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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.

May 20, 2010 at 11:30 AM

The Felix Hernandez-Cliff Lee one-two punch hasn’t been a knockout (plus minor-league report)

Here’s today’s minor-league report.

When the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee on Dec. 16 — one month before they locked up Felix Hernandez to a contract extension through 2014 — there was legitimate excitement about what this combination would mean for the Mariners. Few teams could claim to have two aces of that caliber in their rotation; it was envisioned that this duo would be the impetus for whatever success the Mariners were going to have. Articles like this one extolled the virtues of having such a vaunted one-two punch.

The season is now one-fourth over, and you can add the Hernandez-Lee combo to the long list of Mariner disappointments. Although, to be fair, the M’s inability to take full advantage of their two mound studs has been much more about the team inadequacies than about them.

Nevertheless, here are the facts: Hernandez and Lee have made 13 starts thus far this season, and the Mariners are 5-8 in those games. That’s not exactly the way the game plan was written.

In fact, things started to go south early. Lee missed the first week of camp because of foot surgery, and no sooner had been cleared to pitch than he suffered the abdominal strain in Tucson that kept him out of action until April 30. On the date of Lee’s return, the Mariners were 11-11. Since he’s been back, they’ve gone 3-15. Obviously, there is no cause-and-effect going on, but it’s indicative of the fact that this team needed far more than Hernandez and Lee to carry them. His very first game should have been an omen: Lee pitched seven brilliant, scoreless innings, only to watch the M’s produce zero offense, Eric Byrnes botch a squeeze bunt in epic fashion, and the Rangers win 2-0 in 12 innings. Lee had similar frustration in his latest start, in which he worked eight strong innings, only to get tagged with a 2-1 loss to Tampa Bay. Overall, Lee has been as good as advertised, with a 2.08 ERA and a 25-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He gives a pitching clinic every time out. But he can’t pitch a shutout every time out, and the M’s are squandering his strong efforts (as has been the case with Doug Fister and Jason Vargas, for that matter).

Felix, too, has had his share of tough losses, including one in which he left with a 5-1 lead after seven, only to have the Orioles score five in the eighth to win, and the 4-3 lead he left with that was squandered in his most recent start in Oakland.

Any team in baseball would still kill to have Hernandez and Lee in their rotation, and the Mariners are lucky to have them. (They have Lee for now, anyway. If the Mariners continue to struggle, GM Jack Zduriencik will have no choice but to explore trade options involving Lee, who is eligible for free agency after the season).

I think we can safely conclude that a one-two punch, even as potent as this one, doesn’t pack much of a wallop all by itself.

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