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By The Sports Xchange March 31, 2013 10:40 PM
One of the biggest questions surrounding the Seattle Mariners in recent months has been when, not if, one of the so-called Big Three would break into the rotation. In Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, the Mariners have three of the top pitching prospects in baseball and a trio of budding stars who could be in the majors before the end of the 2013 season. Who could have guessed that Brandon Maurer would have beaten them all there? The 22-year-old right-hander followed up his unexpected breakout season at Double-A Jackson, where he went 9-2 with a 3.20 ERA and earned organizational minor-league pitcher of the year honors, by having such a stellar spring that he earned a spot in the rotation. "He came in here and he took it," manager Eric Wedge told reporters. "He had a great camp. You're talking about a young man that has multiple plus-pitches. And the way it worked out, he faced a lot of big-league lineups." Maurer is believed to be the Mariners' first pitcher in 20 years to make the jump from Double-A to the Opening Day rotation. "I've learned so much every year just turning myself into a pitcher and not just a thrower," Maurer told The Seattle Times. "So going out there this year, I actually felt like more of a pitcher than I have ever." Maurer was selected in the 23rd round of the Mariners' widely uninspiring 2008 draft, and he wasn't even mentioned in the same breath with the so-called Big Three until the top-pitcher honors sent fans into a who-is-this-guy fervor. Maurer outperformed all of them this spring, and the Mariners saw enough in him that they felt comfortable passing over veteran reclamation projects such as Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman, as well as youngster Erasmo Ramirez, to add Maurer to the rotation. Maurer is considered a bulldog-type competitor whose stuff isn't necessarily as impressive as his overall success. He went 3-1 with a 1.50 ERA in the spring, with an eye-opening 25 strikeouts in 24 innings of work. It's not necessarily surprising that Hultzen, Walker and Paxton will start the year at Triple-A -- all three prospects had some spring success but won't be rushed to the bigs -- but it was somewhat surprising that Maurer moved ahead of Ramirez in the team's plans. Ramirez entered the spring as a possible No. 2 or No. 3 starter and was considered the likely No. 4 heading into the final week of camp. But Maurer showed enough maturity, poise and consistent success that the Mariners didn't feel the need to wait any longer to put him in the rotation.