The Mariners are planning to begin the season with a six-man rotation in place, general manager Jerry Dipoto told reporters yesterday (Twitter link via Greg Johns of MLB.com). That tactic should allow the Seattle club the opportunity to manage the innings of younger arms on a per-game basis while also maximizing their opportunity to evaluate some up-and-coming arms who could factor into the long-term outlook.
Recently extended southpaw Marco Gonzales seems likely to get the Opening Day nod as the Mariners’ most established starter, and the team will hope for better results from 29-year-old lefty Yusei Kikuchi in the second season of his uniquely structured free-agent deal. Kikuchi, who had established himself as one of Nippon Professional Baseball’s premier arms prior to 2019, is locked in at $43MM from 2019-21. After the contract’s third year, Seattle can pick up a four-year, $66MM “option.” If the club declines to do so, Kikuchi can instead exercise a $13MM player option. In essence, he’s guaranteed $56MM over four years, while the M’s have the opportunity to lock him up at what would be a total of seven years and $109MM if he takes his game to a new level between now and the completion of the 2021 campaign.
Beyond that pair of lefties, Seattle will get longer looks at southpaw Justus Sheffield and righty Justin Dunn — two key trade acquisitions that came over in the 2018-19 offseason. Sheffield, a former first-rounder and longtime top prospect, was the headline piece of the trade that sent James Paxton to the Yankees. Dunn came to the Mariners alongside vaunted outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic and righty reliever Gerson Bautista in the Robinson Cano/Edwin Diaz blockbuster.
The Mariners also rolled the dice on a pair of low-cost free agents this winter, nabbing former division rival Kendall Graveman and former Mariner Taijuan Walker on one-year pacts. Both have seen their careers slowed by 2018 Tommy John surgery. Graveman, who had his procedure in late July that year, didn’t make it back to the big leagues in 2019. Walker’s surgery was in April 2018, but a strained shoulder capsule limited him to one inning in 2019, which came in the final game of the season.
As one would expect from a rebuilding club, the Mariners have plenty of other young options to dream on, though the organization’s very best pitching prospects are likely a bit too far down the pipeline to factor into the 2020 season. The Mariners have selected a college right-hander with their top pick in each of the past three drafts — Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and now Emerson Hancock — and while that trio is unlikely to pitch in the Majors this year (Gilbert being the lone plausible exception), Dipoto did suggest that they and other top prospects could be on the taxi squad primarily for developmental purposes (link via Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times). Working out with other taxi squad members would give that promising group critical developmental reps in a year where no formal minor league season is expected to be played.