Today is March 19th. Maybe that seems like just a regular day to you, but to me and I hope most of Mariner Nation (does that exist?), this day means that we are officially nine days away from Opening Day. Nine days! The Mariners will play games that will count in nine days! Wow. Can't wait (Bart Scott voice).
Unfortunately, the Mariners have not solidified their rotation yet. Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas will head the arms, but beyond that lies uncertainty for a whole myriad of reasons. The M's have pretty much boiled the rotation down to four remaining candidates for the final three spots however. I'm going to evaluate each one in order of where they should fit into the rotation as well as their likelihood of occupying the odd-man-out sixth spot.
3. Hisashi Iwakuma
The M's plucked Iwakuma from Japan this offseason with the intention of using him as a solid mid-rotation solution until Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are ready to start next season. He's 30 years old and won the Japanese equivalent of the Cy Young Award in 2008. However, shoulder problems plagued him in 2011, so his health poses a major concern. So far this spring, Iwakuma has pitched three times for a total of nine innings and posted an ERA of 5.00. In his most recent appearance on March 16th, he got hit hard by the A's, who scored five runs on eight hits against him. However, the M's wouldn't have signed Iwakuma without the full intention of starting him barring an injury. Therefore, Iwakuma is almost a lock to make the rotation, and I think he will fill the three spot comfortably. Chances of being the sixth man: 5%
4. Blake Beavan
Many thought that Beavan, who struggled to close out the year after posting six straight quality starts to begin his career, would miss the rotation and head back to Tacoma for some fine tuning. But this spring, Beavan has made strides towards locking up a spot in the M's rotation for 2012. He has logged 15.1 innings so far in Arizona, and his ERA is an enticing 2.35. Sure, Beavan faced a lot of minor leaguers, but the consistency he showed in all four starts presents him as an attractive option as the M's number four starter. I think of him as the Doug Fister of this year's staff. Just consistent, stop-gap pitching that can produce wins if the team hits. Chances of being the sixth man: 15%
5. Kevin Millwood
The final spot poses a toss-up situation that will cause a lot of intrigue. On one hand, Hector Noesi could be ready to tear up the majors as a starter and play the dark horse role in the M's rotation. But why take that chance and throw him into the fire like that? Kevin Millwood brings veteran leadership and past success to a team that immensely lacks both. Eric Wedge loves him from their time in Cleveland, where Millwood led the Indians to one game shy of the World Series. The real question is, does Millwood have anything left in the tank? If he does, he needs to be in the rotation. If not, cut him. It's easy as that. So far this spring, Millwood appears to have a little left in him. After a rocky first outing and a decent second start, Millwood allowed just one hit in four innings against Kansas City on March 14th. That start probably will suffice for Jack Z and Eric Wedge. Millwood still has shutout stuff, and your fifth starter doesn't need to wow you consistently. He just needs to pitch fairly well, and Millwood still can do that. Chances of being the sixth man: 20%
The Sixth Man: Hector Noesi
This one hurts me to write. I really want Hector Noesi to absolutely star right away and prove that the Mariners "won" the Michael Pineda trade. But Noesi might not be all the way ready yet. Hector has only pitched five innings with the A team this spring, but in those five innings, he only allowed one run on a solo homer. Promising, yes. Guaranteed to translate to the bigs right away? No, not at all. I like Noesi, and he could fill the void of fourth starter behind Felix, Hultzen, and Paxton in the coming seasons, but this year he can take his time. Two ideal scenarios for Noesi: he starts in Tacoma, but by June, Kevin Millwood has struggled mightily and elects to hang up his cleats. Or, the M's rotation looks solid but Jack Z decides to continue to build with young talent and trades Jason Vargas at the deadline for hitting prospects (I would cry) and Noesi steps up to fill the void in the rotation. Noesi is one of the M's brilliant young arms, and he should provide rotation security for years to come. Just not yet. Chances of being the sixth man: 60%
There is a possibility that all four of these pitchers could make the 25-man roster. If the M's feel good enough about Hector Noesi as a starter, they could move Hisashi Iwakuma to the bullpen to add some depth to a 'pen facing tons of questions. Hong-Chih Kuo has struggled and George Sherrill has had injury issues, and so guys like newly healthy Shawn Kelley and unproven Tom Wilhelmsen will play big bullpen roles in 2012. Adding Iwakuma to this thin group of relievers could provide just the spark the M's need in the late innings. Go M's