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June 2, 2007 at 11:53 AM

It’s the pitching, stupid

So, what have we learned from events of the past month or so? From the 25-game hitting streak by Ichiro, to the club record for hits in May, to the 19 runs scored in three games with the Angels — only to lose two of them?
Offense is nice. It’s necessary. You can’t win if you can’t score. But it’s still all about the pitching. I was on KJR speaking with host John Clayton about this moments ago and it dawned on me that the Mariners really do face some key decisions over the next few months. As Clayton mentioned, there are no quick-fix solutions for the M’s in the pitching department, other than to hope Felix Hernandez becomes a 20-game winner next season and Jarrod Washburn follows with 15. Washburn wasn’t up to the task last night and the M’s dropped a game they really had no business losing. You can’t score eight runs against the Texas Rangers and lose. You can’t score 12 runs in Tampa Bay and lose. Those are two last place teams. And yes, bad nights do happen. But they’ve happened a little too frequently on the mound side when it matters for the M’s. The Angels got eight runs off Hernandez and the M’s a few nights ago in Seattle’s biggest game of the year. Los Angeles has scored just five runs in two games since. Losing that game, to an offensively-challenged team on a night when the M’s scored six, will be looked upon as yet another affair Seattle let slip away.
That’s three losses to a pair of last-place clubs and another defeat to a squad with arguably the worst offense in the division. With the M’s scoring 26 runs in the three games. How do you average nearly nine runs per game and lose all three? It’s the pitching, stupid. And the pitching is what will determine whether this legitimate .500 club ever takes that next step towards joining the true playoff challengers.
The Angels and A’s both have pitching out the wazoo and will for the next several years. To win the AL West, pitching will be a must. This isn’t the late-1990s when the Rangers could waltz over a division with no pitching to speak of. The A’s transformed the AL West, not through Moneyball, or any of their offensive theories. Through pitching — the Big Three, then the guys they were traded for. Through closer Billy Koch, then Huston Street.
To keep up, the Angels went out and engaged the A’s in a true arms race, locking up a fine staff and bullpen, with ample depth, for years to come. Despite being hit hard by injuries, the A’s continue to pitch well — even when they lose.
The Mariners, if they are ever to get serious about winning this division, have got to get another quality arm into that starting rotation. Someone who slots between an improved Hernandez and a steady Washburn. A pitcher who can throw seven innings on most nights and win 15 games. Easily said, right? GM Bill Bavasi tried to do that (as best he could) three times this past winter and failed on all counts. Bavasi’s organization let him down when it opted not to bid on Daisuke Matsuzaka, the one arm with the capability to alter that balance of power in the division.
Now, the M’s have to find the next Matsuzaka. And free-agency is getting tougher to do that in. There is too much competition from too many teams for too few players. As we’ve seen with Jason Schmidt, it’s all a crapshoot. Can this club wait for Brandon Morrow to develop as a starter from within? Sure it can. But not to help it win in 2008. Morrow is helping the team’s 2007 chances as a reliever right now. But becoming an effective starter is a whole different ballgame. Look at how many years it’s taking Hernandez — a pitcher with seemingly unlimited potential — to emerge as something greater than a .500 arm. It’s actually not taking Hernandez all that long to impress. The point is, Morrow won’t be doing it in a year.
So then, a trade perhaps? OK, that’s interesting. But who can the M’s trade to bring in an impact arm? Ben Broussard? Jeremy Reed? Adam Jones? All fine as component parts to a deal. But who is the main trade component going to be? Who is going to light up an opposing GM’s eyes and make them pull the trigger on a deal?
Well, let’s wind this up by going back to where we began. How about the guy with the 25-game hitting streak? Think he’d bring in an arm or two if packaged with one of the three other guys we mentioned? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on how good the guy doing the dealing really is. But right now, Ichiro is the best trade commodity this team has.
Am I saying deal him this minute? No. Ichiro is a key reason why the Mariners have stayed at .500 for so long. But it’s time for this organization to start answering some serious questions internally. Is Ichiro coming back next year? Do they want him back next year? If the answer to either of those questions is even remotely a “no” then it’s time to plan the exit strategy. If you’re the M’s, you simply cannot gamble on the fact that an 82 or 83-win season will be enough to make Ichiro stay at the price you want. If you’re the M’s you cannot risk losing Ichiro to free-agency and get nothing — or a couple of draft picks — in return. Not when you’re a team in desperate need of pitching. Not when your most valuable trade commodity is hitting the cover off the ball. The Mariners right now, even with Ichiro at his finest, are merely a .500 team.
They need pitching to get better. And they do have options.
Here’s a different take on the A-Rod saga than what I offered yesterday. I’ve always enjoyed the writer’s stuff and respect him enough to consider what he has to say with seriousness.



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