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There’s a pretty good amount of turnover this year, compared to the starting rotation on Opening Day 2016. The only holdovers are King Felix and Kuma, as we rounded out the rest of our starting five with Taijuan Walker, Wade Miley, and Nate Karns. With those five, you figured you had an Ace, a solid #2, a stopgap veteran innings-eater, and a couple of young power arms to build your rotation around for the future. Well, Miley turned out to be a dud, Karns evolved into an injured dud, and we salvaged whatever remaining value Walker had by trading him for an important, everyday player at shortstop.
In their place, we have a holdover in Paxton, alongside newcomers Yovani Gallardo and Drew Smyly. I’m not expecting much out of Gallardo, which puts that much more pressure on Smyly to succeed. The 2017 Mariners can ill afford two black holes in the rotation if they expect to break into the post-season.
There was a good amount of hype that, for whatever reasons, failed to fully materialize for Smyly as he broke into the Major Leagues. He followed up a solid rookie season by being thrown into a bullpen role in his second year. Smyly’s best season was in 2014, when the Tigers shipped him off at the height of his value for a David Price deadline deal. Smyly went to the Rays and closed his season on a tear. It ALMOST looked like they’d flipped an ace for an ace, but then Smyly spent most of 2015 injured. He pitched the full year in 2016, but was no better than replacement level. At which point, here we are, hoping a change of scenery will do everyone some good.
Since we do have a full season’s worth of data, I’m mostly interested in what he was able to do last year. He pitched a career-high 175.1 innings, striking out 167 and walking only 49. His big problem was giving up 32 homers in 30 starts. I know that sounds like something Iwakuma is known for, but in 33 starts he only gave up 28 dongers last year. So, that’s a bit of a red flag. Yes, he’s going to limit baserunners where he can, by being around the plate, but that’s only a good thing if you’re avoiding getting too much of the plate at the same time. It’s a slippery slope, and one that saw him with a career-high in opposing slugging percentage and a career-low in ground ball to fly ball ratio. With a respectable strikeout percentage, it would seem to me this is a guy who wants to make his living pitching up in the zone, inducing weak contact pop ups and fly balls. Given his numbers last year, I take it he failed to get the ball up enough, and those hanging whathaveyous were pounded into submission.
This is a move that would’ve been much more celebrated before the Mariners moved in Safeco Field’s fences. Now that the park plays much more closer to league average – indeed, last year played like a bandbox as far as homers are concerned – the addition of Smyly is less of a projected sure thing. It’s not enough to be a lefty with a good offspeed pitch and just hope your fly ball gets run down in deep centerfield, now you have to pitch like you actually mean it! Like you know what you’re doing. Like you’re in a place that won’t forgive you a big, fat, juicy meatball right in the middle of the plate. If he’s got enough control to avoid giving up tons of walks, let’s hope he’s able to also paint those edges and avoid those hot zones.
Smyly could end up being huge for this team. If he pans out and we opt to keep him, he’s young enough to stick around for a good, long while. If he pans out and we suck this year, we can also flip him at the deadline for quality prospects. If he sucks, he’s still a lefty pitcher with starting and relieving experience, and those guys will always have SOME value. I’m just hoping he and the rest of this rotation can keep their shit together to give us the best season we’ve had in over a decade.