The final piece in the Mariners’ offseason overhaul occurred Jan. 11 when they executed a pair of trades that succeeded in obtaining left-hander Drew Smyly from Tampa Bay.
“I have probably spent more time throughout the course of our offseason,” general manager Jerry Dipoto said, “in trying to acquire Drew Smyly than any other thing that we’ve done.”
Which is saying something.
Smyly is a 27 year-old who has sufficient experience to offer a viable track record but still young enough to have upside. He made a career-high 30 starts last season, and his homer-surrendering tendencies should be muted by Safeco Field.
“With our outfield defense,” he said, “and how big this field can play, I think it, for sure, is going to help me.”
The trade to obtain Smyly came one week after Dipoto acquired Yovani Gallardo in a trade from Baltimore. Soon to be 31, Gallardo is coming off a forgettable year that included a shoulder injury that limited him to 23 starts.
The Mariners are betting that Gallardo, while he no longer possesses the power that made him a front-line starter for years in Milwaukee, will rebound sufficiently to resemble his 2015 form, when he was 13-11 with a 3.42 ERA at Texas.
“In my throwing program,” he said, “I feel great. I feel strong. It’s just a matter of now continuing that.”
Smyly and Gallardo roughly replace the starts previously slotted for Taijuan Walker and Nathan Karns, who were each traded away. It amounts to a swap of potential for the consistency that accompanies better-known quantities.
All of which is fine, but Smyly and Gallardo project to pitch at the back of the rotation. The unit’s success, as it has for years, revolves around longtime ace Felix Hernandez, a workhorse who stands at a career crossroads.
The King missed nearly two months last season because of a calf injury and, when he did pitch, compiled his worst ERA since 2007. Questions and doubts proliferated, which prompted a vow for a more-intense winter workout routine.
And Hernandez spent the offseason posting videos on social media that showed him grinding away in the gym. Great. But there are 2,415 2/3 innings on his arm since he reached the majors, which is easily the most by any pitcher in that span.
A Felix who simply returns to his 2015 level — a good season but far from his best — would go a long way toward stabilizing the rotation.
The other big question is whether lefty James Paxton, 28, can finally pitch consistently to his potential. There were encouraging signs last season over the final two-plus months when a small change in his delivery paid big dividends.
“I feel this is my season to take off,’ he said. “I was able to get to a place last year that I felt I’ve been trying to find for a long time. Now, I feel I’ve got that.”
If so, and if Hernandez bounces back, the Mariners can match arms with the front of any rotation.
The unit’s final member is right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma who, though still reliable, is soon to be 36 and might need some extra rest, say an extra day on occasion between starts or even being skipped in a cycle.
Iwakuma matched a career high last season with 33 starts, and set a career high with 16 victories, but he also had a career-worst 4.12 ERA and seemed to wear down in September.
And that’s it. The five-man unit, barring injuries, is set. The Mariners did add several new faces as organizational depth but, at this point, that’s all they are.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Felix Hernandez. This will be tough because Felix, in the past, has often clunked his way through spring only to hit the season opener in top form. But this spring, after his 2016 struggles, seems different.
2. Determining who is next in line. While the five-man unit is set, it is likely to need help at some point. The initial pecking order will be established in Arizona. Top candidates include Chris Heston, Dillon Overton and Rob Whalen.
3. Andrew Moore and Max Povse. The organization sees both as legitimate prospects who could be part of the rotation in the not-too-distant future. Both should get an early look in camp.