With the signing of Japanese right-handed veteran Hisashi Iwakuma, the Seattle Mariners have added depth to a starting rotation that should allow them time to let youngsters like Dan Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker develop.
That doesn't mean a breakout spring from any of those young guns couldn't land a rookie in the 2012 rotation, as Michael Pineda did last year. It simply means the Mariners don't have to take one of them when the season begins.
The first four spots in the Seattle rotation appear set, though the order may be altered: Felix Hernandez, Pineda, Jason Vargas and Iwakuma. The fifth spot could be won by lefty Charlie Furbush or Blake Beavan, or the Mariners might even take a look at Tom Wilhelmsen as a starter in camp. That's a lot of options beyond rookies who have never thrown a big-league pitch.
A year ago, the opening day rotation was Felix, Vargas, Doug Fister, Erik Bedard and Pineda. Is the 2012 version likely to be a better one?
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Take away the issue of run support - and wouldn't the Mariners love to do just that? Felix will turn 26 in April, and remains the type of ace teams covett. Vargas went 3-1 with a 2.84 earned run average in September and Pineda got a one-year education on everything from major league hitters to his own pitching style. Figure those three will be as good or in 2012.
Iwakuma has a marvelous track record, albeit in Japan, and though he's 6-foot-3 and just 170 pounds, his history indicates he'll pitch a lot of innings while relying upon command rather than power pitches. And whoever the No. 5 starter is, he'll largely be holding the job until the first of those can't-miss kids is ready for prime time, perhaps the middle of the season.
There's a strong possibility that the Mariners rotaton will be stronger late in 2012 than it is early on, because Hultzen, Paxton or Walker may join it down the line.
What to expect? A year ago, Seattle starters had a 4.04 earned run average and allowed opposing batters a .252 batting average. Surprisingly, that ERA ranked fourth in the American League Wesst, that batting average against was third. Both Texas and Los Angeles have improved their rotations, Oakland dismantled its and the Mariners will retool theirs.
Is this rotation better than the one that won 49 times a year ago?
The simplest answer: Seattle's starting pitching is capable of winning far more games in 2012 - and should have won more in 2011. Whether it does this season will depend upon the issue that kept the Mariners anchored in fourth place last year.
With it, the Mariners could make a quantrum leap from the 67-win finish of a year ago. Without it, the improvement will be far less dramatic.