Mariners shopping for veteran starting pitchers
Seattle hoping to buy time for top prospects to further develop
SEATTLE -- Given the club's obvious need for improved offense, it's surprising to some that Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik is searching the free-agent market this winter for a veteran starting pitcher.
But for Seattle, it's a pretty simple matter. With Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda and Jason Vargas penciled in atop the rotation, the Mariners could use at least one more veteran arm to solidify a staff that figures to soon include an influx of promising young prospects.
Thus, the Mariners weren't pursuing top-end starters like C.J. Wilson or Mark Buehrle, who nailed down expensive long-term deals at the Winter Meetings last week in Dallas with the Angels and Marlins, respectively.
Zduriencik is looking for something more similar to last year's deal with Erik Bedard, a veteran with some upside who agreed to a one-year deal coming off his injury-plagued run and wound up pitching pretty well for the first three months of the season before suffering a sprained knee and then being dealt to the Red Sox.
Bedard signed another one-year, $4.5 million deal last week with the Pirates. But there are veterans who could fit that mold, guys like Jeff Francis, Jamie Moyer, Kevin Millwood and Chris Young who are looking for an opportunity to make a Major League roster and continue their careers.
Zduriencik isn't one to name names, but has been open about the need to add a veteran after dealing Bedard and Doug Fister last July in order to bring in some young offensive prospects.
"Every club in baseball looks for pitching," he said. "You're always looking for starting pitching."
Without a doubt, the strength of the Mariners' farm system is their young arms. The only question is how soon to bring those prospects up and toss them in the fire.
Danny Hultzen, 22, is guaranteed a spot in the Major League camp this spring based on the contract he signed as the No. 2 overall pick in last year's Draft. He was excellent in the Arizona Fall League with a 1-0 mark and 1.60 ERA in six starts, but those 19 1/3 innings are the full extent of his pro experience to this point.
Seattle also is expected to offer Spring Training invites to Erasmo Ramirez and James Paxton, two other top youngsters in the system.
Paxton, 23, was impressive at the Class A and Double-A ranks last year, but he has just one season in the Minors after sitting out a year and a half after declining to sign with the Blue Jays as a first-round Draft pick in 2009.
Ramirez, 21, was signed as a teenager out of Nicaragua in '07 and has risen quickly through the Mariners' system. He finished last year in Triple-A Tacoma and had an excellent stint for Lara in the Venezuelan Winter League, going 2-1 with a 1.48 ERA in 30 innings of work.
"He had a nice year last year and then six starts in Venezuela," Zduriencik said. "That was the plan, to let him get some innings there, get the experience and then shut him down because he's going to come to Spring Training with a chance to make our club."
Pineda made the Opening Day roster last year as a 22-year-old, but he had dominated at the Double-A and Triple-A levels the previous season and was physically advanced compared to most prospects. So it'll be interesting to see if any of the Mariners' top prospects force their way into the picture this spring when the club gathers in Peoria in March.
At this point, manager Eric Wedge feels the only sure bets in his rotation are Hernandez, Pineda and Vargas. Wedge gives Blake Beavan a "leg up" on the competition for another spot after going 5-6 with a 4.27 ERA in 15 starts in the second half last season as a 22-year-old rookie, with Charlie Furbush also in the mix.
Furbush, acquired in the Fister trade from the Tigers, was 3-9 with a 6.83 ERA in 12 starts with the Detroit and Seattle last year. He went 1-1 with a 2.42 ERA in 16 relief appearances and thus could be a contender for a left-handed bullpen role.
"We've thrown that around," Zduriencik said. "He did some of that in Detroit. We're debating it, but right now I think Charlie might be given a shot for one of the rotation spots. It depends, but we've always got that fallback.
"He's got a good breaking ball and you see sometimes a guy goes to the bullpen and his velocity jumps a couple mph. We think that might happen with him, but right now we're still debating it and he could very well get a shot at our rotation first and see how it works out."