environment and some fresh tutelage would serve him well.
• Just so we’re on the board with Hultzen, the 25-year-old left-hander is in camp after undergoing surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff and labrum last year, and the team is reportedly impressed with the results. The early word, however, is that the team is already talking about 2016 when discussing Hultzen’s contributions to the big league club.
Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.