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

July 5, 2007 at 2:08 PM

Hidden value in M’s starters?

So, here we are on July 5, heading into Oakland for a key four-game series, and the Mariners are just 3 1/2 games behind in the AL West and only 1 1/2 out in the wild-card race. Just arrived in San Francisco after traveling all day to get here from Kansas City. Think a baseball writer’s life is glamorous? Well, it is, usually. Just not today. Had to wake up at the equivalent of 4:20 a.m. on the West Coast (on five hours sleep), make the half-hour drive to Kansas City Airport, drop off the rental car, take their shuttle and catch a flight to Minneapolis, then another to San Francisco.
Took the 25-minute ride in from San Francisco Airport to my hotel, then will catch the Bay Area Rapid Transit train to Oakland the moment I finish filing this blog. (My limo is in the shop, apparently). By the time tonight’s work finishes and I get to rest at my hotel, it will be 3 a.m. in Kansas City. And the folks at my office, who are great to work for, want to know whether I have time to research and write a feature for this weekend! So, no, it isn’t always glamorous. But what keeps you going? Why, a contending team of course. Had a nice, private chat with new manager John McLaren yesterday and he wanted to know how I was liking Seattle. We both spent many years working in Toronto, him before me, so it was an obvious comparative question. I told him I love it. Both the city and covering the team. The city part is obvious, so I don’t need to go into it. Toronto is nice, but doesn’t compare in terms of original restaurants, scenery, wine country, nightlife. You name it, Seattle’s got it. Trust me, this is from a guy who hangs out in countries around the world. You are very lucky. Now, for the part most of you care about, I love covering this team as opposed to the Toronto Blue Jays. Hey, I got to get to know and observe firsthand some great players, like Roger Clemens, Jose Canseco, Carlos Delgado, Pat Hentgen, Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, David Wells, Vernon Wells and others.
But trust me, nothing beats covering a contender. And the more Seattle separates itself from the pack, the closer it comes to being a contender. Check out the wild-card standings. Seattle is a clear second-place. The other “contenders” are starting to fall back and that’s huge if you’re going to contend. One reader e-mailed me this week and said I’m starting to bore him with all of my analysis about playoff contention. Wanted to see more “tidbits” about the players. Huh? I can understand wanting more inside dope on the players, which I will try to provide, but how can anyone get tired of looking at playoff chances? This is baseball, not football or basketball. Playoff experiences and races of any type can be a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Trust me, as a longtime Montreal Expos fan, I know that better than anybody. We all thought the future was ours after 1981. Sorry, out of luck there. Believe me, I don’t take the playoffs for granted and neither should you. Toronto Blue Jays fans sort of did when I arrived to cover that team in 1998. They were only five years removed from the post-season unlike the six that Mariners fans currently are. Acted like it was their divine right to contend every year. If they only knew!
Those fans would kill to be in the position that Mariners fans are today. So yes, I love the fact that the M’s all-but-eliminated Toronto from wild-card contention last week. Guess what? They can do a serious number on the Oakland A’s if they win this series. No, it won’t be easy. But take three of four here, then check out Oakland’s playoff chances on one of those websites we always flash to and I guarantee you “slim” and “none” will be making appearances.
So, how did Seattle reach this point? I mean, myself and many others stated from the outset that we expected this to be a winning team. I mean, for $110 million or so, that has to be the minimum. But I was thinking more like 82, maybe 84 wins if things went right, perhaps 77 or 79 if things went wrong. No, I never dreamed this team could win 90-plus games, which is what it is now on-pace to do at the literal halfway point of a 162-game schedule.
So, my hours of flying today have given me time to think. What is the real reason Seattle has defied the odds, despite reasonable expectations? Well, I’ve been looking back at what we wrote heading into the season and pre-season. It’s not like Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver and company have suddenly morphed into Cy Young Award candidates. They haven’t. Neither has Felix Hernandez, still only 21 and showing it at times. But the one thing we did note heading in was that the off-season pitching acquisitions of general manager Bill Bavasi had at least given the M’s plenty of pitching depth. Not brilliance, just depth. And depth helps you withstand injuries that other teams might not be able to.
“Bavasi has talked often this winter about the depth he has added, both pitching and hitting,” we wrote in this spring training preview story back on Feb. 11. “Everyone in baseball knows that depth is the only real way to prevent big-time injuries or individual player flops from destroying a season.
“And by managing to land three rotation arms — Ramirez was acquired via trade — while keeping Jake Woods in the bullpen and Cha Seung Baek in Class AAA,” the story continues, “the Mariners do have some mound depth in the event of serious injury or abject failure by any one of the starters.”
Helps you tread water, so to speak.
Well, let’s look at Seattle’s pitching injuries so far. Hernandez missed a month. Did that devastate the Mariners? No, it didn’t. Weaver missed more than a month. Horacio Ramirez is going to have missed six weeks by the time he comes of the disabled list. Cha Seung Baek is going to spend at least a month on the DL. That’s four starters missing at least a month’s worth of action. We won’t even get into the bullpen. But not many teams could have the depth to withstand losing four starters at varying points for that length of time. Ask the New York Yankees how they’ve fared.
Yes, I know that Baek was Weaver’s replacement at one point, so it’s not like four of five starters in the Opening Day rotation went on the DL. But these numbers are very significant. And the depth has enabled Seattle to ride out the storm. Not every team can afford to let a pitcher like Weaver go on the DL for so long to iron out what’s wrong with his arm. Same with Ramirez and with Baek. While some of these “injuries” may be simple wear and tear that other teams are forced to hope their starters can grind through, the M’s have been able to let their pitchers recuperate.
That’s what depth can do. It may be mediocre depth in some cases. But it’s depth nonetheless. We won’t get into judging the overall quality of Bavasi’s off-season moves as I’m still not convinced the good outweighs the bad. But he does deserve credit for the depth he managed to stockpile. Now, don’t go jumping all over me for not calling for Bavasi’s head on a platter. All I’m saying is, with the price of pitching continuing to rise, the value of “tread water” starters he has amassed has shown its worth in recent weeks. It hasn’t entirely been the bullpen carrying this team to nine wins in the past 11 games. Perhaps the true value of that starting depth is only now beginning to become obvious.
One thing is clear. Something unexpected has been paying big dividends for this team. it has to be, because very few people felt this team could win at this pace for half a season. We all knew it could hit, knew a healthy bullpen could deliver. It’s possible the starters, as a whole, may be proving they are worth more than previously thought.
For those of you wondering about any pre-All-Star-Game roster moves, I’d say Chris Reitsma has an excellent chance of being activated tonight or tomorrow. Ryan Rowland-Smith would likely head back to Tacoma.

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