By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Brandon Maurer exited manager Eric Wedge’s office trying not to smile too much or act too happy. He walked as fast possible, without running, to grab his phone from his locker. With phone in hand, he speed-walked out of the Mariners clubhouse and into the Arizona sunshine — he was about to make one of the most enjoyable phone calls in his life.
Maurer got to call his parents in Southern California and tell them that he was going to be member of the Seattle Mariners starting rotation when the 2013 season opens on Monday in Oakland.
“It was good,” he said of the call. “I think my mom was getting a little choked up and my dad was rambling on about stuff.”
As expected, Wedge finalized his five-man rotation by naming Maurer and Blake Beavan his fourth and fifth starters. They join Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders.
With the rotation finalized, the only remaining roster battle now is for the last outfield spot between Casper Wells and Jason Bay.
“That’s the final decision we have,” Wedge said. “We are letting it run as far as it can run. It’s coming soon.”
Making the Mariners’ starting rotation is an impressive accomplishment for the 22-year-old Maurer, considering last season he was pitching in the minor legaues for Class AA Jackson.
“He came in here and he took it,” Wedge said. “He had a great camp. You’re talking about a young man that has multiple plus-pitches. And the way it worked out, he faced a lot of big league lineups. In regard to how it played out, with the different teams that he pitched against, he handled them well. He showed great stuff, had great poise and had some presence out there.”
Maurer out-pitched his competition for the spot, including veterans Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman, holdovers Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez and his more heralded fellow prospects Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen.
Maurer posted a 3-1 record in six appearances this spring, including three starts. In 20 innings pitched, he allowed just two earned runs for a 0.90 ERA with 22 strikeouts and just six walks
“It’s definitely been a huge learning experience,” Maurer said. “Having success was a positive part of that. I was just trying to go out there and battle through every game and work on pitches and get where I need to be to start the season.”
He becomes the first Mariners pitcher to jump from Class AA to the team’s major league opening day rotation since Mike Hampton and John Cummings both did it in 1993.
But for being so young, there’s a maturity to Maurer. He pitches and carries himself like a professional.
“It’s a great testament to him and his upbringing, but it’s also a great testament to our developmental system and all the coaches and managers who have been part of his development,” Wedge said.
As Maurer often points out, he’s blossomed from a stubborn thrower into a pitcher. He was far from a sure-thing prospect when he was picked in the 23rd round out of the 2008 draft out of Orange Lutheran High School. His path to the rotation has been far from straight with a few detours because of injuries. He missed all of 2010 with elbow issues and then had the same elbow problems rear up again in 2011, limiting his appearances.
But 2012 was a breakout season. He posted a 9-2 record with a 3.20 ERA with 117 strikeouts in 1372/3 innings pitched at Class AA Jackson. He was named the Mariners minor league pitcher of the year.
“It’s been a good ride,” he said. “I’ve learned so much every year. This year, I’ve felt like a pitcher more than I have ever before.”
Wedge chose to put Maurer in the fourth slot instead of the fifth to let him make his debut in Oakland on Thursday, April 4. That first start might be a little easier in the pitcher friendly Oakland Coliseum instead of the bandbox known as U.S. Cellular field in Chicago against the White Sox the next day.
“I feel like it’s a good spot for him,” Wedge said. “It’s the final day in Oakland, it’s a day game. So, I feel like it’s a good spot for him in regard to that it’s someplace he’s been settled in for a few days and he can get up and come to the ballpark.”
That means Beavan starts April 5 against the White Sox.
Like Maurer, Beavan, too, was excited about making the rotation. Even though he had big league experience, there was no guarantee he’d make the team or the rotation.
“I told (pitching coach) Carl (Willis) that his the most anxiety I’ve ever felt in a camp,” Beavan said.
Beavan’s numbers weren’t great this spring. In his last outing, he gave up 16 hits in six innings pitched. But Wedge likes Beavan’s durability and toughness.
“One thing about Blake is, he’s never satisfied,” Wedge said. “He’s always working to get better. And he finds a way to win ballgames. He’s already gained some great experience in his young career. So, that, on top of some the adjustments he’s made and continues to make, that’s why he’s on this ballclub.”
With Maurer and Beavan in the rotation, the Mariners optioned Ramirez to Tacoma and re-assigned Bonderman to minor league camp.
Ramirez started and threw three controlled innings in a minor league game on Wednesday after being slowed by soreness in the triceps of his throwing arm. He will continue to build arm strength and pitch in the Rainiers starting rotation.
“He’s still working his way back,” Wedge said. “He just needs to go out and continue to pitch and building himself back up.”
Wedge hopes that Bonderman will join Ramirez in Tacoma to start the season. Bonderman signed as a minor league free agent after retiring because of injuries two years ago. He had elbow surgery last year, pitched well at times this spring and did enough that the Mariners hope to keep him in their organization. They gave Bonderman a few days to think about what he wants to do.
“We really want him to keep going,” Wedge said. “That’s what we feel like he needs to do. He’s been very impressive in this camp. But he, too, is still building himself up and working his way back. But you’ve seen the progression from whether it be the first bullpen or the first game, to where he was the other day.”
The other day when Bonderman started it became evident that his return is still a work in progress. Bonderman lost velocity and movement and began to labor after 75 pitches. The Mariners want him to go to Tacoma, pitch in the rotation and build up his stamina and arm strength.
“We really feel like if he goes down and he pitches like we hope he does, that he’s going to pitch for us in the big leagues this year,” Wedge said. “I still feel like he’s got a lot of good days ahead of him.”