SEATTLE – Strange, isn’t it? Strange to use Mariners and quality pitching in the same sentence.
Usually this time of year, we come to bury the M’s pitching staff, not to praise it.
You could have made a boatload of money if you’d bet the M’s would have the third-best earned run average in the American League midway through the season.
Another wager that would have fattened your bank account is if you had said the M’s would be in first place in the AL West without the services of starting pitcher Freddy Garcia for 21/2 months.
But that’s the way it is on this eighth day of July.
Another oddity is that the M’s held off pitching Garcia until Friday night.
Had this been any other year, Garcia, out since late April with a broken leg, would have returned more than a week ago. But since the team was winning and the starting pitching has been solid, there was no need to rush him back and he was able to make three rehab starts in the minors.
"Out of respect for our five starting pitchers, who are pitching well," said pitching coach Bryan Price, "we were able to verify that he was ready to come up and help."
Five starting pitchers pitching well. Never thought you’d read that as concerns the M’s, did you?
But pitching – both starting and relieving – and defense and timely hitting had carried this team to the third-best record in the majors starting Friday night’s game against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Safeco Field.
Sometime next week, one of those starting pitchers will get bumped to the bullpen to make room for Garcia. "It’s not an easy decision," manager Lou Piniella said, "but one thing it shows is the depth that we have in our starting pitching."
There it is again. Depth in our starting pitching.
Is this a dream? Nope.
Think back to a year ago. The M’s were so desperate for pitching that they were bringing up kids with less than 400 innings in the minors. A couple had less than 200 innings. Ideally, they’d like for a pitcher to have at least 500 innings before he gets to the majors.
Some can handle the jump, some can’t. Two who did were Garcia and Gil Meche.
Garcia made the team out of spring training and won 17 games at the age of 22. Meche, 20 when he made his major league debut in early July, went 8-4.
It might seem as if they were rushed, and maybe they were. But they were also talented and they were mature.
The M’s haven’t had to rush anyone up this year. The addition of Aaron Sele, Brett Tomko, Arthur Rhodes and Kazuhiro Sasaki has helped immensely.
Another new element that has had a big impact: the coaching of Price.
Put it all together and you have a stable staff with sound pitching. And no frantic phone calls to Tacoma to get so-and-so up here.
"I guess we’re trying to learn from our past," said Roger Jongewaard, vice president of scouting and player development. "It didn’t work for us to rush ‘em."
Now, top prospects like Ryan Anderson and Joel Pineiro can pitch an entire year at Class AAA, rather than jump from Class AA to the majors. And triple-A experience is important.
"You have a lot of ex-major league players there," Jongewaard said. "I think there are more prospects in double-A, but triple-A is another thing you have to learn. It’s like playing against veteran big leaguers. They set up pitchers just like pitchers set up hitters. They do things that young people don’t think about doing yet. In double-A they’re just young and enthusiastic and they can have a lot of talent."
Jongewaard and Benny Looper, director of player development, would like to nurture their youngsters in the minor leagues as long as they can, but, of course, it doesn’t always work out that way. "The bottom line is, whatever is best for the big-league team," Jongewaard said. "We naturally would like to (keep them down longer). It just seems better to be safe than sorry."
Five years ago, the M’s were thin in minor league pitching talent. Today, they’re loaded.
As Jongewaard sat in his office Friday afternoon, he looked up at a board on the wall next to his desk. All of the Mariners’ minor league rosters were listed up there.
Asked how many of the pitchers were true prospects, Jongewaard started naming names. By the time he ended, he had reeled off more than two dozen players.
Among them was Craig Anderson, a 19-year-old left-hander from Australia who was 10-2 at Everett last year and is 9-4 at Class A Wisconsin this year.
When Jongewaard went Down Under with scout Jim Colborn to watch Anderson pitch, he came away unimpressed. "I tried to talk Jim out of signing him," Jongewaard said. "He seemed so soft."
That is, Anderson didn’t throw very hard.
Jongewaard likes to challenge his scouts, to see how much they really like a player. Colborn stood fast. And Jongewaard is glad he did. "This guy can really pitch," he said. "He’s a winner."
Jongewaard also questioned Colborn’s wanting to sign Sasaki. Colborn pointed out that Sasaki had been a top closer in Japan for nine years. Jongewaard’s counter: But how many closers continue to be successful after that long?
We know of one, and he’s closing in Seattle now.
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