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Mariners' rotation success hinges on health

Seattle hopes it can lean on quintet of Felix, Paxton, Leake, Ramirez, Gonzales
MLB.com @gregjohnsmlb

With Spring Training rapidly approaching, we're taking an in-depth look at the Mariners' roster. This is the eighth part of an Around the Horn series looking at each position on the team. Today: the rotation.

The big question: Can the injury bug be avoided this season?

With Spring Training rapidly approaching, we're taking an in-depth look at the Mariners' roster. This is the eighth part of an Around the Horn series looking at each position on the team. Today: the rotation.

The big question: Can the injury bug be avoided this season?

Last year's high hopes were undercut largely by an unprecedented rash of injuries that led Seattle to use an MLB-record-tying 40 pitchers, including a club-record 17 different starters. It's virtually impossible for any team to survive significant injuries to its top four starters, which is what the Mariners tried to overcome en route to a 78-86 season.

• Mariners believe King Felix can return to throne

Shoulder problems limited longtime ace Felix Hernandez to 16 starts, as he went 6-5 with a 4.36 ERA. James Paxton emerged as one of the premier left-handers in the Majors, but was limited to 24 starts by a pair of injuries while going 12-5 with a 2.98 ERA.

Video: Outlook: Paxton has ace potential when healthy

Hisashi Iwakuma started just six games due to a shoulder issue, didn't win a game and isn't expected to pitch until midseason at best this year as he returns from surgery. And Drew Smyly never threw a pitch for the Mariners after hurting his elbow in the World Baseball Classic.

So now what? General manager Jerry Dipoto acquired three starters -- Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez and Marco Gonzales -- in July and August to bolster the injury-ravaged rotation, and he feels that trio and a healthy Hernandez and Paxton will stack up well in the American League West chase.

The likely starters: Paxton, Hernandez, Leake, Ramirez, Gonzales

The first four are veterans with solid track records. Leake was outstanding after coming over in a trade with St. Louis in August, going 3-1 with a 2.53 ERA in five starts, and he provides a needed groundball presence to a flyball-oriented group.

Video: OAK@SEA: Leake twirls seven frames in Mariners debut

Ramirez also pitched well once he adjusted to the rotation again after pitching in the Rays' bullpen, posting a 3.35 ERA over his final nine starts for Seattle.

Gonzales is a bit of a wild card as a 25-year-old who posted a 5.40 ERA in 10 games (seven starts) after being acquired from the Cardinals in late July. But he's now another year removed from the Tommy John surgery that wiped out his '16 season, and the Mariners feel his upside is high.

Other contenders: Ariel Miranda, Andrew Moore

Miranda wound up making a team-high 29 starts and throwing 160 innings last year after not even being expected to be in the rotation coming out of camp. He wore down in the second half, but was 7-4 with a 3.82 ERA through June and again seems in position to step up if anything goes wrong with the top five.

Moore was Seattle's most-advanced pitching prospect last year and probably got promoted before he was ready, posting a 5.34 ERA in 11 games (nine starts) at age 23. The Mariners remain optimistic on his future, though his immediate future likely will be in Triple-A Tacoma until needed.

Depth: Max Povse, Rob Whalen, Chase DeJong, Sam Moll, Christian Bergman, Iwakuma

Video: Top Prospects: Max Povse, RHP, Mariners

Povse, Whalen and DeJong are three youngsters who remain on the 40-man roster after getting brief Major League opportunities last season. Povse is back in a starting role after an abbreviated switch to relief, and Whalen has returned after leaving the organization to deal with a personal issue in the final months of '17.

Moll pitched 11 games in relief for the A's last year, but he will be given a shot as a starter after being claimed off waivers. Bergman filled in admirably in midseason and returns on a Minor League deal, while Iwakuma also will be in camp as a non-roster invitee as he continues rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

In the Pipeline

Povse (No. 6), Whalen (No. 17), Moll (No. 24) and DeJong (No. 26) are all Top 30 Mariners prospects per MLB Pipeline that will be in camp.

Video: Top Prospects: Rob Whalen, RHP, Mariners

Among those not invited to big league camp is Sam Carlson, the Mariners' top-ranked pitching prospect at No. 3 per Pipeline. The second-round Draft pick last June is just 19 years old and pitched only twice in the Arizona Rookie League before being shut down with a strained elbow.

Also coming up through the ranks are No. 14 prospect Oliver Jaskie, a 22-year-old lefty drafted out of Michigan last year, and No. 27 prospect Nick Wells, a 21-year-old southpaw acquired from Toronto in the Mark Lowe deal in 2016.

By the numbers

While hitters were clubbing home runs at record rates last year around the Majors, Paxton defied that trend by allowing the fewest home runs -- just nine in 136 innings, or 0.6 per nine innings -- of any MLB starter with 130-plus innings.

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

Seattle Mariners, Marco Gonzales, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, James Paxton, Erasmo Ramirez