Seattle Mariners: Starting Pitching Can Carry Mariners to the Playoffs

Joe HalversonCorrespondent IMay 19, 2011

CLEVELAND - MAY 13:  Doug Fister #58 of the Seattle Mariners pitches against the Cleveland Indians during the game on May 13, 2011 at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

Don’t look now, but some of best starting pitching in the American League currently resides in the Pacific Northwest.

Doug Fister’s masterful performance on Thursday—eight innings, six hits, a mere two walks—was the latest in what has become a long run of terrific starts for the Seattle Mariners this season.

Seattle’s starters are statistically the second-best in the American League right now by virtually every measure (from ERA to WAR to xFIP) and just might be able to carry the team to the playoffs.

Five pitchers have accumulated all of the Mariners’ 43 starts this season; only eight times has a starter failed to go at least six innings.

The back of the Mariners’ rotation has been outstanding, with Fister and Michael Pineda (the early favorite for Rookie of the Year) turning in quality starts in each of their outings. Jason Vargas, meanwhile, might be the hottest pitcher in baseball, having given up just one run in his last 23 innings and currently working on a 16-inning shutout streak.

Here’s the best part: The big names in the Mariner rotation have yet to get going. 

Felix Hernandez, the defending AL Cy Young award-winner, leads the AL in innings but is otherwise off to a slow start. Erik Bedard, meanwhile, had a rough April but has turned in three straight quality outings in his first season back from major shoulder surgery.

Once Felix warms up (his ERA+ is down 59 points from the past two seasons) and if Bedard stays healthy (a BIG if), Seattle might have the best rotation in the American League. Heck, it has already carried an otherwise awful Mariners squad to a better record than anybody expected at this point in the season.

Seattle still has a powderpuff offense—they rank 13th in the AL in runs and have yet to score more than six runs in a game this month—and their noted defense actually ranks among the worst in baseball. 

Fortunately for the Mariners, reinforcements are en route in both areas.

On offense, Dustin Ackley is tearing up the minors, putting up a ridiculous .344/.453/.590 split with fantastic plate discipline to boot. He should hit very well right away for the Mariners at a position in which the club is receiving very little offensive production. Look for him to be in Seattle within the next month.

The Mariners will also be welcoming back Franklin Gutierrez, who provides a decent boost to the offense but a phenomenal upgrade defensively in center field. Gutierrez won a Gold Glove last season but turned in one of the great defensive seasons in MLB history (+30.9 UZR!) two years ago. 

He will allow Michael Saunders to slide over to left field, combining with Ichiro to give the Mariners the best outfield defense in all of baseball—and make the Mariners’ starting pitching look even better than it does now.

Once Felix gets revved up, the Seattle Mariners have a rotation capable of carrying a team a long way during the regular season. Their defense figures to get a significant boost (further improving the run prevention), and their offense only has to be mediocre to turn the club into a contender.

Yes, this is essentially the same formula that Seattle planned on using last season to disastrous results. But baseball appears to be moving more toward a pitching-and-defense style anyway, and the Mariners have considerably more roster flexibility than they did last season. 

In a division as balanced (the half-full view) or mediocre (the half-empty view) as the AL West, the Mariners are a very real threat to contend.