This Spring Training, it was as if the Seattle Mariners' front office put a package on a table marked "Pitching-rotation slot." Somebody had to claim the prize within the box.
Brandon Maurer, a 22-year-old right-handed starter, made the claim. But it wasn't a gift. He earned it.
I had the opportunity to watch the 6-foot-5, 215-pound Maurer navigate through the Cactus League with calm, collected precision that one would think was reserved for seasoned veterans. Watching Maurer on the mound was a pleasure.
Pitching downhill with long arms on a well-conditioned body, Maurer didn't seem overwhelmed or intimidated at all by seasoned veterans and baseball hitters with household names and lengthy statistics on their baseball cards. Rather, his pitching demeanor dictated a confident and appropriately assured young man with more than a clue of how to pitch.
That's the correct word. Maurer can pitch. I didn't see him try to throw the ball past anyone. I saw him throw sinker after sinker that induced hitters to pound the ball into the ground.
While his 92-93 mph fastball might be the main offering of his full four-course pitch menu, Maurer's secondary pitches certainly don't leave the hitter coming back for seconds. He becomes increasingly more effective when he cranks up the fastball to the 95-mph range -- which he can do.
In the games I saw, Maurer threw what looked to be a very nasty slider, a knee-buckling and balance-adjusting curveball and a changeup that didn't look quite as polished as some of the other pitches. But it was effective nonetheless. He seemed to spot it nicely, and it's certainly Major League quality -- as are all his pitches. It's just that the other three are really above average.
Maurer went to Orange (Calif.) Lutheran High School and was a member of the same high school pitching staff as right-handed Pittsburgh Pirates prospect Gerrit Cole. A third pitching teammate, left-hander Aaron Gates, was selected by the Colorado Rockies but has not played professionally.
Maurer may have attended Long Beach State University had the Mariners not taken him in the 23rd round of the 2008 First-Year Player Draft.
It isn't often that a 22-year-old pitcher with 371 innings of Minor League baseball is selected to start a professional season as a part of a Major League rotation. And it certainly is seldom that a pitcher selected in the 23rd round can make that claim. But Maurer isn't just any pitcher.
Maurer has woven together a combination of repertoire, control, command and mound presence that projects to success facing Major League hitters. He isn't a power pitcher, nor is he a finesse pitcher. Maurer flashes power pitches with some finesse included.
Maurer's mechanics aren't always the smoothest, but the end result is very impressive. Just when hitters think they can get to him, another ball drops from the strike zone, and the pitch is hit on the ground to a waiting infielder. Maurer's big, long body allows the ball to get on top of the plate in a real hurry.
While there may be some times Maurer gets touched up, as all pitchers do, he has the ability to pitch himself back into control of his game. He can get himself in trouble quickly and work himself out of trouble quickly as well.
Maurer began his career pitching in the Rookie leagues his first two seasons. He was getting a feel for life as a professional, throwing a total of 90 2/3 innings those first two years. Maurer was pitching to contact and not missing many bats.
Maurer hurt his elbow in 2010, causing him to play and rehabilitate in Australia at the conclusion of the U.S. season. He pitched for the Adelaide Bite. In that assignment, Maurer began to serve notice that he was on the mend while also learning to broaden his repertoire beyond a fastball.
Maurer pitched 79 1/3 innings combined between Class A Clinton and Class A Advanced High Desert during the 2011 season. He went 3-7 with a 4.99 ERA. Within those statistics were 42 1/3 innings in the hitter-friendly air and environment of the High Desert club of the California League. It should be noted that Maurer had some shoulder woes that limited his development.
Last season, Maurer was promoted to Double-A Jackson. He pitched to a 3.20 ERA in 137 2/3 innings, all as a starter. He finished with a record of 9-2, officially putting himself on the big league radar. In fact, Maurer was named the Mariners' Most Improved Minor League Player.
Everything Maurer has done in baseball so far led to Spring Training this year. And what a Spring Training it was. On display was the new Mariners offense, which set a team record for spring home runs. Fans were delighted.
But among the stories of the spring was Maurer, who threw 24 innings, giving up 23 hits while walking seven. As a result, his WHIP was a nice and tidy 1.25. Giving up only four earned runs, Maurer threw to an ERA of 1.50. What I really liked were the 25 strikeouts against the minimal number of walks. He had command of all his pitches. Maurer used the back of the plate. He threw pitches that sank like a rock in water.
Nothing seemed to faze Maurer this spring. He wasn't quite dominating. He wasn't overpowering. Maurer was just effective in getting people out. And that's the sign of a quality pitcher.
Can Maurer sustain the type of pitching he displayed to win a starting role this spring? Why not?
Maurer claimed a role in the Mariners' rotation by keeping within his capabilities. He saw an opportunity and seized the moment. Maurer is healthy. He's strong. And he's very determined. I like Maurer's chances, and Seattle's chances for success.
Bernie Pleskoff has served as a professional scout for the Houston Astros and Seattle Mariners. Follow @BerniePleskoff on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.