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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

March 27, 2007 at 9:56 AM

Mariners call to arms

A couple of you have written in to ask for my impressions of the team’s starting staff based on what I’ve seen down here. Not a bad idea, given that we’ve seen most of what we’re going to see already. All the pitchers I’ve talked to, with the exception of Jeff Weaver perhaps, say they were ready to start the year two weeks ago, so let’s get at it.
The guy who’s made the biggest impression on me is, naturally, Felix Hernandez. Do I think he’s going to win the Cy Young Award? No. If he’s even in the running for it, the Mariners should be post-season contenders and I don’t see that happening. What I do see is him progressing to the domain of a 15-game winner and that’s a big deal in today’s game.
Hernandez has acquitted himself well in some of the bigger hitter-pitcher matchups this spring. Guys like Barry Bonds and Vladimir Guerrero have been overpowered by him at times and that’s a good sign. There have been innings this spring when Hernandez made it look almost too easy. Hey, he’s got great stuff. He won 12 games last year and it really wasn’t that great a season for him. But winning games is one thing, pitching well quite another. Hernandez won’t have as good a bullpen behind him this time around. To win games, he has to go deeper and that means getting ground ball outs. There have still been some games this spring where he notches a high strikeout count, but gets to the point where he’d have to be pulled in the sixth or seventh inning. An ace has to go seven to nine innings every other start, and really, two out of every three starts to be a true ace. Is Hernandez there yet? I don’t know. He’s in better shape, which is good. We’ll see how his command and “maturity level” hold up when he starts to get whacked around a little. Overall though, I expect a natural progression, just not to ace level right away.
Jarrod Washburn has worked hard at throwing inside on left-handers, which was a major reason for his downturn last season. By downturn, I mean regression to single-digit win totals. A lefty has to get lefties out. Otherwise, he’s just a mediocre righty with a bloated contract. In no way do I believe Washburn will ever be the 18-win starter he was for the Angels in 2002. Once again, that was a great bullpen he had behind him to help secure those wins. This Seattle bullpen is not as good, not even as solid as last season’s. But I do believe, based on the lack of solid contact off Washburn by lefties towards the latter part of this spring, that he can be counted on to get back to double-digit win totals. He won’t be pressing as hard, trying to impress a new team. And the improvement versus lefties should enable him to lower his ERA significantly, by at least a quarter run, and return to the 11 or 12 win level he’d sort of leveled off at before arriving here in 2006.
Miguel Batista is someone I watched closely when he started for the Blue Jays in 2004. He was unable to finish the year in the rotation of the AL’s second-worst team that year. Part of it was that the Jays needed a new closer. The other part was that Batitsa simply threw too many pitches early in starts. He improved that somewhat with Arizona last year, adding an improved cutter to his repetoire. But there is a reason he has never won more than 11 games in any season. Batitsa this spring has looked unhittable at times, then has control issues and gets hit very hard. His last two outings have seen him victimized for 23 hits. He needs to have pinpoint control to get the ground balls he needs to record outs. I think he’s very well suited for this No. 3 role because he is a .500 type of pitcher. Do I expect him to top his career high for wins? No. I think 10 or 11 is the most he’ll get, even with the improved defense behind him. His one intangible, and it’s a biggie, is that he’s an ox. He’ll be there from start to finish without getting hurt.
Horacio Ramirez has been a ground ball machine this spring. If this is how he looks during the season, then a 15-win campaign would not be out of the question. But with him, you almost keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. You wonder what it is about him that makes so many folks — good baseball men — hesitate. The injury factor will obviously be a key to his season. He has spent so much time on the disabled list in recent years that you wonder whether his ability to log innings deep into the season will be an issue. I mean, come August, in Texas, will he have the stamina to go six or seven? Will those ground balls turn into line drives? I just don’t know about him, to be honest. Ramirez could be the key to this entire rotation if he gets back to the 2003 form he displayed with Atlanta. Then again, you have to add a half-run of ERA jumping over from the NL and I just don’t see the 12 wins he got there materializing for him here. I know that’s not very scientific. But the AL is a different beast. This guy gave up 30 homers a couple of years back and I wonder how having to face complete lineups without pitchers in them will impact his numbers. Guys who rely on pinpoint control — with rare exceptions — usually struggle in making the jump. Ramirez is this team’s de facto fifth starter. So, double-digit wins from him would be a bonus.
Then there’s Jeff Weaver. Is he going to be as awful as he’s looked at times this spring? No, I don’t think so. Weaver has worked on a lot of changes down here and doing that usually leads to gaudy numbers against. His new leg action caused him to miss high in the zone early on, while in the latter stages, he was missing down in the zone. Like Washburn, how he handles lefties will go a long way towards improving his stats. The changeup he began implementing against southpaws late last season in St. Louis will have to be effective come April and May. He has an edge over Ramirez in that he has faced AL hitters on a regular basis throughout his career. But asking him to duplicate what he did for the Cardinals will be a bit much. He is one of only two pitchers on staff to have won 14 games in a season. But unlike Washburn, his win total came with the Dodgers while facing teams in the punchless NL West 19 times per season. The AL West isn’t all that much tougher offensively, but it is tougher. I can see him reaching double-digits, but not by much. His last AL stop was a disaster with the Angels and while he’s figured a few things out, the results this spring show there’s still plenty of work ahead.
I’m not trying to be scientific in these evaluations. I don’t think it will be a stretch to envision a rotation with Hernandez winning 15 games and everyone else averaging 10. That gets you a .500 team in a good bullpen year and I honestly believe that’s what the Mariners have built themselves. Any true bullpen regression, though, and you’re looking at a record similar to last season’s. The difference here is that a 78-win season by the M’s this time will probably be more consistent and legit. Don’t forget, last year, the team loaded up on victories the final six weeks to hit that 78 total. I can see this club being a more steady .500, plus or minus a couple of games. That’s my prediction, based on what I’ve seen from the starters. No, it isn’t a revolutionary thought. But then again, teams like this one — what we in the biz call mediocre — don’t leave much room for originality in describing them. They are what they are.
There you go. Time to swing away!
Look who’s decided to drop by Peoria for a second time this spring. We’ll see how Ramirez does on the mound here. Should be an interesting test against some veteran hitters.
San Francisco Giants (13-15)
10 Dave Roberts, CF
13 Omar Vizquel, SS
25 Barry Bonds, DH
5 Ray Durham, 2B
7 Pedro Feliz, 3B
2 Randy Winn, RF
28 Lance Niekro, 1B
39 Todd Linden, LF
50 Eliezer Alfonzo, C
35 Matt Morris, RHP
Seattle Mariners (12-16)
51 Ichiro Suzuki, CF
3 Yuniesky Betancourt, SS
5 Jose Vidro, DH
28 Raul Ibanez, LF
44 Richie Sexson, 1B
6 Jose Guillen, RF
4 Jose Lopez, 2B
55 Jamie Burke, C
12 Mike Morse, 3B
26 Horacio Ramirez, LHP



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