Felix Hernandez Leads the Seattle Mariners' Pitching Rotation to 2011 Relevance

Marci NobleAnalyst IMarch 31, 2011

SEATTLE - MAY 23:  Starting pitcher Felix Hernandez #34 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the San Diego Padres at Safeco Field on May 23, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

As the New York Yankees helped kick off the 2011 baseball season in the Bronx with a win over the Detroit Tigers, the Seattle Mariners prep for their own inaugural game in Oakland on Friday.

Coming off their second season in three years with more than 100 losses, the Mariners have a deep hole to dig out of. Since the sudden retirement of Ken Griffey Jr. last June (and with the exception of Ichiro Suzuki), Seattle has lacked a big bat in the lineup. With new manager Eric Wedge and GM Jack Zduriencik tied to a number of expiring contracts, there was no remedy found for the Mariners' offense this offseason.

Seattle then will be relying heavily on run prevention to get anywhere near a playoff game in 2011.

The Mariners' pitching rotation is led by AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, who turns just 25 years old next week. He is the star who will lead a bunch that shows as much potential to crash and burn as much as breaking out.

Behind Hernandez are Doug Fister and Jason Vargas. Both players earned their spots by virtue of their performance in 2010 but their ability to contribute in any real way remains questionable.

Vargas showed promise very early in his career in the minors but struggled once he hit the big leagues. Last season's 192.2 innings was a career high for him and was earned by 6-2 record and 2.66 ERA in his first 14 starts. Throughout the rest of the season he illustrated an inconsistency in his starts and a weakness on the road. His spring training performance didn't impress as he allowed 11 hits and five runs in five innings last Monday against the Rockies and showed similar stats the previous Friday against the Diamondbacks.

Fister's spring training hasn't been much more enlightened but he ended much better than he began, holding the Rockies scoreless over four innings last Tuesday.

Erik Bedard serves as the M's No. 4 after missing all of 2010 and most of 2009 due to a shoulder injury. He seems to have bounced back effectively, improving with each spring training outing and ending the offseason with a 1.13 ERA. In Bedard's 83 innings pitched before he hit the DL in 2009, he had a 2.82 ERA and 1.19 WHIP. He'll need to stay healthy, but if he does, he'll be a very valuable cog in the Mariners' pitching machine.

At the back of the rotation is rookie right-hander Michael Pineda. His spring training was definitely impressive. He finished with a 2.12 ERA and 15 strikeouts over 17 innings of play and capped it all with a six-inning shutout against the Brewers. He makes his first start in the big leagues in Texas on April 5.

The AL West isn't the strongest division, but the Mariners will still have their work cut out for them against the Oakland Athletics' impressive young pitching staff and the Texas Rangers' hitting machine that includes Josh Hamilton and Adrian Beltre.

With an offense that can only hope for a breakout season from Justin Smoak, the Seattle Mariners have only this hit-or-miss pitching staff to help them toward a relevant 2011 season.