When right-hander Hisashi Iwakuma, as a free agent, reached a tentative three-year deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers in early December, the Mariners quickly filled the hole by swinging a trade with Boston to acquire lefty Wade Miley.
That move and a subsequent deal to get first baseman Adam Lind from Milwaukee pretty much covered the portion of the payroll that Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto had budgeted toward efforts to retain Iwakuma.
So what happens?
Iwakuma’s deal with the Dodgers fell apart because of some still nonspecific medical concerns, and he expressed renewed interest in returning to the Mariners. Now, though, Dipoto needed approval from ownership to exceed his budget.
Ownership quickly acquiesced, which left the Mariners with a rotation stronger than they once anticipated. It begins, of course, with Felix Hernandez, but it now includes two other veteran arms, Iwakuma and Miley, with solid track records.
Right-hander Taijuan Walker seems certain of a spot after shaking off a poor first two months of 2015 by going 10-3 with a 3.62 ERA over his final 20 starts in his first full big-league season.
That leaves the final job up for grabs between lefty James Paxton, who battled injuries over the last two years, and right-handed newcomer Nathan Karns. That competition should be keenly followed throughout camp.
WHO’S IN CAMP?
34 Felix Hernandez (Bats right, throws right, 6-feet-3, 225 pounds, age 30 on opening day): The perception is that the King slipped last year, but he still went 18-9 with 21 quality starts in 31 outings. He remains one of the game’s premier starters. Option status: Not applicable.
18 Hisashi Iwakuma (R-R, 6-3, 210, 34): The Mariners don’t know what scared the Dodgers away from a tentative three-year deal. And they don’t care. They were elated at retaining Iwakuma. Option status: Not applicable.
13 Nathan Karns (R-R, 6-3, 225, 28): Obtained from Tampa Bay in early November, he was 7-5 with a 3.67 ERA last season in 147 innings. Will get a chance to pitch his way into the rotation. Option status: One remaining.
20 Wade Miley (L-L, 6-2, 195, 29): A reliable workhorse who should benefit from shifting his home stadium from Fenway Park to Safeco Field. Option status: Not applicable.
37 Mike Montgomery (L-L, 6-4, 200, 26): Faded badly last season after debuting with seven dominant starts, and faces a stiff challenge to win a spot. Since he’s out of options, he could shift to the bullpen. Option status: None remaining.
65 James Paxton (L-L, 6-4, 220, 27): When healthy, he’s shown top-of-the-rotation stuff. But even he admits it’s time for him to prove he can remain healthy for an entire season. Option status: Three remaining.
44 Taijuan Walker (R-R, 6-4, 220, 23): He pitched to long-projected potential over the final four months of last season. Would have to take a major step back to pitch his way out of the rotation. Option status: Two remaining.
47 Joe Wieland (R-R, 6-2, 205, 26): Barring some injuries to others, he’s ticketed for Triple-A Tacoma. Will be interesting to see if his stuff improves in his second full season back from two elbow surgeries. Option status: One remaining.
45 Brad Mills (R-L, 6-0, 188, 31): A nine-year pro who has spent extended time at Triple-A in each of the last seven years with occasional promotions (21 appearances) to the big leagues. He defines organizational depth.
62 Donn Roach (R-R, 6-0, 195, 26): Another projected starter at Tacoma. He spent most of the last two seasons (220 innings) in Triple-A in the Cubs and Padres organizations.
61 Adrian Sampson (R-R, 6-2, 210, 24): A Redmond native acquired last July from Pittsburgh for lefty J.A. Happ, Sampson struggled in seven starts at Tacoma. He’s likely to return to the Rainiers this season.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Something spooked the Dodgers on Hisashi Iwakuma. So despite the Mariners insisting they have no concerns, Iwakuma bears watching.
2. James Paxton is 20 pounds lighter, which he believes will make him more athletic. That’s great. He needs to prove he can stay healthy.
3. Tampa Bay shut down Nathan Karns over the final three weeks last September because of a strained forearm. It shouldn’t a concern, but he’s likely to be monitored for any early soreness in the area.
Much attention, entering camp, will focus on the anticipated battle between James Paxton and Nathan Karns for the rotation’s final spot. And that’s where the Mariners want the focus to remain.
Anything else indicates trouble.
It becomes a three-man competition only if Taijuan Walker stumbles badly. And there would cease to be a competition if an injury sidelines Walker or one of the club’s three veteran starters.
The prevailing view, at least in mid-February, is an even competition favors Paxton, who is generally viewed as having the greater upside. Choosing Paxton would add a second lefty to the five-man mix.
But Paxton has to win the job. The Mariners view Karns as a solid mid-to-back of the rotation arm and, if performances warrant, aren’t likely to hesitate in shipping Paxton to Tacoma.
Bob Dutton: @TNT_Mariners
Mariners’ spring training preview