Kevin MIllwood's start on Friday night was not only the beginning of a six-pitcher no-hitter, but a reminder that starters are fragile beings. Millwood did not get the chance to finish out the last three innings of his no-hitter because he tweaked something in his groin and so the M's would have to meet history in an unorthodox fashion. Pitcher injuries are not something that Seattle has had to think much about this season, which is fitting since it's the first season in awhile without Erik Bedard.
In 2003, the Mariners ran out Jamie Moyer, Ryan Franklin, Joel Pineiro, Freddy Garcia, and Gil Meche. And that's it. I don't remember the exact statistic of how rare that is, for a team to only use five starters for an entire year, but it's very rare and nearly impossible in modern baseball. To have five starters that not only don't get injured, but manage to not be so terrible that they have to be replaced. It just doesn't happen. (Fun perspective: Moyer was 40 that year and is one of the few players on that team that is still around baseball. For instance, Carlos Guillen was 27.)
Here we are in June and the Mariners rotation isn't sharing any spot. Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, Millwood, Hector Noesi, and Blake Beavan are the only pitchers to make a start for Seattle this season. That certainly won't last and Millwood's injury, while not serious, is a reminder of that. Millwood might only be pushed back a day or two (announcement tomorrow, he's scheduled for Thursday) but it's never too early to wonder, "Who is next?"
Not only because of injury, but because of the performance of 2/5ths of the rotation: Hector Noesi has an ERA of 5.99 and has given up 12 ER in his last two starts covering only 8.1 total innings. Beavan has an ERA of 5.92 and has given up 17 ER in his last three starts covering only thirteen total innings.
The no-hitter was also a reminder that this team could be a decent ballclub right now, but pitching performances like that aren't going to help the matter. The Mariners should be fighting for a .500 season that shows progress under the Jack Zduriencik era and replacing Beavan and Noesi might become necessary at some point, especially since there are better arms in the minors that could be ready now. Beavan and Noesi might also benefit from a trip to Tacoma or the bullpen for the time being.
So whether it be from injury or bad performance, here are three names to look out for as Seattle looks towards the future and the present to better themselves and become all that they can be:
Andrew Carraway, 25, Tacoma
At 6'2, 200 lbs with a low-90s fastball and no over-powering or dominant pitches, as a former 12th round pick in 2009, Carraway is not your typical "give that guy a rotation spot!" kind of pick. But that doesn't mean that you couldn't see him in Seattle this year.
Carraway dominated during his first season among the rookie ballers and low-A kids (Carraway a few years older than most of them) but struggled in 2010, allowing 190 hits in 150.1 innings with a 5.33 ERA at the High Desert. He performed much better in 2011, all of which was spent at AA Jackson, and posted 106 K/25 BB in 137.2 innings. That low walk rate has been Carraway's bread and butter throughout his career. He doesn't strike out a lot of batters but he limits how much he's hurt by having excellent control.
That probably doesn't make him any better than a pitcher like Beavan, but given a pinch I could see Carraway being the first Mariner that gets the call. For example, would you have expected that Carraway would be the opening day starter for the Generals, a team that had Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton? Would you expect that after seven starts with Jackson (in which he posted a 2.61 ERA and a 4.57 ratio of strikeouts to walks) that he'd be the first promoted to Tacoma?
Nobody would ever pretend that Carraway is even in the Mariners top 10 prospects, or for many not in their top 20, but given his age and experience, I could see Carraway being the guy that gets the call when Seattle says "We need someone on Thursday stat!" because it doesn't harm the development of any of the pitchers that are in your top 20 prospects.
After all, wasn't it Anthony Vazquez that made seven starts in the majors last season? I rest my case.
Erasmo Ramirez, 22, Tacoma
Ramirez would especially be easy since he's A.) A better prospect than Carraway, and potentially a real part of the future in Seattle and B.) Has already pitched in the majors this season.
Erasmo came into seven games at the start of the year, covering 11 innings and posting 5 strikeouts, 4 walks, 9 hits, and an ERA of 2.45. He's sort of like Beavan and Carraway in that he thrives off of his control and command without posting a lot of strikeouts, except that he's a lot better. Ramirez came onto our maps in 2009 when he was 19 years old in the Venezuelan Summer League: 88 innings, 80 K, 5 BB, 0.51 ERA. That's right, he walked five batters in 88 innings. Now, he was basically repeating the league and it's not a league where you can trust any stats, but that was very interesting.
In 2010 with Clinton he walked 21 batters in 151.2 innings and posted a 2.97 ERA. Much more interesting.
Then last season between AA Jackson and AAA Tacoma, Ramirez went 152.2 innings, 116 K, 32 BB, 4.83 ERA. He struggled a bit in Tacoma, but was only 21-years-old, making him one of the youngest players at that level in the minor leagues. Since his demotion to the Rainiers, he has thrown 37.2 innings in seven starts with 29 K, 7 BB, and a 3.11 ERA. The control is masterful at times and just last Friday while the M's were no-hitting the Dodgers, Ramirez took a no-hitter into the eighth inning for Tacoma.
Over his last three starts, Ramirez has pitched 23.1 innings, allowed 14 hits, 4 ER, 20 K and 4 BB.
He certainly looks the part of a pitcher that could do better than Noesi right now and Noesi looks the part of a pitcher that might be better suited for the bullpen.
Danny Hultzen, 22, Jackson
Now we get to the fun part. While Carraway would only be a fifth starter emergency replacement, and while Erasmo might only be a number four starter at best but an upgrade over our current number four starter, Hultzen is a major part of Seattle's future and we might only be holding him back at this point.
Hultzen was the number two pick last season and he might be the best "number two starter" prospect in the minor leagues. Few people believe that Hultzen will turn into the next Cliff Lee but few people believe that he'll fail either. So far during his minor league debut, he's just been dominating. In 70.1 AA innings, Hultzen has struck out 75, walked 31, allowed just 34 hits and has an ERA of 1.28. That includes his first start of the season, when he dominated for four innings and then in the fifth came apart and without recording an out, allowed five runs to score. Since then, Hultzen has allowed only five runs combined in 67.1 innings.
He's flat out unhittable for AA hitters, which might make him nearly as unhittable for AAA players as well. It's completely customary for a pitcher to skip AAA and Hultzen might be ready for a big league trial already. There shouldn't be any question that if called up today, Hultzen would be no worse than the Mariners third-best starter in the rotation. (Maybe he dukes that out with Jason Vargas, as Millwood has quietly been pretty good this season.)
Calling up Hultzen carries a lot more risk than calling up Carraway or Ramirez but the reward would be exponentially sweeter for both the fans and for a team on the rise. This is a team that's replacing more and more pieces on the 25-man active roster with players that are young, talented, cheap, and exciting and Hultzen is definitely going to be one of those callups soon. While Taijuan Walker might be the best pitching prospect in baseball, Hultzen has scratched himself out quite the resume on his own and the Mariners rotation could soon shape up to be the best in baseball.
Right now, the rotation is basically a doo wop group called "King Felix and the Four Other Guys" but pretty soon this will be an ensemble that is a much closer comparison to The Beatles. It's just a matter of when.
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