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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 26, 2010 at 2:01 PM

A vote for Washburn: Mariner musings after two weeks in Arizona

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(Good timing: I file a post on bad vibes about an hour before Ken Griffey Jr. hits a walk-off grand salami).

I’m safely back in Seattle after a stint in Arizona, wondering how I’m going to survive without my nightly helping of wings at Gordon Biersch. I guess I could have Geoff ship me an order. Come to think of it, there’s a Gordon Biersch in Seattle. Problem solved.

So, what to make of the Mariners? I left camp with a nagging vibe that this team could be headed for tough times, at least early in the season while Cliff Lee (pictured above) is out. Maybe you tend to only see the flaws during long, ragged spring-training games, or maybe you don’t get an accurate feel of a team’s strength because the regulars play together so infrequently. But the Mariners just seem to me to be a team with a small margin of error to be successful, and Lee’s absence throws the whole delicate dynamic askew. No one can say how long he’ll be out, but I don’t think it’s alarmist to say that April is in doubt for Lee. That’s more than 10 percent of the season. Now, he might have a miraculous recovery and be back sooner, but based on his past episodes of lower abdominal strains, I don’t think you can count on it.

(By the way, I tweeted this yesterday, but I’m trying out a new nickname for Lee, in light of his injury: The Abdominal Throwman. What do you think?)

Beyond Felix Hernandez, who looks poised for another Cy Young run, the rotation is filled with a lot of question marks. If the Mariners open with a Felix/Rowland-Smith/Snell/Vargas/Fister rotation, you’re talking about 19 wins last year for Hernandez, and 18 wins combined for the four others. I know wins are over-rated for a starting pitcher, but Rowland-Smith and Fister have never spent full seasons in the majors, Snell has been maddeningly inconsistent throughout his career, and Vargas, in his comeback year from the hip surgery that wiped out 2008, ran out of steam midway through last season. The one-two punch of Hernandez and Lee could hide a lot of flaws and worries. But suddenly they are coming to the forefront.

That said, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s prudent for the Mariners to work on getting Jarrod Washburn back, even if that throws them a bit over their budget (easy for me to say, right?). The Mariners have constructed a team that could still be very good, despite what might seem like doom and gloom in this post. Washburn was a high-caliber starter for them much of last season, and assuming that knee surgery has fixed whatever threw him off course in Detroit, could be a productive contributor again.

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I guess, bottom line, I have more faith in Washburn than the Vargas/Fister combo. It would obviously take Washburn a few weeks to get ready, during which time the Mariners could assess the starters behind Felix in regular-season conditions, and ascertain whose spot he would take. When Lee comes back, there would be further shuffling, but the end result would seem to be a deeper, more stable and reliable rotation.

The M’s, remember, are still hoping for a mid-season boost from Erik Bedard. That would be great, but I’ve always been skeptical about his ability to come back, this season, from labrum surgery and be the frontline starter that people are anticipating. Maybe down the road, but the history of torn labrums is that it will be difficult in 2010. Of course, even Bedard at something less than absolute top form could still provide a boost.

I’ll have some more observations on the Mariners later, but I’ve got to finish a column right now for our special baseball section, which will publish a week from Sunday.

(Photos by Associated Press)

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