Perhaps Jack Zduriencik knew something all along. Something that the fans, critics, bloggers and reporters alike all failed to see. While starting pitcher after starting pitcher was falling off the free agent board this past winter, we all kept saying, “there goes another one”.
We thought, “there is no one else in the farm system that can be the 5th starter this season.” After all, the Mariners were already staring down the possibility of starting both Taijuan Walker and James Paxton in the rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. We needed a veteran, proven starter.
Then, as Spring Training began and it was clear that the team would be without both ‘Kuma and Walker for at least the first couple of weeks, panic began to set in. This team was gonna have Felix and a mix of unproven rookies and veterans on the comeback trail. This team needed a warrior, a fighter, someone who could succeed despite tremendous odds.
Enter Roenis Elias.
Elias is a gamer. He risked his life to escape from his home in Cuba in 2010 to pursue his dream of playing professional baseball. With only a backpack full of clothes as his only possessions, he traveled across the Atlantic to Mexico, then another 1,600 miles across Mexico to Monterrey. His first shot at a professional contract.
At his first tryout with a Mexican league, he was placed on the ‘B’ team, a team filled with players that weren’t “worthy.” At that tryout, he was told he didn’t have a chance of ever playing in the Major Leagues.
That didn’t stop Elias. He went to an open MLB tryout, attended by a few scouts. He left without an offer. It wasn’t until his second open tryout that he attended where he caught the eye of a Seattle Mariners scout. He was signed on May 3, 2011 and made his professional debut in July of that year.
In that season, Elias split time between Pulaski (Rookie), the AZL Mariners (Rookie) and Class A Clinton, combining to go 5-2 with a 4.28 ERA.
He has been fighting and clawing and working ever since.
In 2012, Elias spent the year High Desert (Class A+) in the California League, posting an 11-6 mark with a 3.16 ERA. Those who like to not point at win-loss record will note that in 2013, Elias was even better. His 6-11 record at Double-A Jackson clearly didn’t reflect his value. His 3.18 ERA and 8.4 K/9IP did.
So far this spring, Elias has been nothing if not dazzling. In four games including one start, Elias has pitched 12.1 IP scattering eight hits and two earned runs (1.46 ERA) while striking out four. Opponents are batting .186 against him.
In his start on Sunday against the Angels, he allowed only two hits, both to Erick Aybar and allowed a run to score on a sacrifice fly. He stymied Hank Conger, Albert Pujols, Mike Trout, David Freese and Howie Kendrick to the tune of 0-for-9 with a walk in his five innings of work.
This year, may finally be when the hard work and determination pays off.
He has tremendous stuff. His command and control of his pitches are incredible, as is evidenced by his high strikeout and ground-ball out percentages.
Stats courtesy of Minor League Central:
As you can see, Eilas gets an average of 62% of his outs via strikeout or groundout. Tremendous control. Something valued highly especially by left-handed pitchers.
Elias spent this past winter playing in the Venezuelan Winter League. In his three starts, he struck out 13 in 12.1 IP and allowed six earned runs. Not spectacular numbers, but you have to look past the numbers at times to see the real value. You have to look at grit, determination and heart.
And could the Mariners use someone like that on the staff this year? Absolutely.
With questions surrounding the health of Taijuan Walker, the effectiveness of James Paxton and the uncertainty of non-roster invitees like Scott Baker and Randy Wolf, it would be nice to have a solid lefty like Elias going every five days.
In fact, if Paxton can be effective in his first full year in the majors, the Mariners would have two quality lefties in their rotation. That’s something that can be crucial to success against teams with lefty-heavy lineups.
With two more starts left to really see what he can do, I’m sure the Mariners will be watching Elias closely to see if he can be that answer to the No. 5 spot question. Yes, he may be considered as just another rookie vying for a spot when the club desperately needs a veteran. And maybe they are right.
But I would like to believe, even for just a moment, that perhaps Jack Z knew what he was doing and was banking on Roenis Elias being ready.
And while I doubt he would be likely to find those people back in Mexico that told him it would never happen and say “I told you so”, I can only imagine that they will watch his first start for Seattle, smile and just be happy for the kid who went through hell and across an ocean to follow his dream.