Ever since joining the Seattle Mariners in May, George Kirby has lived up to the top-100 status bestowed upon him by multiple prospect ranking outlets. Sure, there have been growing pains. But we’re talking about a rookie with just two years of professional experience. Clearly, Kirby is marching towards becoming a long-term fixture in Seattle’s starting rotation.
Despite this positive development, the Mariners and Kirby will soon reach a crossroad in his debut campaign. One that could potentially affect Seattle’s late-season competitiveness and its strategy prior to the MLB trade deadline. Specifically, a team-established workload restriction for the 24-year-old.
When talking to Mike Lefko of Seattle Sports 710 AM in mid-April, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto acknowledged the team had already communicated to Kirby its intent to have him pitch about the same number of innings as Logan Gilbert did last year. Gilbert threw a combined 124.1 innings with Class-AAA Tacoma and Seattle in 2021.
Jerry Dipoto on @SEASports710 said that the Mariners are aiming to get George Kirby to the 120-130 innings mark this year.
— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) April 14, 2022
Taking a conservative approach with a prized pitching prospect is sensible. Especially one with a relatively low annual workload dating back to college. Kirby’s highest inning count as a collegian or professional occurred in 2019 when he tossed 111.1 frames with Elon and Seattle’s short-season A affiliate.
Unfortunately, the cancelled 2020 MiLB season cost Kirby the opportunity to continue building upon his 2019 workload. When competitive action resumed last year, he pitched for High-A Everett and Class-AA Arkansas. But there was a hiccup.
Kirby was shut down for about a month due to shoulder fatigue, which helped limit him to 67.2 innings. Fortunately, the New York native did return to make seven more starts, including six following his promotion to Arkansas.
And that brings us to 2022.
On Independence Day, Kirby has logged 84.2 combined innings with Arkansas (24.2) and as a Mariner (60). Assuming the team permits the 20th overall pick of the 2019 draft to reach the upper limit suggested by Dipoto, he has approximately 45 innings remaining. That’s approximately eight more starts based on his current average of 5.5 innings/start.
And that brings us to the crossroad awaiting the Mariners and Kirby.
What To Do?
Kirby’s spot in the rotation likely takes the mound about 15 more times this season. Therefore, the Mariners are looking at the possibility of having to replace Kirby for approximately seven starts. Basically, the final month of the regular season. Easier said than done.
There are candidates within the Mariners organization to fill in for Kirby. But none project as a prime choice. Justus Sheffield, who is currently starting for Tacoma, has made 32 career starts with the Mariners and is already on the 40-man roster. Then again, Sheffield has a 7.29 ERA in 10 starts with the Rainiers.
Another option could be veteran Tommy Milone, who recently moved from Tacoma’s rotation to Seattle’s bullpen. It’s plausible Milone helps carry the load upon Kirby’s departure. The 35-year-old did have a 1.13 ERA in seven AAA starts before joining the Mariners. Other Rainiers with MLB experience include Darren McCaughan (5.16 ERA) and Daniel Ponce de Leon (7.11 ERA).
Some of you may suggest Dipoto should rely on his organization’s stable of pitching prospects to mitigate a potential loss of Kirby. Perhaps, but none of the seven starters Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill discussed in his mid-season prospect rankings appear MLB-ready. At least not as a starting pitcher. This includes two names recognizable to most Seattle fans – Emerson Hancock and Levi Stoudt.
With organic options somewhat limited, the trade market may be the most logical alternative for the Mariners. Perhaps Dipoto and his staff find another Tyler Anderson, as they did last year. Anderson was a stabilizing force in Seattle’s rotation after the team acquired him in late-July.
Down The Road
It’s important to recognize all innings are not created equal. The Mariners are probably assessing pitcher workload with methods a bit more advanced than simply counting innings. But for the dumb blogger without access to analysts with 50-pound brains, total innings is the easiest way to gauge how much a pitcher may have left in the tank.
In the end, the Mariners likely take a multi-pronged approach to maximizing Kirby’s remaining innings. One strategy could be the periodic use of an opener. Then again, Seattle employed this tactic 10 times last season and won just two games. Hence, the need to acquire Anderson last July.
Perhaps assigning Kirby to Tacoma just prior to the All-Star break and have someone else, like Sheffield, take his first second-half start is a possibility. Doing so would only cost Seattle one Kirby start, while the freshman could get up to a two-week break.
No matter how the Mariners handle Kirby’s innings, the team appears destined to lose him as a starter late in the season. It’s a difficult crossroad Dipoto and his staff have been considering for months.
Losing Kirby from the starting rotation this year would undoubtedly hurt. Then again, promoting the long-term health of such a promising arm makes the short-term pain the Mariners feel in 2022 worthwhile.
My Oh My…
Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up as a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home.
In 2014, Luke joined the Prospect Insider team. During baseball season, he can often be found observing the local team at T-Mobile Park.
You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
Latest posts by Luke Arkins (see all)