Most of the question marks in the Seattle Mariners' rotation seem to have been answered during the first month of spring training, and it's beginning to look as if ace Felix Hernandez isn't the only starter assured of a job.
The struggles of Hector Noesi and Seattle's young pitching phenoms have helped settle the rotation. Noesi was recently shipped to Triple-A Tacoma, along with up-and-coming prospect Danny Hultzen, while Taijuan Walker and James Paxton were reassigned to Seattle's minor league camp. Those moves cleared up a lot of questions in regards to the Opening Day rotation.
Erasmo Ramirez and Hisashi Iwakuma were off to good starts, while veteran Joe Saunders looked like the only left-handed option for the rotation. Blake Beavan also looked safe, although veteran Jon Garland could push for a spot, as he appeared to be past the shoulder problems that kept him off the mound for 18 months. Ramirez and Beavan have minor league options remaining, which obviously isn't the case with veterans such as Garland and Jeremy Bonderman.
Among the group of contenders, Hernandez is the only starter who can give the Mariners a chance to win every time out. Beavan, Iwakuma and Ramirez have potential but have combined for a total of 26 career wins at the big-league level. Garland and Saunders are coming off injuries, and Saunders has struggled at times this spring.
The Mariners had enough faith in the futures of young starters such as Hultzen, Walker, Paxton and Brandon Maurer that they traded steady veteran Jason Vargas to the Los Angeles Angels in the offseason. For now, the void left by Vargas feels huge, but that doesn't mean the Mariners can't fill it.
If there is a young pitcher who might crack the rotation, it's Maurer, a 22-year-old right-hander who has moved into the discussion along with Seattle's so-called Big Three pitching prospects, Hultzen, Walker and Paxton. Maurer survived the roster moves and then threw four shutout innings against the Reds, reminding the Mariners why he's still in consideration for a roster spot. Maurer could push Beavan and Garland for a spot in the rotation, but the more likely role if he makes the team would be as a long reliever.
Fortunately for the Mariners, they won't need to rush him into action. They're being patient with all four of their young pitching phenoms, and this spring has proven that they have other options for season-opening rotation.