Tonight, Mariners fans held their collective breath and crossed their fingers as James Paxton finally returned from a four-month rehab from a strained lat.
While 4.1 innings, 83 pitches, and a baseball to the lower body courtesy of Caleb Joseph was not the reassurance we all wanted, it was a start, and that in itself is a good sign.
Unfortunately, as one piece of the rotation begins his transition back to the big leagues, another is likely not far from departing the club for the remainder of the season.
Roenis Elias, the 25-year old rookie who took a rotation spot by force with a tremendous Spring, just reached 129.0 IP for the season.
His career high in innings was in 2012, where he reached 148.1 in high A. Last year, at Jackson, he only lasted one more inning than his current 2014 total.
His July/August performances have also showed that he is slowing down. Last night (5.2 IP, 2 R, 1 ER) was just the latest in a series of short outings, putting the onus on the bullpen to work too much, and that start was his longest since June 28.
Though the organization has been tight-lipped on the subject, it seems apparent that a shutdown is in the near future.
Lloyd McClendon‘s problem, though, is finding Elias’ replacement. The Mariners have a myriad of young, talented starters, but despite efforts perhaps best described as overly ambitious to bring them up to Seattle, only Elias has shown over an extended period that he is MLB-ready.
Of course, this would have all been solved had Jack Zduriencik just made a minor move for a back-end starter like Ian Kennedy or Bartolo Colon, but unless someone fitting that description makes it to them through waivers, the M’s will have to find an in-house solution, leaving a straightforward but by no means obvious decision: Taijuan Walker or Erasmo Ramirez?
Both have been used sparingly to fill that fifth spot from time to time, but neither has shown a whole lot of positive at the major league level.
Ramirez has made 12 starts to Walker’s 3, but while Taijuan has the better ERA (3.60 to 4.35), both pitchers have dreadful FIPs (6.00 to 5.27), a metric which is a better indicator of future ERA than ERA itself.
Worse yet, each has only lasted an average of 5.0 innings per start, and while the bullpen can be stretched a little for Paxton, forcing them to baby forty percent of the rotation is too much even for the best relief core in the game.
It appears that Lloyd will have to pick from a couple of bad options here, but Erasmo’s recent form, especially in Tacoma, gives him the edge.
Including tonight (he is currently through seven innings and in possession of a 5-2 lead), Ramirez has gone at least 6.0 IP in all 6 AAA starts from July 1 (when he was demoted after spending June in Seattle), with each of those starts meeting QS standards.
In that time, he made one start at Safeco against the Mets, going seven innings and allowing only two runs. Clearly, the adjustments to make his game more efficient in terms of pitch count has been working wonders.
Walker, in that span, has had three starts for the Rainiers. While his July AAA ERA was better than Erasmo’s, he went a meager 5.0 innings in each start.
In his two July MLB starts, Taijuan went four innings on the 6th and five on the 23rd. Ramirez, in just about every way for the past month, has been the better pitcher.
So, while Taijuan Walker may be the bigger name and will likely be have the better career when all is said and done, Erasmo Ramirez should be Lloyd McClendon’s choice if and when Roenis Elias must part with the ball club.
He has more big league experience, and he has shown better than Taijuan that he can eat innings, an invaluable quality for any contending team down the stretch.