For the past few seasons, the questions and concerns have been all about the Seattle Mariners’ offense or complete lack of anything resembling an attack.
Why can’t the Mariners hit?
Why can’t the Mariners get someone who hits?
Are the Mariners ever going to hit?
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During that time of lamentation and frustration, the pitching staff went about its business. Even at its worst moments, the pitching was still overshadowed by the anemic offense, which was viewed as the root of all Seattle struggles.
To be fair, the Mariners ranked fourth in the American League in earned-run average at 3.76 last season. Seattle pitchers allowed the third fewest walks per nine innings at 2.77 and teams hit .282 on balls put in play – fourth lowest in the American League.
But going into the 2013 season, it seems as though there may be more
questions about the Mariners’ pitching than their hitting.
Beyond Felix Hernandez, how reliable is the starting rotation?
Will a young and untested collection of hard throwers in the bullpen be able to withstand the rigors of a big league season?
Will a revamped Safeco Field with closer fences change the park from pitcher’s friend to a pitcher’s enemy?
There are some uncertainties.
The 12 pitchers who will suit up Monday in Oakland are an eclectic mixture of young and old, of proven and unproven, of consistency and the consistent search for it.
“I like the mixture,” Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. “To have a couple of veterans in the bullpen, to have a couple (of) veterans in the rotation, you need to have to that.”
If they were a 1960s Motown group, you could call the Mariners’ five starters “Felix and the Possibilities.”
The Mariners know exactly what they have in Hernandez. He’s their horse, their ace and any other slang terms baseball people use to describe a top pitcher.
“Any time you can have Felix Hernandez as the No. 1, it makes things easier for everyone,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said.
More importantly, Hernandez is with the Mariners for the next seven years. Any questions about his commitment to the organization were erased during press conference where he shed tears of joy announcing the signing of his seven-year, $175 million contract.
Hernandez promised to not disappoint anyone. If past performance is a guide, he’s likely to deliver.
Over the past four seasons, he has started 134 games with a 59-40 record and a 2.81 ERA. He has averaged 238 innings and 224 strikeouts per season.
But the questions aren’t about Hernandez, he’s a constant. The four pitchers who follow him in the rotation are far from certainties.
The closest thing is No. 3 starter Joe Saunders. The veteran left-hander was brought in to replace Jason Vargas. Saunders is similar to Vargas in that he pitches to contact, doesn’t get many swings and misses and will give up hits and runs while he throw lots of innings.
“He keeps you in games,” Wedge said. “He’s a grinder, he’s a competitor, he knows how to get hitters out.”
Saunders had plenty of success pitching against the Mariners at Safeco Field in the past (6-0 with a 2.13 ERA in nine career starts).
But it’s a different park now, and he could be the most affected by it.
“You kind of have to adjust to the field wherever you’re pitching,” Saunders said. “I’ve pitched in bad ballparks like Colorado and Arizona.”
After Hernandez and Saunders, the remaining three starters – Hisashi Iwakuma (16), Blake Beavan (41) and Brandon Maurer (none) – have a combined 57 big league starts.
Iwakuma, the No. 2 starter, is a veteran, having played 11 seasons in Japan’s Pacific League but he has only one full season of experience in major league baseball. The Mariners signed him a two-year contract extension based largely on those 16 starts during the second half of last season when he went 8-4 with a 2.65 ERA.
Iwakuma has shown the ability to get ground balls and seems to be more comfortable pitching at the major league level.
“There’s just such a difference,” Wedge said.
Beavan isn’t a strikeout pitcher. He gives up contact and has been susceptible to the home run (36 in 41 big league starts). He’s worked hard in the offseason to pitch on a downward plane to get ground balls.
“He finds a way to win ballgames,” Wedge said. “He’s gained some great experience in his young career.”
Maurer forced his way into the rotation with a stellar spring. He’s mature beyond his 22 years. He throws five pitches and is comfortable using any of them. Will there be tough moments for him? Of course. But Maurer has big league talent.
But what about those uncertainties? The leader of the rotation isn’t worried.
“Iwakuma is way better than last year,” Hernandez said. “He ate up innings for us at the end of last year. It was good. Saunders has a lot of experience, he’s got playoff experience. It’s going to help. Maurer, you’ve seen what he can do. Beavan? He’s making a lot of adjustments and throwing the ball pretty good.”
How much can a bullpen change from year to year?
Of Seattle’s seven relief pitchers, only three – Tom Wilhelmsen, Lucas Luetge and Charlie Furbush – were on the opening-day roster a year ago.
Meanwhile, Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor were pitching in Double-A Jackson, Oliver Perez was trying to figure out life as a reliever in Tacoma and Kameron Loe was in Milwaukee.
Much like the rotation, there’s a wide range of experience.
Wilhelmsen, who will start the season as the closer, was a set-up man to start the 2012 season before replacing a struggling Brandon League. Even with his 29 saves last season, Wilhelmsen has fewer than 100 big league appearances.
“I know what to expect now,” Wilhelmsen said. “Last year, I had to learn as I went.”
In front of him will be Pryor and Capps – two youngsters whose right arms seem to have been touched by lightning. Both can throw fastballs with a velocity between 95-99 mph.
But in their 44 combined appearances last season, the two found out you can’t just throw fastballs – no matter the velocity.
Both have worked hard on their secondary pitches. As the likely primary set-up men, they will need them.
“You just can’t be a one-pitch pitcher at this level,” Capps said.
The Mariners have an abundance of left-handers in Luetge, Perez and Furbush. But they are far from left-on-left specialists. Luetge primarily filled that role last season. Perez showed an ability to get right-handers out while Furbush can also pitch two or three innings a game.
“We … feel like we can pitch all three of them early in the game, or late in the game,” Wedge said.
Bottom line: It’s a versatile group that management likes.
“Our bullpen has a chance to be really good,” Zduriencik said. “There are some great arms there.”
Felix Hernandez, RHP, 6-3, 228, 26, 7 seasons
- Best pitcher in franchise history isn’t going anywhere.
- After full season in big leagues, is more comfortable and confident.
- Will give up hits and runs but will also give team lots of innings.
- Rookie earned spot in the rotation this spring. Can he stay there?
- Big and strong, continually working to get more ground-ball outs.
Tom Wilhelmsen, RHP, 6-6, 220, 29, 2 seasons
- From bartender to closer in a few years — it’s like a movie script.
- Hard-throwing youngster has worked hard on slider this spring.
- Has worked on cut fastball and slider to become complete pitcher.
- Brings veteran presence and the ability to pitch multiple innings.
- Has gone from reclamation project to trusted reliever in one year.
- Can pitch up to three innings or get out a tough lefty if needed.
- Rule 5 draft pick who stuck all of last season as a lefty specialist.