It’s Felix, then lots of questions for M’s

Though the Mariners have a nice mix of experience and potential, besides Felix Hernandez, the staff has much to prove this season

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comMarch 31, 2013 

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 an attack.

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 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.”

THE ROTATION

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.”

THE BULLPEN

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.”

Seattle PITCHING STAFF

The rotation

PitcherThrowsHt.Wt.AgeMLB experience

Felix HernandezRHP6-3228267 seasons

Best pitcher in franchise history isn’t going anywhere.

Hisashi IwakumaRHP6-3210311 season

After full season in big leagues, is more comfortable and confident.

Joe SaundersLHP6-3215316 seasons

Will give up hits and runs but will also give team lots of innings.

Brandon MaurerRHP6-521522none

Rookie earned spot in the rotation this spring. Can he stay there?

Blake BeavanRHP 6-7253242 seasons

Big and strong, continually working to get more ground-ball outs.

The BULLPEn

PitcherThrowsHt.Wt.AgeMLB experience

Tom WilhelmsenRHP6-6220292 seasons

From bartender to closer in a few years — it’s like a movie script.

Carter CappsRHP6-5220221 season

Hard-throwing youngster has worked hard on slider this spring.

Stephen PryorRHP6-4250231 season

Has worked on cut fastball and slider to become complete pitcher.

Kameron LoeRHP6-8245317 seasons

Brings veteran presence and the ability to pitch multiple innings.

Oliver PerezLHP6-3218319 seasons

Has gone from reclamation project to trusted reliever in one year.

Charlie Furbush LHP6-5215262 seasons

Can pitch up to three innings or get out a tough lefty if needed.

Lucas LuetgeLHP6-4205261 season

Rule 5 draft pick who stuck all of last season as a lefty specialist. SPRING TRAINING RECAP

MarinerS 4, ROCKIES 3 (in Salt Lake City)

The facts: Forty-seven days after pitchers and catchers reported, the Mariners wrapped up a lengthy spring training with a win to finish with a 21-11 record. As a whole, the spring has been outstanding for Seattle. The team has avoided major injuries, played well and seemed to have a legitimate offense. With two more home runs, the Mariners finished the spring with 58 homers. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, only the 1999 Chicago Cubs (62) hit more homers in spring training. Of course, those numbers won’t guarantee success in the regular season for the Mariners.

Play of the game: Raul Ibañez has never been known for his defense. His play in the outfield is, at best, adequate. But he made a big defensive play with the Mariners up 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning. With runners on first and third and two outs, Ibañez made a half-sliding, half-diving catch in left field of a soft liner from Jonathan Herrera to end the inning.

Who was hot: Kendrys Morales seemed to have Rockies starter Jeff Francis pretty well figured out in his second at-bat. The big first baseman crushed what at first appeared to be a home run down the left-field line. But the ball kept hooking left and was a foul ball – nothing more than a very deep and impressive strike. Two pitches later, Morales got his homer – launching the ball to left-center for his seventh home run this spring. He finished the spring hitting .311 (19-for-61) with 14 RBI.

Who was not: Dustin Ackley didn’t have a great day in Salt Lake City. At the plate, he went 0-for-4 with a strikeout. In the field, he also had a tough day, committing two errors. Ackley misplayed a ground ball and also threw a ball into the dugout while trying to turn a double play.

Quotable: “I’m proud of the guys. They’ve worked hard all spring. They’re getting better and they’re coming together very nicely. It’s a great group. It was fun to come here and play, but now it’s time to get things going.” – Mariners manager Eric Wedge

Short hops: Brandon Maurer pitched four innings, giving up two runs on four hits. Both runs were on solo home runs. Maurer struck out three and walked one, but admitted that he didn’t have great fastball command and felt a little out of sync. … The Rockies got a scare and Jesus Montero got a triple in the third inning. Montero lifted a looper down the right-field line that had second baseman Josh Rutledge and right fielder Michael Cuddyer sprinting for in pursuit. The two fielders met in an ugly collision as the ball bounced away. Montero got to third while both players stayed on the ground. Cuddyer eventually got up and stayed in the game. Rutledge left the game under his own power. … Tickets for the game sold out in under an hour when it was announced. The attendance was 15,411. It was the first game in Salt Lake City between two major league teams since April 4, 1970. … Mariners first base coach Mike Brumley managed Salt Lake from 2002-04. Morales played parts of three seasons in Salt Lake when he was in the Angels’ minor-league system.

On tap: The Mariners have today off. They will have an afternoon workout at the Oakland Coliseum – weather permitting (there’s a 50 percent chance of rain). Seattle will open the regular season Monday night against the A’s with Felix Hernandez on the mound. First pitch is scheduled for 7:07 p.m., with Root Sports televising.

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com

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