Beyond Golf — 02 February 2012 by Bob Sherwin
AL West teams know the value of pitching

History has shown me one rule to respect when putting together a Major League baseball team: You can never have too much pitching.

That means a team needs to be extremely cautious whenever it releases a pitcher or trades one. The worse example, in my experience of covering the Seattle Mariners for a couple decades, came on Dec. 11, 1991 when they traded three pitchers, Billy Swift, Mike Jackson and Dave Burba, for notorious slugger, Kevin Mitchell.

Everyone in Seattle was giddy over bona fide power hitter in Mitchell – who had hit 47 home runs just three years earlier and was the National League MVP. But as one veteran naysayer told me, “they (Mariners) just traded away their pitching staff.”

Indeed, the team bankrupted the staff and would lose 98 games that season. Mitchell hit just nine home runs in 360 at-bats and was traded to Cincinnati the next season. Burba, Swift and Jackson went on to play a combined 30 seasons. Together, they went 212-140 with 115 saves the rest of their careers.

It took a years for the Mariners to overcome that devastating trade.

AL West rival Texas had been on the same path for years but finally figured it out the past couple seasons. The Rangers perennially runs out a crackerjack offense in that bandbox, trading for hitting and signing sluggers. Yet for whatever reason the team neglected to make substantial upgrades to their pitching, wasting that potent offense. The result was always a powerful team whose staff wilted in August.

But a couple years ago they made a July trading deadline trade with the Mariners (again, shipping out quality pitching) for lefty Cliff Lee. The Rangers reached the postseason for the first time since 1999, advancing to the World Series. The Mariners finished last.

This off-season, the Rangers spent more than $110 million to sign free agent Japanese pitcher Yu Darvish. The club’s president Nolan Ryan gets it. He knows full well the value of pitching.

Another AL West team, the Angels, made a gigantic signing of Albert Pujols, who is going to anchor that bruising lineup. But you wonder if the signing of former Ranger ace C. J. Wilson will have an even greater impact on the Angels’ championship aspirations.

The Mariners and Oakland A’s now have to compete with these two well-balanced powerhouses.

Ironically, pitching has been less of an issue for the Mariners since moving out of the hitting-friendly Kingdome during the 1999 season. The club has emphasized pitching at the top of their drafts and has been able to attract free agent quality arms because Safeco Field makes them better. They can pitch to the vast empty spaces. What they can’t find, attract or develop are power guys.

The Mariners’ strength now is pitching, although never let it be said they have enough. But their overwhelming weakness, in every sense of the word, is their offense. It’s bad on an historical level. They can’t score. They can’t hit. They can’t drive in runs. They can’t drive home runs. It has been embarrassing how bad the Mariners offense has been and they have not only been losing games but fan base the past couple seasons. No one wanted to see three-peat of this lineup.

Since they’ve been inept in improving their power from within their ranks, the Mariners have had to ‘Mitchell’ it. When they traded Lee they obtained a potential power bat in Justin Smoat, who hasn’t shown it yet but he’s still developing (the Mariners also insisted on a couple pitching prospects).

This winter the Mariners traded yet another quality pitcher, young Michael Pineda, because they had no other choice. They knew they weren’t going to sign free agent Prince Fielder. That was a window dressing. He’d be a fool to come to the large dimensions of Safeco. So the Mariners made a prospect blockbuster deal of sorts, trading right-hander Pineda and a minor league right-hander Jose Campos to the New York Yankees for catcher/DH Jose Montero and right-hand pitcher Hector Noesi.

In a contrast to the Mitchell trade – and maybe because of still lingering residue from the Mitchell trade – fans in Seattle aren’t dwelling on what’s coming in but what the team gave away. The 23-year-old Pineda went 9-10 with a 3.74 ERA with 173 strikeouts in 28 appearances last season. He’s a guy who could develop into a staff ace. Campos, 19, also could be a good one, although he’s still so young. In three seasons in the system, he is a combined 14-10 and 3.26 ERA.

Like Smoak, the Mariners got yet another potential power bat in Montero. He is rated the third best prospect in baseball. The 22-year-old, still developing as a catcher, was called up in September and hit .328 with four home runs for the Yankees. In his minor league career, he hit .308.

After trading a pair of pitchers, the Mariners also were at least smart enough one back. Noesi, 25, was 2-2 with a 4.47 in two stints with the Yankees and combined to go 40-18 with a 2.98 ERA in the minors. He is a candidate for the Mariners starting rotation.

The franchise couldn’t fix their power outage through free agency. They can’t seem to develop a slugger. Their own power prospects, who went through a season-long audition in 2011, are too inconsistent. They had no choice but to take a chance on Montero, even if so much now is riding on his young shoulders.

What mitigates this deal – why it’s worth the risk – is that the Mariners did not give up their top pitching talent to acquire Montero. Last June’s No. 1 draft choice (No. 2 overall), lefty Danny Hultzen, 22, is on a fast track to the big leagues. He could be on the roster out of spring training or the first couple months into the season. Time will tell but many believe he’s a talent equivalent to Pineda, just not as polished yet.

Behind Hultzen are three more strong potential starter candidates, James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Erasmo Ramirez. One of the youngsters, Noesi, or Japanese free agent Hisashi Iwakuma could fit in nicely behind Felix Hernandez, Charlie Furbush, Blake Beavan and Jason Vargas. Even with Pineda’s departure, it’s developing into a pretty solid staff, yet still seeking stability and consistency.

The franchise does not have enough pitching and who does? But they had virtually no offense. Something needed to be done, to the desperate point that quality pitching had to be sacrificed.

You can never have too much pitching but not to the point you don’t have nearly enough hitting.

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Bob Sherwin

Bob grew up in Cleveland, an underdog city with perennial underdog teams, and that gave him an appreciation and an affinity for the grinders in golf, guys such as Rocco Mediate, Jhonattan Vegas and star-crossed John Daly. This is the 44th year for Bob as a sportswriter, the first 34 working for newspapers throughout the west, Tucson (Daily Star), San Francisco (Examiner) and Seattle (Times), and the past 10 years as a freelancer. He has covered just about every sport, including golf tournaments, Tucson Open, Bing Crosby/AT&T Pro-Am, the 1998 PGA Championship, the 2010 U.S. Senior Open, the 2010 U.S. Amateur and the annual Champions Tour Boeing Classic. He also writes articles for golf magazines. For most of his 20 years at the Seattle Times his primary beat was the Mariners. He then picked up Washington men's basketball in the winter. He also was the beat writer for the Sonics, including 1996 when they played the Bulls for the NBA title. After a lifetime hacking on public courses, he finally gave in and joined a country club in 2011, the Members Club of Aldarra near Seattle. He won't win the club championship any time soon with his 14 handicap and default-swing slice but he does have a pair of aces – 37 years apart – and in 2009 came agonizingly close to his ultimate golf goal of scoring in the 70s when he finished with an even 80. He lives in Seattle, and spends part of his winters in Marco Island, Fla.

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