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Roenis Elias Deserves Rotation Spot, for Better and Worse

Apparently the Mariners roster is more set than the 38 players left in camp imply. Scott Baker got offered a spot in AAA Tacoma, declined, and so was cut loose yesterday.* Baker seemed to be a shoo-in for the rotation, but getting shelled in three consecutive starts and racking up only one strikeout (looking, not even swinging) all spring unraveled his chances. The decision surprised me but was hardly a bad move.

*The MLB CBA also dictates that decisions must be made on Humberto Quintero and Endy Chavez today, FYI. I expect neither of them to make the opening day roster.

With Baker's release the Mariners rotation battle both clarified and became more intriguing. King Felix, Erasmo Ramirez, and James Paxton appear to be locks at this point. Blake Beavan, Roenis Elias, and Randy Wolf appear to be battling for the two remaining spots. For what it's worth, Elias is enjoying the most productive spring of all three and is slated to start a game this week - and by now, the starting slots are going to likely starting rotation members.

So it's time to get to know Roenis Elias just a bit better. First of all, his back story is amazing. He hails from Guantanamo, Cuba - the same Guantanamo of Guantanamo Bay, the polarizing US military facility where terrorists continue to be incarcerated and interrogated since 9/11. Elias defected from Cuba, and defecting is quite the dangerous escapade. Subsequently the Mariners signed Elias and he has patiently worked his way up the M's minor league ladder the past three seasons. I don't know much about Elias's personality but his story of deep sacrifice and dedication to baseball is a very easy one to root for. It's enough, quite frankly, to make me want him to make the opening day roster whether he is ready or not.

And let's be honest - Roenis Elias is probably not ready for a starting gig in the majors. I conclude this through the same logic that led me to say that Brandon Maurer wasn't ready last year. It takes an exceptional talent, even among the exceptions that make the majors, to successfully jump from AA to the majors as Elias will have to do if he cracks the starting rotation. Elias was quite good in Jackson last season but I would hardly call him exceptional.

Dig deeper though, and there are some exceptions to be found. Let's start with highlights from his spring start against the Angels:

It is easy to see some of the things that make Elias an intriguing pitcher, first and foremost that breaking ball. It breaks sharply with both vertical and lateral movement thanks to Elias's arm slot. The arm slot and break on that ball should make it an evil pitch against left-handed batters, and we see a lefty totally frozen in the highlights. However, the highlights also show Elias getting a swing and miss from a right-hander against that breaking ball as he buried it in the dirt down and in.

Elias's fastball is also above average and appears to be a good offering when he mixes it with great command. Obviously, the highlight package features well located fastballs so he looks highly effective. Elias throws 90-93 MPH with relative ease, and judging from all the choppers in the highlight package, he also generates some sink on his fastball.

So, when Elias is at his best, he primarily features a sinking fastball with great command to induce easy ground balls around the infield. When he gets ahead he can use a breaking ball that that wipes out left handers and might even be an underrated offering against righties. However, after watching the highlight video above, Elias looked like a candidate to run some noteworthy platoon splits.

Sure enough, the data backs up what we can see with our own two eyes. Lefties sported an absurdly low .492 OPS against Elias in Jackson last year, while righties had a .718 OPS (still pretty solid). The year before, in High Desert, lefties had a paltry .618 OPS whereas righties had a .784 OPS.

I think Elias is ready to get MLB lefties out at an above average rate right now so the real question is what he will do against right-handers. In some ways Elias is fortunate, because Safeco Field still plays bigger for right-handed batters because of its layout. Elias, like any pitcher in Safeco, has more margin for error with righties than lefties. Elias is basically a two-pitch pitcher, and I don't think his breaking ball is much of an offering to right-handers except as a pitch thrown in the dirt to try to strike them out with. In other words, his success against right handers is almost entirely dependent on his fastball command.

Interestingly, Elias walked a lower percentage of right-handers (8.7%) than left-handers (9.8%) last season. Of course, the usual small-sample-size warnings need to be applied, but the data suggests Elias commands his fastball against righties as well as against lefties. However, Elias also gave up 8 of his 9 home runs allowed to right-handers last season. In High Desert the year before his walk rate was stronger against lefties, though the home run rate was still higher against righties, even when scaling for the fact that he faces more right-handed batters. This results make sense - Elias's breaking ball shouldn't be as effective against righties and they should be able to sit on his fastball a bit more. Furthermore, his arm slot is less deceptive for righties so they should be able to see the ball a bit better. Therefore, his margin for error is smaller with righties than lefties. The margin for error will be exponentially smaller in the majors.

However, just because Elias is much better against left-handed batters doesn't mean he is bad against righties. He also might not benefit much from facing AAA batters as they might not expose Elias's weaknesses any more than AA batters. Elias needs to face competition that demands him to find those corners of the strike zone even more than he already does. Veteran AAA hitters might force pitchers to throw more strikes than in AA, but they are AAA hitters for a reason - often because they don't punish mistakes in the strike zone the same way MLB hitters tend to.

MLB hitters might punish Elias too much though. Brandon Maurer could tell Elias a thing or two about that. Control wasn't Maurer's issue - he walked less than 3 batters per 9 innings in the majors last year, and had a K/BB ratio well better than 2/1 - but command was. He gave up home runs at an astronomical rate because he threw pitches that caught way too much of the plate way too often.

All in all, I can live with the idea of Elias breaking camp in the starting rotation. Realistically he will get three or four starts before Taijuan Walker and/or Hisashi Iwakuma are ready to go. Elias should be temporary, unlike the plan with Maurer last year. The Mariners aren't relying on Elias for 150 innings; it's more like 15 or 20 early in the season. Then he could slide into a bullpen role where I would use him as a specialty lefty on nights when I want a lefty in the 6th or 7th inning before Charlie Furbush comes in, and also as a spot long reliever on those nights when a starter gets blown out early. The hybrid role would take advantage of Elias's current strengths while also providing some development opportunities in low leverage situations.

The Mariners were silly to roll the dice with their starting rotation the way they did and the risk has already bit them hard. Roenis Elias is about to crack the Mariners rotation in part because the Mariners were pretty stupid, but also because he has some pitching skills that cannot be ignored. Elias isn't the type of phenom that should go straight from AA to the majors, so he isn't about to be a contributor. However, his ability to wipe out lefties and mitigate right-handed damage with Safeco Field's dimensions are positives that might allow him to at least be a replacement-level starter.

Elias doesn't crack the starting rotation of a contender, but I'm hesitant to criticize Lloyd McClendon if he keeps Elias around. It's not as if Blake Beavan or Randy Wolf are strong possibilities to give much beyond replacement-level innings, and neither features a weapon like Elias's breaking ball (even if it is only death against lefties) or Elias's upside.