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May 28, 1999

AL West Notebook

Fixing the Ms

by Jeff Bower

Fixing the Ms

The Seattle Mariners currently sport a team ERA of 6.23--more than a quarter of a run higher than the next worst team in the American League. Shoulder injuries to Butch Henry (torn labrum) and Mark Leiter (torn rotator cuff) thinned an already anorexic staff and have prompted the ever-reactionary Lou Piniella to cook up unsavory recipes for continued pitching chaos. While Piniella cloaks his inability to handle a pitching staff behind a dense haze of finger pointing, let's look at changes and suggestions that could bring stability and long-term success to his tormented pitching corps.

  • Maintain an eleven-man staff. The Mariner starters are averaging just under 5 2/3 innings per start. With a ten-man staff (assuming a five-man rotation), the average reliever will pitch around 100 innings--a staggering figure. Despite near-daily beatings, the Mariners were the only team in the majors employing a ten-man staff up until a few days ago. This absurdity was due to an overabundance of corner outfielders that happened when the M's traded for Brian Hunter, Their First True Leadoff Man Since Vince Coleman (TM pending). Woody Woodward apparently hopes to happen upon another GM concluding a three-day bender and bleed him for a quality middle reliever in exchange for the likes of Matt Mieske. Since comparable outfielders/pinch-hitters are available on the waiver wire or any Triple-A farm club, Mariner management is playing a waiting game that they are destined to lose.

  • Scrap the four-man rotation. According to Piniella, this idea came to him in the middle of the night, which sounds about right. Johnny Oates tried it with the Rangers when John Burkett was on the DL, and they managed to play .500 ball for those two weeks. If the Rangers can only tread water with a deep bullpen and a manager who knows how to handle pitchers, what are the odds of success for the Mariners with an overworked bullpen and Mt. Piniella?

  • Drop Jeff Fassero into the long reliever/spot starter role. Fassero has been slapped around badly, logging but three quality starts in 11 tries. Until 1999, Fassero was a power-pitching southpaw with a fastball that consistently found the low 90s. However, his velocity is down 3-4 MPH this season and he hasn't made the necessary adjustments; he's still working up in the strike zone. The results can be found in outfield bleachers around the league, as Fassero has allowed a major-league leading 17 home runs in 63+ innings. A switch to the bullpen would give Piniella another long reliever who he feels he can trust (i.e., a veteran), and it's a role that Fassero is familiar with, having worked in relief his first three seasons in Montreal.

  • Move John Halama into the starting rotation. No hurler on the Mariners is being underutilized more than Halama, a crafty left-hander with pinpoint control on a staff that leads the league in walks. Currently rotting in the bullpen, Halama deserved a spot in the starting rotation based on an excellent spring training, but the prevailing Lou Spew (TM also pending) was that a team shouldn't have three soft-tossing lefties in the starting rotation. With Henry on the shelf, the reasoning is no longer applicable. An old rookie at 27, Halama is physically and emotionally mature enough to handle the rigors of being a starting pitcher on a Piniella-managed team.

  • Make Ken Cloude is the team's permanent fourth starter. Although Cloude has appeared more comfortable in middle relief than as a starter this year, this move must be made because of the alternative--Mac Suzuki. Cloude has a starter's repertoire, featuring a fastball in the low 90s and a hard slider. As with many Mariner pitchers, Cloude's failures have less to do with ability than confidence. Piniella needs to insert him into the rotation and assure him that the job is his--period. Cloude's career is at a precarious junction and, if not handled properly, he will become the latest ex-Mariner moundsman who mysteriously blossoms in another organization.

  • Limit Freddy Garcia to no more than 110 pitches per start. As the only effective starter on the Mariner staff for the first seven weeks of the season, The Chief has occasionally run up some excessive pitch counts. Piniella makes no bones about the fact that he believes that the solidly built Garcia should be able to handle throwing 115-120 pitches per start, regardless of his being just 22. Rany Jazayerli's Pitcher Abuse Points puts Garcia's PAP/Start at 13.1, with an Age Adjusted Workload of 35.0. While this isn't Leyland territory, only a Chili Davis line drive off Garcia's shoulder has saved him from the mistreatment that led to Kerrygate.

  • Provide the young pitchers with an opportunity to succeed. A recall from the minors that consists of two appearances totaling 1 1/3 innings does not constitute an opportunity. Having a rookie make his major league debut with the bases loaded and nobody out in the sixth inning, and Manny Ramirez due up, is not maximizing the rookie's chance for success. Walking a hitter with a five-run lead in the eighth inning should not guarantee a bus ride back to Tacoma the next morning.

  • Give prospects Ryan Anderson, Gil Meche and Joel Piniero a full-season at Double-A New Haven. Woody Woodward was scouting in Connecticut two weeks ago and returned to the Northwest with only Jordan Zimmerman in tow, praying to the ghost of Branch Rickey that he is a mirror image of his brother, Jeff. Piniella has stated that he won't hesitate to recall any member of the under-21 trio if he feels that they can outperform the pitchers on the big league club. All three have struggled with the 15-27 Ravens, with Meche having recently improved his ERA to 3.38--by far the best of the bunch. If Piniella makes such a move, it is simply another ill-conceived attempt to catch lightning in a bottle. Can you imagine large corporations operating without a coherent employee development plan the way Mariners do?
Based on previous campaigns, there is no reason to believe that Lou Piniella and Woody Woodward have any idea how to remedy the problem using their existing players and financial resources. Long-term vision, a commitment to youth and patience are required. Piniella is completely intolerant with inexperienced pitchers and, as such, is comically miscast in his present player development role. Probably the best one can hope for is that he doesn't go completely gaga and trade Ryan Anderson for Jaime Navarro.
Related Content:  Lou Piniella

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