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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.

February 14, 2012 at 3:15 PM

Mariners’ rotation, like its offense, comes with concerns

vargas.jpg

(Beyond Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas ,pictured above in a game from July, 2011, the Mariners’ rotation is filled with questions. Seattle Times photo).

This might seem crazy in light of the Mariners’ offensive woes in recent years, but I think their biggest concern heading into the 2012 season is starting pitching. Or, at least, as big a concern as the offense.

That’s not to say that their hitting issues have been miraculously cured by the three additions this offseason – a rookie with 18 games of major-league experience (Jesus Montero), a backup catcher who hit .224 last year (John Jaso), and a 36-year old, non-roster infielder (Carlos Guillen) who has played 177 games in the past three seasons.

Still, I tend to think Eric Wedge might be on to something when he says with conviction that the Mariners will make major strides in the run-scoring department this year. I don’t see them becoming the Yankees or Tigers, mind you. But I could see something approaching a league-average offense if the youngsters who got a taste last year – Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, Casper Wells, Kyle Seager – continue to progress, if Justin Smoak takes the major step forward the Mariners are banking on, if Montero prove to be the type of offensive talent the Mariners (and just about everyone else) think he is, and if the likes of Ichiro, Franklin Gutierrez and Chone Figgins have rebound years.

That’s an awful lot of “ifs”, always a dangerous way to head into the season. But the bar has not been set very high when it comes to out-shining the Mariners’ recent offense. Right off the bat, the Mariners won’t have Jack Wilson, Jack Cust and Milton Bradley as regulars, as they did to start last season. That provides them a major avenue for improvement. I’m not nearly as bullish on Figgins as Wedge seems to be, but even if he gets regular playing time at the start, I don’t think they’ll stick with him very long if his struggles continue.

Long-term, the Mariners starting pitching prospects look excellent. They have those three highly touted prospects (Danny Hultzen, James Paxtonand Taijuan Walker) bubbling just under the surface, waiting to break through, and Erasmo Ramirez looks like a keeper as well. There are a couple of other good-looking prospects in the system. But the operative phrase here is “heading into the season.” Even though Jack Zduriencik has said that Hultzen and Paxton will ostensibly compete for a starting job in spring training, I don’t think that’s a realistic outcome for either. I would be shocked if either broke camp with the team, but I’d be just as surprised if both of them weren’t in the rotation when the season ended. I believe the master plan is to integrate those two into the major leagues as the season progresses with the hope that they are ready to be fixtures by 2013 – when Walker, with perhaps the highest ceiling of the three, could optimally join them at some point.

In the short term, however, the Mariners need to replace three pretty good pitchers who have departed their rotation since last year – Doug Fister, Michael Pineda and Erik Bedard (who is not remembered with much fondness but had a 3.00 ERA over his first 15 starts last year before the inevitable injury).

It’s a daunting task. For a substantial portion of last season, the Mariners could feel good about the starting pitcher they sent out virtually every night. Of course, they still have the peerless Felix Hernandez topping their rotation, followed by Jason Vargas, who threw three shutouts last year – four, really, but one of his nine-inning scoreless outings was not an official shutout because the game went into extra innings. Vargas struggled again in the second half but seemed to figure something out in September, when he had a 2.84 ERA, with 27 strikeouts in 31 2/3 innings, over his final five starts. Vargas probably projects better as a No. 3 or 4 starter, but coupled with Hernandez, it’s a good start to constructing a rotation.

After that, however, it could get dicey. Hasashi Iwakuma has sparkling credentials in Japan, but there’s really no telling how that will translate to the MLB game. Iwakuma has a lot of mileage on his arm, and ominously, was limited to 17 starts last year by shoulder problems. In the immortal words of Joaquin Andujar, youneverknow.

Wedge would love to see Kevin Millwood seize a rotation spot. Wedge saw Millwood at his best in 2005, when he won the American League ERA title and was a great influence on Indians youngsters. But that was seven seasons ago, and Millwood, now 37, has hit rough times. He went 4-16 with a 5.10 ERA in 2010, then spent most of last season in the minors before hooking on with the Rockies (4-3, 3.98 in nine starts). Like Iwakuma, there are no guarantees.

Beyond that, the Mariners have three kids who will push for a rotation spot, or spots – Hector Noesi, obtained in the Montero trade, who has two career start in the majors; Blake Beavan, who was 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA in 15 starts for the M’s last year; and Charlie Furbush, who had a 6.83 ERA in 12 starts in 2011. All have some degree of potential, but again, no sure things.

The Mariners will head into 2012 with most of the focus on their offense, to see if they can finally support their pitchers with a respectable amount of runs. I think they have enough options on hand to cobble together a satisfactory bullpen. But I’m reserving some focus for the starting pitching, to see if they can hold up their end of the bargain.

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