Pineiro, Meche Lead Unheralded Rotation

What if at this time next year, we're all sitting around our laptops, sipping a starbucks or an ice cold Coke, thinking about the the biggest weakness of the Seattle Mariners of 2005, and we <i>aren't</i> looking at the starting rotation?




For every critic, professionally published or among the message forums and blogosphere fanatics that boasts of the enormous improvement of the Mariners offensive lineup, there is also a naysayer, some of the very same group, that can't stop ripping apart the M's projected starting rotation.

No matter which two hurlers, of the seemingly endless crop to choose from, fill out the final two spots, the five starting pitchers who will take the ball every fifth or sixth day are being named as the "reason."

They are the "reason" the club can't catch the Angels or the A's in the American League West. They are the "reason" why even Texas is picked by a handful of so-called experts to finish ahead of the Emerald City Nine. They are the "reason" that Seattle will not contend – again.

After all, Joel Pineiro was way off his game when his season ended prematurely due to an elbow injury.

Gil Meche spent nearly half the season in Triple-A Tacoma trying to iron out his mechanical issues, posting a pre-break ERA of 7.06.

Ryan Franklin, a pitcher that thrives off of low pitch counts and forcing the hitters to put the ball in play, couldn't throw consistent strikes with anything but his major league average fastball. We all know what happens to an 89 mph heater over the heart of the plate. Yep, 33 times in 200 innings. See ya later Mr. baseball.

Freddy Garcia was good enough for a 20-win pace, but behind an anemic offense, had to settle for a 12-win pace before he traded to the Chicago White Sox for payroll relief, a future stalwart in the everyday lineup and a toolsy catcher with all-star skills.

Oh, and speaking of Mr. Baseball leaving the yard, Jamie Moyer turned 41 prior to the start of the 2004 season and promptly served up his age in home runs – plus three for good measure.

The season could not have gone much worse for these five arms. Just about everything that could have gone wrong for them, did go wrong – and then some. But nobody could have seen this coming.

The offense did not support them. The defense wasn't much help. Moyer couldn't keep the ball in the ballpark, serving up 44 home runs just a year after he allowed just 19.

Meche couldn't find the plate – with his eyes, as well as his pitches.

Franklin went from being the league's best fifth starter to the best batting practice pitcher the organization has seen in its 27-year history, second only to former bullpen coach Matt Sinatro.

Pineiro left everything up in the air, including his health status, when his elbow pain called for rest and rehab.

Is there any hope for this crew?

The answer is a resounding version of the greatest word in the english language.

Y-E-S.

There is more than just hope. There is "reason."

Reason to believe.

Reason to believe that this group, with a late '04 addition and a possible tweak at the back-end, can not only return to form, but lead this club to the top of the division.

Wether the fifth spot goes to Jorge Campillo, Aaron Sele, Dan Reichert or the incumbent Ryan Franklin, the starting rotation has virtually no chance to repeat the horrors of last season. They have nothing to do but get better.

How can it not get better than 37-69 with a 4.88 ERA and a WHIP over 1.4?

The question marks are valid. The concerns make a lot of sense.

Has Meche really turned the corner and was he really even that good in the second half of last season?

Is Bobby Madritsch for real?

Can Moyer toil one more good year in the sun before he rides off into the skyline?

Can Franklin show he is worthy of keeping his spot in the rotation?

How is Pineiro's elbow?

Let's go at these one by one, pitcher by pitcher.

Meche: The 26-year-old has never entered a season feeling as healthy, motivated and confident as he feels right now. Not even going into last season was he this movtivated. He'd never been as healthy until 2004, and his confidence is soaring after finding the consistency he had lacked throughtout his career.

Moyer: If anyone can rebound from a dismal campaign and fight his way back to respectability, it's Jamie Moyer. Getting 200 innings and a league-average ERA from him is certainly not too much to expect from a pitcher who twice in the last four years won 20 or more games and posted a career-best ERA of 3.27 just two seasons ago – at age 40. To assume the craftiest of left-handers is done, is an assumption I will not make of this gem.

Madritsch: A 90+ mph fastball, a better-than-average breaking ball, a plus change and solid command. Sounds like a quality major league pitcher to me. But the absolute best attribute possessed by the southpaw isn't something you can calculate daily, or see in a boxscore or stat line. Madritsch is big time. No he's not "big time" as in three-time Cy Young winner, but he's really big time. Big League. He knows he is a major leaguer. You can see it in his eyes. You can see it in his walk. You can hear it in his talk. And his numbers have backed it up, thus far. I'm not sure the dude even knows how to fail anymore.

Franklin: If Franklin keeps his gig coming out of spring training, as I fully expect – barring a trade – he, too, can only be better. With more support from the bats, better help from the gloves, Franklin could regain the confidence he had in 2003, re-assuming his place as one of the league's better No. 5 starters. For Franklin, relying on the defense was something he grew very accustomed to, and was quite good at it. The 32-year-old will benefit more from the revamped defense than any other Mariners pitcher.

Pineiro: There is no reason to expect Pineiro to show any ill-effects from the elbow injury that has everyone worried about this winter. The 26-year-old right-hander will likely assume "workhorse" duties, if not ace responsibilities. Going into his fourth year as a full-time starter, Pineiro is more than ready to replace Garcia as the staff leader. Well equipped is his right arm, and between the ears, Pineiro's star could shine as bright as any M's starter not named Randy Johnson, in the club's history.

All four returners will be exponentially better this season than they were in 2004, while Madritsch adds a flavor this team hasn't had since the Big Unit – a legitimate left-handed starter that isn't considered a soft-tosser. (I guess Jeff Fassero counts, sorta.) The rotation couldn't be worse this summer if they threw the ball underhand or if Miguel Olivo told each hitter what pitch was coming.

Crash Davis would be proud, but the starters' ERA would still be around four and a half – or more than a third of a run less than where they finished 2004.

This is my question of the day:

If we assume so easily that Moyer is done, Franklin has been figured out and Madritsch will go through some sophomoric growing pains, can't we make the same level of assumptions about a healthy Pineiro's rise to being a staff leader and Meche's turning of the proverbial corner?

Pineiro has always had the stuff to be a top-of-the-rotation starter and the mental makeup to be a leader on and off the field. His time is now. The Mariners need him - and he knows it. This is Pineiro's year to put his name in the lights.

Meche has everything that Pineiro has, but better – except the lassoed emotions that Meche has lacked to this point. His stuff is electric. His arm is sound. And as Charleton Heston said of the meteoric end to the world at the outset of the film "Armageddon," It's not a question of "if" Meche explodes. It's just a matter of "when."

Borrowing the first of two unoficially trademarked phrases from Dr. D's Detect-o-Vision - BABVA: Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Everything plays out perfectly for these two 26-year-old right-handers, as well as the rest of the starting rotation. Nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up.

With baseball being the greatest athletic example of being a game of inches, a small tweak or some luck here and $114.25 million spent there, the Mariners starting rotation could end up being the class of the American League West, and an obvious strength of the 25-man roster.

Not the glaring weakness they are being prematurely labeled as.

So when Pineiro steps to the mound in late September looking for win No. 18 and a playoff clincher for the M's, don't run around the cyber world saying ‘nobody saw this coming.'

Somebody did.

B'lee dat.

Jason A. Churchill can be reached via e-mail at JasonAChurchill@InsidethePark.com


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