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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 25, 2012 at 7:07 AM

Plenty of competition on pitching side for Mariners

furbush.jpg

Geoff had a blog post recently pointing out how set the Mariners’ everyday lineup appears to be, and how little competition there is for starting jobs.

It’s not quite the same story on the pitching side, however. That’s where most of the drama will be when Cactus League games begin next Friday.

In the starting rotation, I’d say two spots are up for grabs. Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas are gimmes, of course, and Hisashi Iwakuma would have to completely fall on his face this spring not to get the third spot.

I view Kevin Millwood as the frontrunner for the No. 4 spot. Eric Wedge loves him from his days managing him in Cleveland, when Millwood won the American League ERA title in 2005. Wedge said recently he’s never seen a veteran who was a better influence on young pitchers on a staff, and he’d love to have some of that leadership in Seattle.

But that was seven years, and more than 1,000 innings ago. Last year, Millwood didn’t even crack a major-league staff until August. He finished strong with the Rockies (4-3, 3.98 ERA in nine starts), but Millwood, now 37, is going to have to convince the Mariners in spring training he still has the stuff to get hitters out. I expect he will win the job, but it’s something to watch.

Beyond Millwood, three or more pitchers will be competing for the remaining one, or possibly two, starting jobs. Hector Noesi, acquired with Jesus Montero from the Yankees in the Michael Pineda deal, probably is the frontrunner, but he has exactly two major-league starts (to go with 74 in the minors). He’ll be watched closely in spring games by a staff that’s barely seen him pitch.

Then there’s Charlie Furbush and Blake Beavan, who combined to make 25 starts between them for the Mariners last year. They’ll be trying to open eyes and show how much they’ve progressed, and that they warrant another crack at the rotation.

Finally, there are the youngsters who will be trying to pull a Pineda and pitch so well in spring that the Mariners have no choice but to put them in their rotation. I don’t put Taijuan Walker in this category, as tempting as that might be. Yes, Dwight Gooden made the major leagues at 19, but as successful as he was, you can debate the efficacy of that decision, long-term. Gooden had also made 38 minor-league starts at that point. Walker has made 22. At any rate, I don’t think the Mariners will keep Walker in camp for too long so as not to allow themselves to get tempted.

Danny Hultzen, at age 22, and especially James Paxton might get longer looks, but I’d still expect them both to start out in the minors — “start out” being the operative words. Hultzen is said to have come out of college

as a very polished pitcher, but his pro experience is limited to the Arizona Fall League. That would be an awfully big jump to the majors. Both could and probably will be in the rotation before the year is out.

That leaves Erasmo Ramirez, who is just 21 but already has pitched four years in the minors (two in the Venezuelan League). He’s a pitcher everyone is anxious to see this spring, and could sneak into a starting job with an excellent spring, if the other pieces fall right.

So that’s a lot of names vying for jobs now and shortly down the road. The bullpen will also be competitive. Brandon League is the closer, of course. I’d put down LHP George Sherrill and RHP Tom Wilhelmsen as pretty sure bets for what is likely to be a seven-man pen.

Shawn Kelley pitched well enough after his return from injury last year to put himself in a strong position. Hong-Chih Kuo and Shawn Camp both signed major-league contracts just before camp began, but I don’t think that makes them locks to make the team. Cesar Jimenez is out of options, so he’ll get a long look. Rule 5 lefty Lucas Luetge has to make the team or be offered back to Milwaukee. Steve Delabar has a very intriguing arm. And there’s still Chance Ruffin, who is viewed as a future closer. Furbush could be a long man if he doesn’t crack the rotation. Aaron Heilman is in camp. Forrest Snow has impressed people. In the longshot category, non-roster pitchers Matt Fox, Sean Henn, Josh Kinney and Scott Patterson all have major-league experience. So, for that matter, does lefty Oliver Perez, though recently that hasn’t been a good thing.

An injury or two could complicate things even more, of course. So if you’re looking for drama and competition this spring in Mariners camp, keep a close eye on the pitchers.

(Seattle Times photo of Charlie Furbush)

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