By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — For the past few seasons, the questions and concerns have been all about the Seattle Mariners’ offense or complete lack of anything resembling it.
Why can’t the Mariners hit? Why can’t the Mariners get someone who hits? Are the Mariners ever going to hit?
During that time of lamentation and frustration, the Mariners 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’s struggles.
To be fair, the Mariners did rank third in the American League in earned run average at 3.76 and sixth the sabermetric stat Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) at 4.00. Seattle pitchers also had the third lowest walks per nine innings at 2.77 and teams hit just .282 on balls put in play — fourth lowest in the AL.
But going into the 2013 season, it seems as though there may be more questions about the Mariners pitching, than the hitting. Beyond Felix Hernandez, how reliable is the Mariners’ starting pitching? 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 suiting up on Monday in Oakland are an eclectic mixture of young and old, of proven and unproven, of consistency and the 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 veterans in the rotation, you need to have to that.”
The starting rotation
If they were a ’60s Motown group, you could call the Mariners’ five starters — “Felix and the Possibilities.” The Mariners know exactly what they have in Felix 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.
More importantly, Hernandez is with the Mariners for the next seven years. Any questions about his commitment to the organization were erased during a tearful press conference announcing the signing of his 7-year, $175 million contract.
Hernandez promised to not disappoint anyone. It seems unlikely considering his past performances.
Over the past four seasons, he has started 134 games, posting a 59-40 record with a 2.81 ERA. He’s averaged 238 innings pitched and 224 strikeouts.
But the questions aren’t about Hernandez, he’s a constant. It’s the four other pitchers behind him that are far from certainties.
The closest thing to a certainity is No. 3 starter Joe Saunders. The veteran left-hander was brought in to replace Jason Vargas. He is similar to Vargas in that he pitches to contact, doesn’t get many strikeouts and will give up hits and runs, but will give you 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,” he 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 team’s No. 2 starter, is a veteran professional pitcher, having played 11 seasons in the Japanese Baseball League. But he only has one full season of experience in major league baseball. The Mariners signed him a two-year contract extension based largely on those 16 starts at the end of last season where he went 8-4 with a 2.65 earned run average.
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 more downward plane to get groundballs.
“He finds a way to win ball games,” 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 for only 22 years old. He throws five pitches and is comfortable using any of them at any time. Will there be tough moments for him? Of course, they are expected. But Maurer has legitimate big league talent.
But what about those uncertainties? The rotation’s leader 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 the seven pitchers in the Mariners bullpen, just 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 Class AA Jackson and Oliver Perez was still 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 starts this season as the closer, was a set-up man to start last season before replacing a struggling Brandon League. Even with his 29 saves a year ago, Wilhelmsen has less 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 kids whose right arms seemed to have been touched by lightning. Both players can throw fastballs above 95 mph, and can touch 99. 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 in spring training. 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 lefties in Luetge, Perez and Furbush. Luetge mostly filled the role of left-on-left specialists last season. Perez showed an ability to get out right-handers while Furbush can pitch two, even three innings.
“We can feel like we can pitch all three of them early in the game, or late in the game,” Wedge said.
It’s a versatile group, which management likes and wants.
“Our bullpen has a chance to be really good,” Zduriencik said. “There are some great arms there.”