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Originally published May 25, 2013 at 3:08 PM | Page modified May 25, 2013 at 10:37 PM

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Why the Mariners have gone from pitching rich to pitching fits

Pitching, the Mariners' dominant strength, is gone, lost in a handful of trades in pursuit of offense over the past two years. Problem is, they're still inadequate at the plate, but now their greatest weakness is their starting pitching. After Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, they're a disaster in spots 3-5.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Not too long ago, it seemed the Mariners possessed an infallible blessing: starting pitching depth throughout the entire franchise. A pitching-rich organization, they were dubbed again and again. It felt like they could do anything — even trade Felix Hernandez, some national media suggested annoyingly — and maintain depth.

That notion taunted a long-held baseball axiom that you can never have too much pitching. But with the Mariners suffering through a historic scarcity of offense, they were forced to defy convention and believe the hype about their pitching.

And that's why they're in this current predicament. Their dominant strength is gone, lost in a handful of trades in pursuit of offense over the past two years. Problem is, they're still inadequate at the plate, but now their greatest weakness is their starting pitching. After Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, both of whom are pitching at an All-Star level, they're a disaster in spots 3-5. They don't know what they'll get from veterans Joe Saunders and Aaron Harang and rookie Brandon Maurer.

For all the frustration you once had over a rash of 2-1 losses, now the scores are 6-3 and 9-5 and, yikes, 12-0. Through the first third of the season, the Mariners seldom have been able to go five games without at least one epic, give-the-team-no-chance clunker from a starter. And that makes it impossible for them to be anything more than the wildly inconsistent team they've been.

It could be a temporary problem because this season represents a bridge year before the likely big-league arrival of the celebrated trio of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker. And if he can stay healthy, which has become a big if, Erasmo Ramirez is a 23-year-old with considerable talent. Get two of those four pitchers to work out, and continue to develop Maurer, and the Mariners will have an in-house remedy. Then again, as you've learned many times during this youth movement, instant success seldom occurs in this game of failure.

How'd the Mariners go from pitching rich to pitching fits? Think of what general manager Jack Zduriencik has done (or had to do?) over the past two years to try to fix the offense.

In 2011, the Mariners had six pitchers start at least 15 games: Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Doug Fister, Jason Vargas, Erik Bedard and Blake Beavan. None had an ERA higher than 4.27. Hernandez and Pineda made the All-Star team, Fister led the rotation with a 3.33 ERA, and Vargas threw 201 innings for the first time in his career. It was a great rotation that would've been even more impressive if injuries, trades and an innings limit for rookie Pineda hadn't gotten in the way. Despite the rotation's success, not to mention a good bullpen, the Mariners finished with a 67-95 record, mostly because they scored only 556 runs (3.4 per game) that season.

In the second half of 2011, the rotation began to come apart. The Mariners traded Fister and reliever David Pauley to Detroit for Casper Wells, Charlie Furbush, Francisco Martinez and Chance Ruffin. They also traded the oft-injured Bedard to Boston, but it didn't hurt as much as the Fister deal because a Bedard trade was necessary and inevitable at that point.

After the season, they traded Pineda to the New York Yankees for Jesus Montero, a great hitting prospect at the time.

And just before this season, they traded Vargas to the Anaheim Angels for designated hitter Kendrys Morales.

Now, Zduriencik is paying for some of those decisions. Looking back, the Mariners couldn't manipulate the baseball gods, not even by trading for Jesus.

Write it on the chalkboard 9,000 times:

You can never have too much pitching. You can never have too much pitching. You can never have too much pitching.

I must admit that I scoffed at such wisdom and supported most of these moves, reasoning that Zduriencik had to make these sacrifices because the offensive issues were so dire. And if you take a closer look, while the loss of starting pitching is the macro issue, only the Fister trade can be considered a failure right now.

The Vargas-for-Morales deal is way too early to call, but both teams have benefited thus far. While Montero has struggled and was sent down to Class AAA Tacoma last week, Pineda hasn't pitched for the Yankees because of shoulder surgery, which makes that deal grade out as an incomplete with major headaches for both teams. But the Fister swap is the worst of Zduriencik's five seasons in Seattle. Furbush, a reliever, is the only player on the Mariners' 25-man roster currently. Meanwhile, Fister has been to the postseason twice, pitched in a World Series and posted a 23-12 record with a 3.08 ERA with Detroit. And he's still under club control until 2016.

There have been other deals in which Zduriencik has traded starting pitching, including dealing Brandon Morrow to Toronto, but we're focusing on the moves clearly made to find offense. The decisions of the past two years show how desperate the Mariners were to find balance and how difficult it can be to build an offense without throwing significant money at the problem in free agency.

It seemed the Mariners had found the perfect formula to build a rotation around Hernandez with a revolving door of starters. Perhaps they have overvalued their way of doing things and the advantage of pitching at Safeco Field pre-reconfiguration and undervalued the talent of some of these guys. Clearly, Zduriencik must find a new way now.

Quality pitching is too valuable. And for all the sacrifices the Mariners have made for hitting the past two years, Morales is the only consistent big-leaguer they've acquired.

It's time for a strategy adjustment. This route is too risky.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com

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