Pitching Injuries Provide An Early Test For Seattle Mariners As Opening Day Is Here


As the Seattle Mariners take the field in the opening week of the season, they do so with heightened expectations and playoff hopes.

The Mariners are built around a stellar young pitching staff, a lockdown bullpen, and the hopes that the offense will be good enough to provide enough runs for their pitching staff.

However, as opening day dawns, the pillars on which the Mariners have built their hopes for this season are already getting a stress test.

Coming into spring training, the Mariners had six starting pitchers for five spots: Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Bryce Miller, Bryan Woo, and Emerson Hancock. At the end of spring training, Hancock was ticketed for AAA Tacoma, where he would wait until the Mariners needed him. That wait turned out to be about 48 hours. Woo will start the season on the disabled list, earning Hancock a promotion straight back to the big leagues.

Woo is not expected to be out long, but with pitchers, a seemingly minor injury can suddenly become more serious. As long as he is out, the Mariners’ starting pitching depth is essentially zeroed out. After Hancock, the MLB-readyady (or close MLB-readyady) starting pitching depth consists of former prospect Levi Stroudt, who got lit up in a cup of coffee for Cincinnati last year … and that’s about it. The team should be OK, assuming none of the remaining starters get hurt, but after that, the vaunted pitching staff starts to run out of vaunted arms in a hurry.

The bullpen has been the true cornerstone of the team the last few years, with manager Scott Servais knowing with a relatively high degree of confidence that he could turn a close game over to the bullpen in the late innings, and they see it out or be able to bail out a struggling starter if needed. However, two pieces expected to be critical to that plan for 2024 will also start the season on the disabled list. Gregory Santos and Matt Brash were expected to form a fireball trio with Andres Muñoz in the back end of the bullpen. However, Muñoz will be the only one on the active roster come opening day. Like Woo, Brash, and Santos are not expected to be out long term, perhaps returning before the end of April, but again, all pitchers can go from “minor arm strain” to Tommy John surgery and out for the year in a blink of an eye.

That means it will be up to Muñoz to close out games early in the season instead of sharing duties with Brash and Santos. Instead of relying on their three-headed bullpen monster to shut things down their opponents over the final few innings, the Mariners will instead be turning to the likes of Gabe Spier, Taylor Saucedo, Trent Thornton, and the recently signed Ryan Stanek to pick up the slack. While that group is certainly competent and capable, none of them have the upside of pure dominance that Brash and Santos bring to the table.

With their starting rotation already into its reserves and the bullpen down two key pieces, the early weeks of the season will be critical for the Mariners. A team built around its pitching staff will quickly have to show that it can compete even when some of that staff’s best pieces are stuck on the shelf. Over the course of a 162-game season, pitching injuries can pile up, and it will be crucial for the Mariners to show they can win even without their bullpen and rotation at 100 percent.

The team deliberately chose not to significantly bolster that rotation or bullpen this offseason. Outside of the acquisition of Santos, the bullpen has been used as a pool to trade players out of to fill other holes. The team decided to roll the decision and believed that its young starters in, Miller and Woo, backed by Hancock, would be enough to get the back end of the rotation through the season without significant injury. The team has barely reached opening day, and now it will find out if betting on the options they had on hand will pay off or if they’ve made a huge mistake in not giving themselves more margin for error to account for injuries.

However, the time for second-guessing can come later if their bet does not pay off. Now, it’s time for Emerson Hancock and the best-of-the-rest in the bullpen to show that they are up to the early-season test and hold until reinforcements arrive. Mariners fans will be hoping both that those players are up to the task and that those reinforcements arrive soon so that the team’s stellar pitching staff can be given the chance to show what it’s capable of at full strength.