2016 MLB Preseason Primaries: Hisashi Iwakuma And Taijuan Walker

For some, 2016 Spring Training marks the start of a brand new Major League Baseball season. For others, this time of year marks the height of the presidential primary elections. While many pontificate over who is best suited to lead the country, The Sports Fan Journal fam decided to take a look at which player, manager, or front office member is the best candidate to lead their team to the top of the baseball mountain.

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Despite a roster that included names such as Felix Hernandez, Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, last year's preseason American League West darlings - the Seattle Mariners - managed just 76 wins in 2015. While some of this had to do with deficiencies in their lineup, one could argue that the pitching staff lacked even more than the offense. It is well documented what Felix Hernandez is capable of spearheading the rotation, but Hisashi Iwakuma and Taijuan Walker have both carried sizable expectations, yet arrive at the beginning of the new year with similarly sized question marks.

Iwakuma is a little bit more of a known quantity than Walker, but it doesn’t make his 2016 any less interesting. In 2013 and 2014, Iwakuma was a bona fide number two starter behind King Felix. However, his 2015 took a turn for the worse before it even got off the ground, as a late injury at the start of the season limited his season to just 20 starts. In those 20 starts, Iwakuma gave up more home runs per nine innings than he ever has, which led to an elevated ERA and FIP (fielding independent pitching).

Pitching after the injury undoubtedly led to some of the inflated numbers Iwakuma saw last season. Injury issues for Iwakuma even played into the way that he is a member of the team currently. He was set to move on from Seattle this offseason and into a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers. However, after concerns from his physical in LA caused pause from the Dodger front office, new GM Jerry Dipoto swooped into reclaim the righty and in the process bring a familiar quantity back to town in the hopes of regaining that vintage form that saw Iwakuma become an All-Star in 2013.

If he is indeed back at full health, there is a chance his performance could channel those days of when he helped to headline the Mariners' staff.

However, with the young Taijuan Walker coming into his second full season, Iwakuma may wind up as an outstanding number three starter instead, by natural selection.

Walker, a flame-throwing right-hander got his first real taste of the Majors last year notching 169.2 innings over 29 starts. The 23-year-old has the stuff to be a top of the rotation starter, as evidenced by his 8.33 strikeouts per nine last season. However, his struggles with his control and keeping the ball in the ballpark (25 home runs allowed in 2015) have slowed his ascent. The former tends to beget the latter. As a pitcher has difficulty finding the zone, he’ll start throwing “get me over” pitches just to get a strike. At the Major League level, “get me over” pitches typically get over the fence instead.

In 2016, if Walker is able to locate his pitches better, he’ll not only see his walk rate (over two per nine innings last year) go down, but he’ll see his 1.33 home runs over that same time span dip as well. When you get a hard-throwing youngster who learns to locate his breaking pitches and his changeup, you’ve got a recipe for a very good second or third starter.

This year is a tipping point for the Mariners. They’ve got enough guys on offense to generate runs with Cano, Cruz and Seager, along with the addition of first baseman Adam Lind. But time is an issue: Cano is 33 and Cruz is 35, and in order to capitalize on the sizable investments in both, the Mariners have to get over the hump immediately.

Given their disappointing 2015 season, the M's are not the stylish pick to win the West this year. That being said, a bounce back year from Iwakuma, as well as the continued maturation of Walker could go a long way towards those expectations going from never being fulfilled, but to simply being realized a bit later than originally anticipated.

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