Hancock eyes long-shot OD roster spot

March 2nd, 2024

PEORIA, Ariz. -- sat in Scott Servais’ office at the outset of Spring Training and offered a blunt yet self-assured assessment of what he hopes to accomplish, even if it might’ve represented more of a pipedream at this stage of the year.

“I want to break camp with the big league club,” the promising yet still unproven starter told the Mariners’ manager in a one-on-one.

The assertion stood out to Servais given where Hancock resides in the club’s rotation hierarchy, that he’s coming off another year impacted by an arm injury and, despite showing legitimate potential after finally making his MLB debut last August, he’s yet to fully realize it since being drafted in the first round 2020.

Moreover, for arguably the nicest guy on the team, there was some competitive fire to what Hancock said.

“I love that's where he's at right now,” Servais said. “Because competition is a really good thing. And I'm curious to see what it looks like. ... He was very adamant to make that comment to me, and I really liked it. I think he was afraid of how I would take that. And I said, 'Man, I love that. Go do it. Go show us.'”

In conversations on the backfields, Hancock has been widely praised among a small handful of players who showed up perhaps under the radar by expectations but has impressed through the first two weeks of camp. He finally got to channel his offseason work into game action when making his Cactus League debut on Saturday against the A’s, a 12-8 Mariners loss.

Hancock twirled two hitless innings, with three strikeouts and zero baserunners among the six batters he faced. His fastball consistently sat at 94-96 mph, notably up from the low-90s he was at last year, while his harder-thrown changeup -- as high as 90 mph -- led to a pair of his punchouts. He also mixed in the cutter-slider hybrid he’s installed -- a pitch that could be vital, given that the Mariners have wanted to see him establish a consistent breaking ball.

Velocity-wise, he looked much closer to the pitcher who thrived at the University of Georgia, became the No. 6 overall pick in a five-round 2020 Draft and signed for $5.7 million.

“I put a lot of work in this offseason trying to get back on track, get the velo back up,” Hancock said. “And then ... when I get my work, I'm done. I don't want to overwork. I want to make sure that when I go into a start, I'm as fresh as possible. And I think so far I've been able to kind of stick to that.”

It was the first time Hancock had pitched in a game since Aug. 20, when he suffered a right shoulder strain and was removed two innings into a critical start in Houston. Because of the recovery timeframe and that the Mariners were fighting for a playoff berth, it ended his season -- right as he felt he was hitting a stride.

Hancock debuted in early August and was intended to be used as the caboose in a six-man rotation for a brief stretch to help the Mariners monitor workloads for fellow rookies Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo. Those plans halted quickly, after Hancock made just three starts. Miller and Woo finished the season among the starting five and were subsequently retained this offseason despite significant trade interest.

With those two back -- along with Luis Castillo, George Kirby and Logan Gilbert -- the Mariners’ Opening Day rotation was seemingly set before pitchers and catchers even reported. That’s unlikely to change, though Woo indicated after giving up six hits and four runs in 1 1/3 innings on Friday that he doesn’t view his spot written in pen, and Hancock still intends to make a strong impression, even if he’s likely to begin the year at Triple-A Tacoma.

Yet, beyond Hancock’s confidence, what also stood out to Servais about his conversation with Hancock was perspective.

“There’s only one thing that matters in the big leagues -- winning the game,” Hancock told him. “It doesn’t matter about your pitch shapes. It doesn't matter about your percentages. I have to figure out a way to win the game.”

His words carried weight in that meeting, and his stuff played up when he finally took the mound on Saturday. It’s made Hancock one of the most promising developments so far in camp.