SEATTLE -- The top of the Mariners' rotation has never looked this good.

Not even the 116-win team in 2001 had a tandem like the one that will pitch the first two games of the regular season in Oakland.

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Indeed, right-hander Felix Hernandez and left-hander Cliff Lee give the Mariners the sort of one-two punch that could antagonize opponents at least 68 times this season.

More than that if the high hopes heading into Spring Training materialize into Seattle's first playoff berth since that record-breaking season nine years ago.

But there's a catch.

King Felix and Classy Cliff need a helping hand or three.

Hernandez tossed a career-high 238 2/3 innings last season and finished second in the Cy Young Award voting. Lee logged 251 2/3 regular-season innings for the Indians and Phillies.

They have six 200-plus innings seasons between them. No one else on the Mariners' current pitching staff has any and the amount of innings pitched by the starters is crucial.

"If we're going to be good, it's nice to have two guys at the top of the rotation that are proven winners," general manager Jack Zduriencik said, "but I think the back end of our rotation is one of the keys. We need those guys to step up."

Including left-hander Erik Bedard, seven of the 12 pitchers that started at least one game last season are back. That gives manager Don Wakamatsu and pitching coach Rick Adair plenty of rotation candidates to choose from going into camp.

Those guys Zduriencik referred to are, in no particular order, left-handers Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jason Vargas, Luke French and Garrett Olson, and right-handers Ian Snell and Doug Fister. Bedard is not a candidate to open the regular season in the rotation because he is injured.

It's too soon to know whether the Mariners will break camp with 11 or 12 pitchers, but if the five selected starters end the six-week training period with reasonably high pitch counts and are deemed capable to pitching into the sixth inning regularly, you could see an 11-man staff.

"I think from the manager's standpoint, you'd love to do that, but it's not always feasible," Wakamatsu said. "A lot of it has to with the starting rotation and the amount of innings you get. It does give you some flexibility and depth on the bench and some weapons. We did it last year and were able to sustain it for a while, but coming out of Spring Training, it's a little tougher early.

"You might not need that fifth starter, but do you want to push guys to a pitch-count you aren't comfortable with early in the season? You really have to wait and see."

That being said, the Mariners have only two scheduled days off during the first 24 days of the season so they are likely to break camp with a five-man rotation and six relievers.

Wakamatsu received rave reviews for the way he handled the pitching staff in his rookie season. He was able to keep the bullpen reasonably well-rested despite needing so many innings from the 'pen.

"I have pitched for Mike Hargrove and John McLaren," Mark Lowe said, "and Wak was the best. A pitcher has only so many bullets in his arm and I can't remember getting ready to come into a game and not get in."

One of the most remarkable things to come out of the 85-win season was the fact that only two starting pitchers -- Hernandez and left-hander Jarrod Washburn -- pitched more than 100 innings.

The Mariners became just the 12th team -- the fourth in a non-strike-shortened season -- with only two 100-plus inning pitchers and the only team to lead the league in ERA (3.47) with so few inning-eating starters.

The odds of that happening in back-to-back seasons are not good.

And that's why the 3-4-5 starters are so important to Seattle's success in 2010.

"As you mature as a player, there's a degree of added responsibility put in your lap," Zduriencik said. "For players getting their feet wet in the big leagues last year, guys like Olson, Vargas and Fister, there is more responsibility."

All eyes this spring will be on Rowland-Smith and Snell, because of their experience.

"Rowland-Smith came back [from the Minor Leagues] and pitched very well," Zduriencik said, "and Snell got a new lease on life, if you will."

At 6-3, 240 pounds, Rowland-Smith certainly has the makings of a 200-plus innings pitcher. His single-season high so far is 137 innings in 2008.

To surpass that total, he must improve in one particular area -- throwing quality pitches after reaching the 75-pitch mark. Opponents batted .211(56-for-266) against him in his first 75 pitches, but .316 (31-for-98) afterwards.

Snell was a 14-game winner for the Pirates in '06 and reached the 200-inning plateau the following season -- 208 innings.

If he could do that again this season, it could give Seattle three 200-plus inning pitchers for the first time since the 93-win team in '03, when Jamie Moyer (215), Ryan Franklin (212), Joel Pineiro (211 2/3) and Freddy Garcia (201 1/3) all did it. Gil Meche, the fifth starter, finished with 186 1/3 innings pitched, marking the only time in franchise history that the same five pitchers started every game of the season.

As for the current pitchers competing for starting roles, Olson's career high is 132 2/3 innings for the Orioles in '08; Vargas tops out at 135 21/3 with Triple-A New Orleans (125) and Mets (10 1/3) in '07; Fister's single-season high is 173 innings pitched last season between Double-A West Tennessee (5 2/3), Triple-A Tacoma (106 1/3) and Seattle (61); and French reached 170 innings pitched for Double-A Erie in '08.

So there are at least nine candidates for five spots, and even that might not be enough.

That's what makes the Bedard situation so interesting.

The oft-injured left-hander has agreed to an incentive-laden one-year contract but is expected to miss at least two months of the regular season as he rehabs from a second shoulder surgery in two years.

A healthy Bedard for the second half of the season would be a huge boost to a rotation that already looks magnificent at the top.