When Mike Carp and Franklin Gutierrez return from the disabled list in the next month, the Mariners will have to make some difficult roster decisions. With Casper Wells, John Jaso, and particularly Alex Liddi all playing well in the limited time they've seen the field, the Mariners don't really have any fodder on the chopping block, at least among the position players. You have my sympathies if you want to nominate Miguel Olivo or Chone Figgins, but realistically, the organization isn't about to part with either. Besides, there is a more obvious candidate sitting in the rotation: Kevin Millwood.
Millwood was signed for two reasons: to soak up innings while better prospects developed in the minors and to serve as an insurance policy in case injuries plagued the rotation early in the year. As a thirty-seven year old journeyman relying on craft more than stuff, he's a known quantity and is a safe bet to pitch a little better than a Triple A call up. Several teams sign such stopgaps annually, with Colorado's acquisition of Jamie Moyer being a prime example.
The problem is that this is a move usually made by teams in one of two scenarios: either the club in question is starved of competent pitching in the upper levels and doesn't want someone like Anthony Vasquez in the opening day rotation, or it's a fringe contender that needs to send the best available pitcher to the mound at all times. The Mariners satisfy neither criteria. This team realistically won't compete for the second wild card, and more pertinently, in the period between now and Danny Hultzen's arrival this summer, there are a finite number of starts that can be given to more intriguing candidates than Millwood.
One option is Charlie Furbush. True, Furbush has a home run problem: he's surrendered seventeen in only ninety big league innings and he also gave up his fair share of souvenirs as a minor leaguer. However, he has also posted an abnormally high rate of home runs per flyball, possibly skewing his overall propensity to allow the big fly. This is captured by his xFIP (a statistic that evaluates strike outs, walks, a normalized HR/FB%, and is weighted to resemble ERA) which sits at a respectable 4.17 for his career. Additionally, Furbush punches out more hitters and generates more swinging strikes than both Millwood and Blake Beavan. While the home runs might always be a problem for him, Eric Wedge could do worse than to give Furbush another slate of starts to determine if Safeco's cavernous left field can help turn him into a back-end starter.
Another possible option languishing in the bullpen is Hisashi Iwakuma. It's nearly impossible to evaluate Iwakuma statistically right now. He's faced thirteen big league batters and it's tricky to translate Japanese stats into a big league projection. We don't have much evidence that he'd be a better pitcher than Millwood, but I'd argue that's precisely why the M's ought to give him an audition. Millwood is a known quantity; Iwakuma is a wildcard but with his impressive control (19 walks in 119 innings in Japan last year) it's not hard to imagine him as a useful strike thrower with a chance to be a bit more if his deceptive windup causes hitters any problems.
If the Mariners want to take the bold route they could also give Erasmo Ramirez a crack in the rotation. Ramirez parlayed a strong spring into a surprising big league audition this April. He came to camp as a strike thrower with a good change up and emerged with a fastball a full five miles an hour faster than it was last season. He's held his own in limited action this year and was recently seen touching ninety-five this week against the Tigers. I understand that the M's might be hesitant to throw the inexperienced twenty-one year old into the fire right away, but if they did, he's not going to embarrass himself. If nothing else it would be interesting to see how well his velocity holds up as he progresses through a game.
The bottom line is that there isn't much use for Millwood. There are an agglomeration of pitchers at the big league level alone that could perform close to what the organization expects out of Millwood going forward, and the three arms highlighted above all have skills suggesting they could outpace the production of a generic fifth starter. Furthermore, the farm system has enough depth to survive the post-Millwood roster even if a few current starters land on the disabled list (and if injuries completely decimate the rotation, Millwood wouldn't exactly salvage the season.) James Paxton and Danny Hultzen are knocking on the big league door right now and between them they'll absorb at least one rotation spot between now and the end of the summer. Kevin Millwood doesn't fit in with the Mariners long term plan: it's time to give his starts to someone who might be around for awhile before those opportunities run out.