Is the Mariners' Brandon Maurer Seattle's next Russell Wilson?
That's asking approximately three tons of any local athlete. Then again, no Mariners pitcher in 20 years has done what Maurer did Wednesday — make the spring training leap from Class AA to the Opening Day roster. Has to be worth more than a tip of the hat, so a slightly overwrought comparison seemed worthwhile.The big bearded guy from Costa Mesa, CA., received word from manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik that he made The Show. It was little surprise to those who watched his 20 innings in spring training, in which he had the Cactus League's lowest ERA (0.90), striking out 22 and allowing only six walks. Nor was it a shock to those who saw him become the AA Southern League's Pitcher of the Year in 2012.
Still, the arc of the climb is noteworthy for a guy taken in the 23rd round of the draft, which is a little more impressive than Wilson's elevation from the NFL's third round to Destroyer of Football Worlds as Seahawks quarterback.
“It’s been a good ride,” a jubilant Maurer told mlb.com's Greg Johns. “I’ve learned so much every year, turning myself into a pitcher and not just a thrower. This year I’ve actually felt like more of a pitcher than ever, using a two-seam and throwing change-ups in fastball counts and being able to throw a slider behind or ahead in the count, different types of sliders."
"Just going out there and learning how to pitch.” He even sounds a little like Wilson. Learning every day.
In 1993, Lou Piniella's first year as Mariners manager, Mike Hampton and John Cummings skipped over Class AAA, to widely varying career outcomes. Hampton, 20 in his MLB debut, became a 16-year veteran and two-time All-Star, although he lasted just a year in Seattle before being traded for someone named Eric Anthony, or maybe Anthony Eric. Cummings, 23 in his Seattle debut, was waived by the Mariners in May, 1995, and had five undistinguished MLB seasons.
There's no particular pattern to the chance for MLB success that begins with a swift rise from the depths. More recently, Michael Pineda was the pitching phenom du jour. At 22, same age as Maurer, he made the All-Star team in his rookie year of 2011 with the Mariners, but was traded in a memorable swap with the Yankees for catcher Jesus Montero. Pineda has yet to throw a pitch for the Yankees, needing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder that ended his 2012 season before it began, then getting busted for DUI in August. The Yankees put Pineda on the 60-day disabled list last week and don't expect him back until around the All-Star Game.
For a spot in the Mariners' rotation, Maurer beat out Erasmo Ramirez, also 22, and Jeremy Bonderman, 30, who were sent to the minor leagues to build up arm strength (Bonderman may retire). Maurer even beat out another veteran, 11-game winner Blake Beavan, who is listed as the No. 5 starter after a tepid spring (6.52 ERA). Maurer will start in the Mariners' fourth regular season game in Oakland, where Felix Hernandez flashes his $175 million self Monday in the season opener.
Given the even lousier spring of veteran newcomer Joe Saunders (11.52 ERA, .377 BAA), Maurer soon could find himself in the No. 3 spot behind Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Such a rise would fall into the category of startling, since he also surpassed the more heralded "Big Three" prospects in Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton — none of whom were close to Maurer's mastery of five pitches.
"He had a great camp," Wedge said. "You're talking about a young man that has multiple plus pitches. He faced a lot of big league lineups and handled it well. Different situations, he handled all of them. He showed great stuff, poise and had some presence out there. He came in here and took it."
Much of the attention in the Mariners spring has been heaped, justifiably, on the woebegone offense and its apparent revival. Namely, the additions of newcomers Mike Morse and Kendrys Morales, and the uptick among young holdovers Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero. But the desert is full of mirages, and offensive improvement will become negligible if equivalent runs leak out the back of the rotation.
After all the controversy over the winter's failed bids to land higher-profile free agents, such as Josh Hamilton, and the unexpected bludgeon battalion of spring, where the Mariners offense will settle in the dank, heavy air of Safeco is one of the great mysteries of Seattle life. Right up there with whether Mercer Street is, or is not, fixed.
But Maurer's rise is the sort of well-timed fortune that the Seahawks have recently mastered, and the Mariners have been without for about a decade. Everywhere, blind squirrels rejoice in the happy news.