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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.

January 25, 2013 at 11:37 AM

Until the kids arrive, starting pitching could be problematic for Mariners

felixwave.jpg

(Seattle Times staff photo)

It seems incongruous, doesn’t it? If there’s one area of the Mariners that doesn’t seem like it should be a concern, it is their starting pitching.

After all, they have an ace that any team would kill for in Felix Hernandez. They have all that well-regarded young talent that keeps showing up high in every prospects ranking — Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and the newest addition to the phenom ranks that has everyone excited, Brandan Maurer.

Also, under Jack Zduriencik, starting pitching has been a solid area for the Mariners. In the four years before he got there, Mariners’ starters ranked 12th in the American League in ERA in 2008 (5.07), 12th in 2007 (5.16), ninth in 2006 (4.88) and 11th in 2005 (4.91). In Zduriencik’s four years, Seattle’s starters ranked 1st in 2009 (3.89), second in 2010 (3.83), sixth in 2011 (4.04) and fourth last season (3.93). Not all of that is Zduriencik’s doing, of course, but he did bring in some of the guys who surrounded Felix — increasingly so as time has passed.

It’s easy to see the makings of a powerhouse rotation down the road, particulary if Hernandez is indeed signed to an extension. There’s always a chance that the “Big Four” turn out to be busts, or less than advertised, but if even half of them come through, the Mariners should be in great shape in the starting department, moving forward.

But during this transition period, while the young guns get the finishing touches in the minor leagues, it could be a rough go this year. I’ll withhold final judgment until I see who Zduriencik picks up prior to spring training — and I have little doubt that the Mariners plan to acquire a few more arms. Zduriencik indicated that he is likely to sign a couple more Jeremy Bonderman types — guys trying to revive their careers and willing to come in on minor-league deals. There are still a few free agents out there — I’ll get to the list in a moment. And the Mariners could also pull off a trade to get a starter. At the very least, I expect that they will be able to get this year’s Kevin Millwood in the fold — but that wouldn’t be enough to assuage my concerns about their potential starting staff.

Not all is dire. They are lucky enough to have a bona fide ace. Despite his 0-4, 6.62 showing over his final six starts, Hernandez should be just fine. Yes, great pitchers don’t stay great forever, but my concerns over the Mariners’ rotation don’t include Hernandez.

Hisashi Iwakuma is a perfectly fine middle-of-the-rotation guy, though on Seattle’s staff he looks like he’ll be the No. 2. No big concerns there, either, if Iwakuma can resume where he left off last year. In his final nine starts, Iwakuma went 6-2 with a 1.83 ERA, the lowest ERA in the American League over that stretch. The Mariners could have a dynamic 1-2 punch atop their rotation.

But you need five starters, and right now — barring a new acquisition, or a breakthrough from one of their touted youngsters, or a comeback from Bonderman or someone else — this is where the concern lies. At Wednesday’s luncheon, Eric Wedge listed Blake Beavan, Erasmo Ramirez and Hector Noesi as the current candidates to round out the rotations. Starting at the end, I’m not ready to write off Noesi, who has good stuff but still has to learn how to utilize it. That said, the learning, at this point, should take place in Tacoma. I’d be shocked if Noesi is any kind of factor in 2013 after last year’s disastrous season (2-12, 5.82 for Seattle, 2-6, 5.74 for Tacoma).

Beavan can’t strike many out (67 in 152.1 innings), but he also doesn’t walk anyone (24 walks, second fewest in the majors for any pitcher with at least 150 innings, one behnd Bartolo Colon). Not everyone is high on Beavan, but he seemed to figure a few things out during a month-long Tacoma stint. In 14 starts after he got back, Beavan was 8-5 with a 3.40 ERA, compared to a 5.92 ERA in his first 12 starts. So maybe there’s reason for some hope, particularly if he can develop a swing-and-miss pitch.

I like Erasmo Ramirez. He showed some great flashes last year, and there’s a potential for some real upside, but it’s hard to know what you’re going to get from him after just eight major-league starts (interrupted by a stint on the DL for elbow problems).

Right now, Wedge has shown no inclination to consider moving either Charlie Furbush or Tom Wilhelmsen into the rotation. Two names are coming off the free-agent list today, it appears, with Shaun Marcum signing with the Mets and Jair Jurrjens with Baltimore.

Some reports out of Japan today link the Mariners to Daisuke Matsuzaka, whom they passed on in 2006 when he came on the market as the most celebrated Japanese pitcher (until Yu Darvish). Frankly, at this stage of Dice-K’s career, coming off Tommy John surgery and making just 19 starts over the past two years (and not very successfully), he falls into the “take a non-roster flyer” group, in my eyes.

The best free agent still unsigned is Kyle Lohse, who went 16-3 with a 2.86 ERA for the Cardinals last year. He turned 34 in October. Lohse, like Michael Bourn, has the hindrance of receiving (and declining) a qualifying offer, which attaches the loss of a first-round draft pick to the team that signs him. That’s depressing the market for him, but someone is going to sigh Lohse eventually. Will it be the Mariners? Well, they really covet those high draft picks.

The Mariners, who could use a lefty for the rotation until Hultzen and/or Paxton get up, have been linked off and on to Joe Saunders, who went 9-13 with a 4.07 ERA last year in 28 starts for Arizona and Baltimore. He turns 32 in June. Jonathan Sanchez is another available lefty, but he’s coming off a disastrous year (1-9, 8.07 ERA in 15 starts). Lefty Dallas Braden is available, but he had his third shoulder surgery in August and would be the ultimate reclaimatioin project. Randy Wolf is out for the season following Tommy John surgery.

Beyond that, the options are rapidly declining. Word came out yesterday that Carl Pavano is (weirdly) hurt. Roy Oswalt hasn’t indicated if he’s going to even pitch in 2013. Other names still on the free-agent list: Freddy Garcia, Carlos Zambrano, Brad Penny, Chien-Ming Wang Chris Young. Oh, and Kevin Millwood, but I hear he’ll likely hang it up.

Spring training starts in about two weeks. I’m curious to see what moves the Mariners make in their rotation.

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