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02/23/10 5:44 PM EST

Around the Horn: Starting pitching

How rotation fares will decide club's overall success

Spring Training has shifted into full speed at the Peoria Sports Complex and leading up to the first Cactus League game, MLB.com will take a closer look at the 2010 Mariners team, position-by-position. Today: Starting pitchers.

As good as it looks at the top of the rotation, for the Mariners to get where they want to go this season, they must count higher than two.

There might not be a better one-two punch in the American League West than right-hander Felix Hernandez and left-hander Cliff Lee, but the 3-4-5 spots in the rotation are paramount to the Mariners' overall success this season.

When the Cactus League season begins on March 3, there figures to be six starters competing for three positions. Left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith and right-hander Ian Snell have the inside track on two of those spots, though not necessarily in that order, while right-handers Doug Fister and Luke French and left-handers Garrett Olson and Jason Vargas also will get an opportunity to be in the rotation.

It could be an interesting battle.

"Ideally, everyone in our rotation [on Opening Day] will have pitched between 25 and 30 innings this spring," pitching coach Rick Adair said. "It's kind of a neat deal and I'm looking forward to the competition."

Manager Don Wakamatsu believes the acquisition of Lee could be a huge boost for Rowland-Smith, a 27-year-old Australian who has shown that he can be a key part of the rotation. He pitched at least six innings in nine of his final 11 starts last season, including eight quality starts.

Rowland-Smith posted a 5-4 record and 3.54 ERA in 15 starts with the Mariners, a majority of them coming during the second half of the season. He started the regular season in the rotation, but was injured (left triceps tendinitis) in his first start and went on the 15-day disabled list and rejoined Seattle on July 24.

"I think Cliff Lee can have a big impact on everyone, but especially Rowland-Smith, who is just starting his career," Wakamatsu said. "Cliff can sit there and talk about some of the things he went through, and hopefully that rubs off."

There will be a lot of ear-bending going on this spring between the two lefties.

"Once I am comfortable around him, I will ask him a lot of questions," Rowland-Smith said. "He can help me in a lot of ways. I want to know how he prepares himself for each start and his mindset on certain things. I hope he doesn't mind if I ask a lot of questions."

Rowland-Smith enters the season with an 11-7 big league record and 3.62 ERA in 10 starts.

If Snell can recapture the touch that made him a 14-game winner with the Pirates in 2006, he could wind up as the No. 3 starter between Lee and Rowland-Smith -- if Wakamatsu decides to split up the lefties while waiting for Erik Bedard to rejoin the rotation later in the season.

Acquired from the Pirates last July 29, the right-hander needed some time to regain his confidence and finished the season on a roll, posting a 5-1 record and 3.00 ERA in his final nine starts.

"You see a guy who is not feeling his way around the way he was last year when we got him," Wakamatsu said. "He came over to a totally different organization in the middle of the season and he was feeling everybody out.

"He didn't know what I was all about and didn't know what Rick [Adair] was all about. We had some issues last year that I think were beneficial, and Rick dialogued with [Snell] a lot during the winter. I see a comfort level and I see a guy who worked his tail off to get stronger.

"I like where he's at; raring to go."

It will be awhile before Bedard is in that raring to go mode.

The oft-injured left-hander will enter his third season with Seattle on the disabled list as he continues to recover from surgery on his left shoulder -- the second one in two years.

The Mariners signed Bedard to an incentive-laden contract that could end up being one of the best moves of the offseason -- like making an in-season trade without losing any other players.

"Here's a guy who could be as good as [Hernandez and Lee] without the pressure," Wakamatsu said. "He's on a timetable where we can kind of bring him along slowly and I think he really believes that he can help us."

Ah, Hernandez and Lee.

The go-to guys in the rotation should keep the Mariners from having any extended losing streaks during the season. Felix is coming off a breakout season, posting a 19-5 record, a 2.49 ERA and second-place finish in the AL Cy Young Award race.

"We have got to watch this guy," Wakamatsu said of Felix. "He signed an awfully big contract [five years for $78 million plus incentives] and he needs to handle that the right way. We are just trying to explain to him that he needs to be the same guy.

"That can sometimes be difficult for professional athletes, because they want to put a lot of responsibility on themselves. But he doesn't need to."

Lee, the AL Cy Young Award winner in 2008 with the Indians, had a combined 14-13 regular-season record for the Tribe and Phillies last season, but excelled in the postseason, including the World Series.

"His competitive nature, how much he has improved the last couple of years, being left-handed always helps," said Wakamatsu when asked what he likes most about Lee. "But in talking to people who knew him his professionalism, the way he goes about his business, how he hates to lose. [Those are] all great traits you are looking for."

Fister (3-4, 4.13 ERA last season), French (3-3, 6.63 ERA), Olson (3-5, 5.60 ERA) and Vargas (3-6, 4.91 ERA) could be considered long shots to open the season in the rotation, but Olson and Vargas also are candidates to be in the bullpen as left-handed specialists.

Vargas had a 1-0 record and 2.87 ERA in 15 2/3 innings in relief last season while Olson had a 3.90 ERA in 20 relief appearances.

Next: Bullpen.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.