Sunday, June 19, 2005

Where have all the throwers gone?

As Walter recently pointed out, the 2006 Mariners lineup is beginning to take a shape that doesn't smell too bad.

However, it occurs to me that despite years of talking up the Mariners' farm system as chock-full-o'-pitchers, I submit that beyond King Felix, there is little in the way of viable starting candidates in the pipeline. And as Tad mentioned, there will be few frontline starters available via free agency this winter.

Let's say that we count on Pineiro-Meche-Madritsch-Hernandez as the front four in our 2006 rotation. To be sure, we can expect Felix to have some growing pains, especially given his trouble this year with walks in Tacoma. I'm actually not sold on Meche or Madritsch long-term, but if we're just talking next season, can this rotation contend in the West? Both Anaheim and Texas have pretty formidable teams right now, so we're talking considerable improvement in keeping runs off the scoreboard if we're hoping to contend.

Pineiro has to be the ace next year, and his age and history suggest that it's a good gamble that he'll fill that role nicely: he'll be 27 in September, and assuming that he's healthy, I think that there's every reason to pencil him in for 35 worthwhile turns at the top of the rotation.

Gil Meche, also 27 this September, terrifies me every time he takes the mound, but at one point (before his unprecedented return from a torn labrum), he was a solid prospect. His 4.38 ERA currently is acceptable, but look at the K-BB ratio: only 40 strikeouts to 34 walks. Moreover, in 78 innings pitched, that is a dangerously low 4.6 K/9 rate. These are peripheral numbers, but they are bad signs for future success. It's not a matter of skill, though, so much as health, and with Meche, I'm afraid we have to say that we just can't predict whether he will be very reliable.

Likewise, counting on Bobby Madritsch for solid performance in 2006 is wishful thinking. It would be a great story, but Mads is currently on the DL with a catastrophic shoulder ailment, is out until (probably) at least September, and the P-I recently reported that he isn't currently allowed even to raise his pitching arm above shoulder level. Shoulder injuries are mysterious and uncertain kinds of injuries for athletes, and the lefty will turn 30 before Spring Training games begin next year, so while I'd love to cheer him on, we can't assume he'll be an important part of the 2006 pitching rotation.

Who is out there? None of the Mariners minor league hurlers suggest themselves as solutions: none of Clint Nageotte, Bobby Livingston, Jeff Heaverlo, Sean Green, Rich Dorman, George Sherrill, Jorge Campillo, or other organizational pitchers jump out as being ready and able to handle a starting role in the majors in the next year.

The minor exceptions are Cha Seung Baek and Rafael Soriano. However, I believe that these two, for endurance and other reasons, will end up at the back end of the bullpen, setting up and closing games for the Mariners. This is useful, to be sure, but it does not address the holes in the rotation. Given their ages/experience and the emergence of the Everyday Eddie Grab Game, we will probably see Guardado back as closer in his final contract year in 2006. The bullpen will be acceptable next season.

That still fails to fix the rotation. There are a number of potential free agent starting pitchers this winter, but very few marquee names. If we have to fill two spots to contend in the West, it may well be too expensive to fill this need through free agency. Either that, or we'll have to settle for marginal starters who will drag down the staff, and in the end be no better than what we have available within the organization.

Hence, this offseason the Mariners will face that age-old baseball dilemma: everyone is looking for pitching. If we're hoping to contend as soon as 2006, we will have to have faith that Bill Bavasi can find some, by hook or by crook.

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