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October 6, 2011 at 8:55 AM

Roy Halladay versus Chris Carpenter a reminder that even best young pitching cores can take time to flourish

Last week at Safeco Field, I was introduced to former M’s pitcher Erik Hanson by a mutual acquaintance. I’d actually met Hanson for a brief moment back in 1998, when I’d begun covering the Toronto Blue Jays mid-season just weeks before he left that organization. Anyhow, he got on the subject of what a great young rotation that 1998 team had blossoming right around the time he was about to leave.
And he was right.
If I’d told you that, the following season, the Blue Jays would have a young trio of Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter (seen in AP photos from their Class AAA days in the 1990s) and Kelvim Escobar on a team with a rotation fronted by David Wells and onetime Cy Young winner Pat Hentgen, you’d assume that team ran away and hid from everybody. Well, you’d be wrong. Escobar might have had the best pure “stuff” of all of them, but arm woes curtailed a career that didn’t really start taking off until he left Toronto for Anaheim six years after breaking into the majors.
Carpenter was hit-and-miss for years, actually getting the nod as the team’s Opening Day starter in 2002 before getting hurt as well. The Blue Jays let him become a free agent that winter and the St. Louis Cardinals took a flyer on him with an incentive-laden deal that recognized he’d be unable to pitch in 2003. But by 2004, the Cards saw their patience pay off and Carpenter later became the Cy Young Award winner he’d been touted as ever since my arrival in Toronto years earlier.
Halladay won himself a Cy Young Award in 2003, but by then, the young core he’d come up with was about to be totally dismantled. Escobar was allowed to leave that off-season and the Blue Jays would audition a host of characters — including A.J. Burnett — in No. 2 starter roles without success.
By the 2009 off-season, the Blue Jays had replaced their old GM with a new one — Halladay’s third since breaking in late in 1998 — and he was traded to the Phillies.
And now, here we are, with a playoff round on-the-line tonight and old pals Halladay and Carpenter squaring off for the Phillies and Cardinals, respectively. It seems like only yesterday that I was watching them break in as “kids” in the majors, much like I now see a host of Mariners younguns’ trying to leave a mark.
Carpenter once told me in a long conversation prior to the 2000 season that he’d pitched in “pain” for much of the previous year. Those comments, once published, earning him the wrath of old school manager Jim Fregosi, who read him the riot act behind closed doors and scared the wits out of the fledgling big leaguer. Carpenter quickly called me over for a Fregosi-mandated explanation of what he really meant: that he was feeling routine arm “discomfort” in the latter half, the kind every pitcher feels. You see, when a highly-touted pitcher tells a reporter an organzation allowed him to pitch with “pain” for half a season, it makes everyone look clueless. Hey, it was a kid mistake.
Halladay made his share of kid mistakes as well. His story of having to be completely rebuilt from the head on down has been told and retold, so I won’t repeat it here. But needless to say, there were years of growing pains before he finally became the game’s best pitcher.
But there are no guarantees. Which brings us back to the M’s.

People these days ask me over and over again whether I’m as excited as they are about Seattle’s youth movement and forsee it leading to great things. And I try to tell them, as diplomatically as possible, that yes, it can lead to big things. But we just don’t know when those big things will occur and whether they’ll happen in a Seattle uniform.
I try to explain these things in my weekly Talkin’ Baseball segment with KJR AM 950’s Mitch in the Morning, only to have people suggest my outlook is bleak.
I prefer to look at it as realistic.
Yes, I can see the M’s have some young talent — especially starting pitchers coming up on the horizon.
I know that James Paxton, Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker can all be the Next Big Thing at some point. I know that Felix Hernandez has won a Cy Young Award — just as Roger Clemens had when Hanson was still with Toronto in 1998 and I began covering that team. I know Michael Pineda could be a No. 2 starter over a full season, just as Hentgen was still seen as in 1998 and then 1999 after his 1996 Cy Young.
But I also know that timing is everything in baseball.
I know that odds are, there’s an Escobar hiding in the Hultzen-Paxton-Walker trio. A guy who will have hits and misses and ultimately be done in by physical problems. Actually, the M’s would be fortunate to find an Escobar among those three because he did have a decade-long career with some brilliant moments as a starter and reliever. The M’s three have done nothing yet.
Maybe — if they’re real lucky — they have a Halladay or a Carpenter somewhere in that young mix, which I’m including Pineda in.
If they’re lucky enough to have all three, well then, they’re all set, right?
Look at today’s game for proof of that. Halladay and Carpenter turned out to be everything they were touted as and more. They came up with Cy Young-winning mentors and it still made no difference to a perenial third-place Toronto team.
Because all the young talent in the world won’t win you a thing without the more important aspects of timing and money behind it.
You need the young talent to blossom at the right time. And you need a team to spend on other parts to ensure that the youth is surrounded by the right guys capable of vaulting a club to the post-season.
The timing aspect for the M’s is up against it right now. Felix Hernandez has only three seasons remaining with the club before he can become a free agent. Chances are, the M’s will have to make a call on him before any of the Hultzen-Paxton-Walker trio is ready to make a serious dent in anything at the big league level.
At least, at this pace.
So, the M’s have a lot of pieces in place right now. But the timing is off on some of them. That doesn’t mean all hope is lost.
But it does mean that the rebuilding process, if left to talent alone, probably won’t bear the fruit that many fans envision. It means that this organization will have to do more than merely “Trust in Jack” — meaning GM Jack Zduriencik — these next couple of seasons. It will have to give him the financial backing needed to jumpstart this rebuilding plan. The cash needed to take advantage of Hernandez and Pineda right now, rather than waiting for the Hultzen-Paxton-Walker trio to catch up.
The cash needed to take advantage of Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, and others while Hernandez is still part of the team.
Sure, you can go the other route. It’s all been done before. Didn’t just start here in Seattle.
I’ve seen rebuilding plans attempted firsthand elsewhere. Seen it attempted with a young pitching core probably much better than anything Seattle can hope for right now, in an organization that also cut payroll and has held-the-line on costs going on a decade now.
And we’re seeing the results of that tonight with a playoff advancement on-the-line.
For two other teams, of course.
Doesn’t mean what happened in Toronto will happen here. But then again, why tempt fate by constantly allowing history to repeat itself?
Maybe it’s just human nature. Everybody thinks they can go where no man has gone before.
Best of luck on that. The visionaries we remember always do buck the odds. The ones we forget? Well, there’s a reason we forget them.
But if somebody asks me for an opinion based on stuff I’ve seen and lived through, I’m not going to lie to them. Best off hedging your bets and spending a little money now. A lot more money, actually. Get some pieces that will help this rebuild kick in sooner rather than later. Maybe then, this team and its fanbase won’t have to have its own Halladay-Carpenter moment a decade from now.



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