With the selection of right handed starting pitcher Emerson Hancock at #6 overall, the Mariners have proven they’re dedicated to building the staff of the future.
If you’re anything like me, the lack of pitching the Mariners have trotted out on the field the last few seasons has been mind-numbingly frustrating. Despite their lone bright spot in current Ace, Marco Gonzalez, the Mariners ended the 2019 season with a team ERA of 4.99 which was good for 23rd in baseball. If you dig a little deeper, their ERA+ of 88 makes them look even worse… good for a solid 29th (that’s right, suck it Baltimore).
That’s about to change.
With the addition of Hancock to the minor league system, the Mariners now sport a potential future starting lineup of Gonzalez, Hancock, Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and possibly Justus Sheffield. I know potential doesn’t always equate to major league success, but the wizardry these guys possess with the baseball would make even Gandalf proud.
Yes I know what you’re thinking… “Wizardry and Justus Sheffield don’t belong in the same sentence. Did you see his numbers last year?”. Trust me, I get it. His Triple A numbers were atrocious but keep in mind that last year the Pacific Coast League experimented with new baseballs which lead to a huge influx of home runs and inflated ERA. Once Sheffield made the switch down to double A things started looking much better for him, posting a 5-3 record, 2.19 ERA and 85 Ks over 79 innings.
Being a Mariners fan myself, I know how quick to judge we can be based off minimal MLB experience (Dan Vogelbach, anybody?). I know his eight starts last year weren’t amazing but there’s still signs of hope. His .371 BABIP against was remarkably high, his 52.3% ground ball rate was above league average and his 9.25 k/9 means the swing and miss stuff is there. If he can work on lowering the walks and raising his LOB% closer to 80 the Mariners could have a solid middle to back end of the rotation guy on their hands.
Justin Dunn is a guy who had the opposite luck of Sheffield last year. Dunn’s four appearances for the Mariners were quite odd. While showing the same walk issues Sheffield had (he walked 9 in 6.2 IP), he somehow managed to have a ridiculously low .125 BABIP against, strand 81.8% of baserunners and somehow managed to have a weak contact rate against of 31.3%. To put that into perspective, CY Young winners Jacob Degrom and Gerrit Cole had weak contact rates of 21.9% and 19.3% respectfully. Granted, Dunn’s sample size is vastly smaller than the other two but that’s not gonna stop me from dreaming of a day where Dunn becomes the king of the ground out and masters the art of the dreaded double play ball.
The biggest thing Dunn needs to work on is honing in his changeup a little more. Right now he’s mainly a two pitch guy. Despite having a 4 seam, changeup, curveball and slider, he relies heavily on the fastball/slider combo throwing them 58.1% and 22.8% of the time. Don’t get me wrong, he has a slider that’s devestating to right handed hitters but his changeup might be the hidden gem of his arsenal. If he could gain a little more confidence in it and boost that 7.4% throw rate even a little it could end up being the perfect out pitch.
Now Logan Gilbert is the young gun I’m most excited about. Ever since being taken in the first round of the 2018 draft, Gilbert has been nothing but dominant at every level he’s been at. Over the course of 134.1 IP in 2019, Gilbert only walked 33 batters while striking out 165 and giving up a grand total of seven home runs. Hell, in his first professional season alone he’s made it all the way up to Double A while maintaining that dominance.
Much of that dominance comes from Gilbert’s exceptional command. The man hits his spots with the accuracy of a marine corps sniper. There are a lot of stats and intangibles that don’t necessarily translate well to the major leagues. Speed and control do. With that plus control coupled with the fastball topping out at 97 MPH, Gilbert could end up being the prime candidate for the Mariners second spot in the rotation sooner rather than later. He’d be the Robin to Marco Gonzalez’s Batman, if you will.
Speaking of top draft picks, the Mariners 2019 first round pick George Kirby is already one of the most accurate pitchers in minor league baseball after only his first season. After a dominant college career where he finished his last season leading all of D-I in strikeout/walk ratio (17.8) and walk rate (0.6 per 9 innings), Kirby picked up right where he left off with the Everett Aquasox. Over 23 innings the human strike machine walked exactly zero batters. Zero. All while striking out 25 and allowing only one single home run.
In college, Kirby’s fastball was so dominant that he tended to lean on it quite a bit, which I cant blame him for. As the old saying goes: if it aint broke, don’t fix it. But one positive that Kirby has shown is the ability for both his slider and curveball to be plus pitches. The slider itself could end up becoming one of the more dominant sliders in baseball. At the rate he’s going, Kirby’s days in the minors are numbered.
Now for the newest addition to the “I’m a pitcher drafted in the first round by the Mariners” club, Emerson Hancock. Easily the strongest name of the group. His name alone demands as much respect as Hancock does on the mound. At 6’4″ 213 lbs Emerson sports a fastball that tops out at 99 MPH and an incredibly smooth delivery. In college, while he may not have been as strikeout heavy as some people expected, he showed the command and dominance one would hope from a top 10 level pick. Through Hancock’s three years in college he managed to walk only 55 batters over 192 innings and only 21 over his last 114 innings. Despite his mediocre strikeout total from his first season, he did show major improvement in the four games he pitched this season striking out 34 in only 24 innings. He finished his college career with 206 Ks in 192 innings.
Although much of the hype will be based around Hancock’s dominant fastball, it’s his breaking stuff that is really going to make an impact at the professional level. He sports an over-the-top curveball with ridiculous break, a solid changeup and a mid 80s slider that can only be described as knee-buckling. While he does have the ability to throw all four pitches for strikes, it will be interesting to see if Hancock puts more work into refining his curve and changeup. While his fastball and slider are both plus pitches, the curve and changeup are not far off from making Hancock a true four pitch, top of the rotation guy.
Of all the names mentioned above, the one with the highest likelihood of being the odd man out is Justus Sheffield solely based on the struggles he had at the higher levels in the 2019 season. Hope is not lost though as Sheffield would still potentially make an amazing reliver. Kirby is another player who, if the opportunity presented itself, could become dominant in the bullpen. During his stint in the Cape Cod League, Kirby was used solely as a reliver pitching 10 innings, walking 1, striking out 24 and finishing with a 1.38 ERA. For those keeping track, that’s a 24:1 K/BB ratio teamed up with an insane 16.6 K/9.
Regardless of how this all shakes out, one thing is for certain. This is the best, most talented farm system the Mariners have had in a long time. Although their record may not show it, It’s going to be one fun ass ride.