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Inbox: Can Mariners' young starters step up?

Beat reporter Greg Johns answers fans' questions
November 4, 2019

**Since Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais have taken over, they seem to have cured the Mariners’ problem with run production. But the pitching is barely above average, so that we now resemble the Angels from the last decade. What hope can you give that we are going to have starting

Since Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais have taken over, they seem to have cured the Mariners’ problem with run production. But the pitching is barely above average, so that we now resemble the Angels from the last decade. What hope can you give that we are going to have starting pitching good enough to contend over the next few years?
-- Gary H., Manchester, England

Much of the Mariners’ pitching hopes lie with their prospects and they need to hit big on a couple of their recent acquisitions. Logan Gilbert and George Kirby, their first-round Draft picks the past two years, are key pieces and Gilbert already is knocking on the door after a quick rise to Double-A. Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn, picked up in trades last year, both could start next season in the rotation and Marco Gonzales is coming off two very good seasons and is still just 27.

But here’s something worth remembering. Veteran starting pitching depth is something that quality teams often add when the time is right to put them over the top. The Nationals just won the World Series with a rotation that consisted of two of their own drafted players and three free agents, including two signed just this year.

How many of the Astros' starters came via the Draft? That would be zero as Houston instead traded for Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke in the past three years and signed Wade Miley as a free agent last season. The Yankees’ five-man rotation consisted of three free agents and two acquired by trade. The Cardinals are the one example of an elite home-grown team, having three of their own former first-round Draft picks in their

So it certainly will be crucial for the Mariners to develop a couple of strong starters from their system, but it will also be possible to add key pieces to the rotation when the rest of the team is ready to contend, which is one of the primary reasons Dipoto has worked to clear up payroll flexibility for the future.

What would it take for Dipoto to put Jarred Kelenic on the Opening Day roster?
-- Max B., New York, N.Y.

There’s very little chance Kelenic breaks camp with the Mariners to open the season, given he’s only played 21 games at the Double-A level and it would be a dramatic jump for the 20-year-old. The likely scenario is the Mariners let him start the year back at Arkansas and let his play dictate his progression.

But what would it take to change that? Ken Griffey Jr. is the best example as he performed so well and was so clearly ready in the spring of 1989 that manager Jim Lefebvre and general manager Woody Woodward put the 19-year-old on the big-league club despite having played just 17 games at Double-A in '88.

Griffey, of course, was a first-ballot Hall of Fame talent and it’s not fair to place those kinds of expectations on any youngster. You can also look more recently at the Nationals’ @juanSoto, who played just eight games at Double-A in 2018 during his rapid rise through their system at age 19. But Soto was promoted midseason that year when an injury opened the door at the Major League level, so timing and circumstances always play into these things as well.

Do you think Dipoto will try to find a young, talented second baseman to pair with J.P. Crawford at short and have them begin developing the chemistry needed for an elite infield?
-- Jack P., Ballard, Wash.

There is a reason to believe Shed Long may already be that long-term solution after his strong late-season showing, when he posted a .289/.337/.518 line with four homers and 10 RBIs in 23 games as a September callup. While rookie outfielder Kyle Lewis was drawing much of the attention, Long looked so impressive at the plate that Dipoto expects him to be in the lineup at some position – and perhaps leading off – when next season begins.

Long’s defensive position remains in question with veteran Dee Gordon under contract for one more year. Unless Gordon is traded, he’ll be at second base next year. But it would make sense for the retooling Mariners to get Long as much time with Crawford as possible in the middle of the infield going forward as second base seems to be his most natural position.

What led to Yusei Kikuchi’s disappointing year and what adjustments can he make to bounce back in 2020?
-- Blake L., Corvallis, Ore.

Kikuchi was adjusting to a lot of things last year and one of the biggest was the difference in the baseballs used in Japan compared to MLB. The Japanese ball is slightly smaller and less-slick, a difference that became even more pronounced this year when even experienced Major League pitchers were adapting to some variances and the increased home run numbers.

The long ball bit Kikuchi badly in his rookie season as he gave up 36 homers in 161 2/3 innings, after never allowing more than a career-high 17 in 165 2/3 innings in 2018 in Japan. So the 28-year needs to improve his fastball command with the MLB ball, avoid the loud mistakes and continue developing his offspeed pitches. He is a relentless worker, but he also needs to refine his approach and not wear himself down over the course of a long season, which clearly happened this year.

Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.