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Originally published September 25, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2008 at 11:21 PM

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Rebuilding the Mariners

Part 3: Mariners' pitching future promising

Ryan Rowland-Smith's ascent to a starting job, seemingly out of nowhere, appears to have given the Seattle Mariners some depth they hadn't planned on.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The starting rotationof the future?

Phillippe Aumont and Stephen Strasburg could eventually join a young Mariners rotation led by Felix Hernandez.

Felix Hernandez

Brandon Morrow

Ryan Rowland-Smith

Phillippe Aumont

Stephen Strasburg

The most stunning development on the mound for the Mariners this season didn't come from Brandon Morrow getting within five outs of a no-hitter.

Nor from Erik Bedard throwing five innings on America's birthday, then calling it a season. Or J.J. Putz blowing as many saves in the first week as he did in the first four months of last year.

Instead, the most eye-opening sight was very likely the sustained success as a starting pitcher enjoyed by Australian left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith. While Morrow is still feeling his way, Bedard faces season-ending surgery today and Putz still has plenty of questions to answer, Rowland-Smith just keeps on getting hitters out.

And while the steady approach by Rowland-Smith failed to generate the headlines of those hurlers, his ascent to a starting job, seemingly out of nowhere, appears to have given the Mariners some depth they hadn't planned on. Seven consecutive strong outings by Rowland-Smith, against teams like the Yankees, Angels, Twins and Indians, have the Mariners feeling they've made the equivalent of a good midseason trade without giving anything up.

"He's been a pleasant surprise," said Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre, who has worked with his share of good pitchers. "When we sent him down [to Class AAA], we thought he was struggling a little bit with command of his fastball. He's come around very well. To me, he's very dependable now."

Mariners manager Jim Riggleman takes the praise further, noting that Rowland-Smith has averaged close to seven innings per start the past month.

"In today's world, you can't even expect that anywhere in baseball anymore," he said. "Even the best pitchers in this game, very few can average seven innings per start. And he's been close to that."

Since mid-August, no Mariners starting pitcher has been as effective. Nor as outspoken about how the team collapsed into turmoil.

Rowland-Smith has a Weblog on Prolebrity.com and on Thursday wrote:

"Our team this year lacked much-needed leadership. We had great veterans on our team but just never seemed to speak up in front of the team when it was really needed.

"Say what you want or read what you want about Jose Guillen, but if you were doing something you weren't supposed to do on or off the field, he wouldn't sit around and gossip to other guys, he would get in your face and let you know about it. He had no problem speaking up in front of a group, either. He played the game hard every day and took every loss to heart."

On the issue of the team's early season adversity: "We had a great team, but I swear, every time we lost a game or a couple, we went into panic mode and freaked out. The locker room was a morgue, the lineup changed over and over, we didn't know who had what role down in the bullpen, guys steered away from their plan, everyone was blaming everybody else."

In an interview Thursday, Rowland-Smith stood by the remarks.

He said he intended to be positive about the current state of the team, which he feels has changed since the early season turmoil. It was earlier on, he said, after a four-game sweep in Baltimore in April, when the team was most devoid of leadership.

"I remember we were in Tampa Bay after the Baltimore series and it just seemed like, 'Oh God, everybody's freaking out because we lost a few games.' It just seemed to snowball from there.

"We had meetings and stuff like that. We had team meetings and guys sort of stepped up and said stuff. But I just felt like we never really had a plan or any level of structure. All of a sudden, guys were just getting sick of meetings, too."

Right now, the Mariners need all the good news they can get pitching-wise. Felix Hernandez leads the staff with only nine wins while the three guys tied for second place with six were a closer (Putz), a guy who pitched only half a season (Bedard) and a guy who spent much of the year in the minors (Roy Corcoran).

Any positive vibes gained from Hernandez, who shaved nearly a half-run off his ERA, surpassed 200 innings for the first time and bounced back from injury, was offset by the disastrous Bedard trade.

When the Mariners gave up outfielder Adam Jones, reliever George Sherrill, minor-league hurler Chris Tillman and two more young arms, they never dreamed the left-hander obtained from Baltimore would throw only 81 innings. Bedard looked fairly good when he did pitch, but often for only five innings.

News that Bedard has a torn labrum in his shoulder and could miss much of next season has devastated the club's planners. They'd hoped a healthy Bedard could give them a strong rotation next year, let them recoup some prospects in a midseason trade and perhaps speed up a painful rebuilding process.

But now, it's questionable Bedard will even be tendered a 2009 contract, given that he could get $7 million to $10 million in arbitration and not even be available.

The Bedard injury makes Rowland-Smith's emergence even more important.

It allows the Mariners to envision having another solid arm, along with Hernandez, at a time when the team could be thirsting for innings. It also could, within another year or two, give the Mariners one of baseball's more promising young rotations.

Besides No. 1 hurler Hernandez, they can also plan to have 26-year-old Rowland-Smith and 24-year-old Morrow in the rotation by next spring.

And don't forget No. 1 draft pick from 2007, Phillippe Aumont, who looked solid in Class A at age 19 and could be ready for Seattle as early as 2010. Not to mention the possibility of landing a top pitching prospect like San Diego State hurler Stephen Strasburg with a top overall pick next June.

Rowland-Smith doesn't have the pedigree of a first-round pick like Morrow, Aumont or Strasburg. But he's ahead of all of them in his development, and pitching more like a mid-rotation hurler than a back-end arm.

"When I was sent down, I didn't know what was going to happen," Rowland-Smith said. "The biggest thing, I guess, that I worked on was learning not to panic. Avoiding big innings. If there's a runner on third and one out, it's just 'Who cares if he scores?' But before, I'd try to make a perfect pitch to the next guy and he'd get a hit, then the next guy. And I'd be in big trouble."

A key to Rowland-Smith's success has been motivating himself through the skepticism of others. He knows he wasn't a top-round pick (a non-drafted free-agent signing in 2000) and that expectations of him were minimal.

"Whenever I hear that," he said, "I just want to do more."

While Morrow dazzled with his near no-hitter against the Yankees his first time as a starter, he has since struggled at commanding the power curveball that tied New York's hitters in knots. He's still viewed as a work in progress and not as far ahead developmentally as Rowland-Smith, though his high 90s fastball makes his ceiling a bit higher.

But Stottlemyre said that Rowland-Smith, while not a radar-gun-popper, has a very different, more arching curveball that complements his throwing style. And he's learning how to use his arsenal.

"He's made several mental adjustments as to the way he works hitters, the way he pitches," Stottlemyre said. "He's throwing his fastball to both sides of the plate, using his off-speed pitches more effectively. Those combinations and the fact that he's left-handed usually work out quite well for you."

All of a sudden, this organization's starting pitching could be deeper than imagined. To the point where a pitcher like Ryan Feierabend, only two years from being a "can't miss" prospect at age 21, could have trouble cracking this rotation — even if Bedard's Seattle career is over.

The depth that Rowland-Smith potentially brings, if he repeats this success, allows the Mariners to trade lefty Jarrod Washburn, even if Bedard does not return. Seattle will still have Carlos Silva around for three years, $36 million and one more season of Miguel Batista at $9 million.

With Feierabend possibly around as a second lefty, on a rebuilding team, it's doubtful Washburn would be brought back at $10.3 million.

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong had said before Bedard's injury that the team could hold on to Washburn for next season if it can't get fair value in a trade. But with a new general manager about to be hired, Armstrong will have to step back and let that person do the job without being as hands-on.

Much of the bullpen questions center on the oft-injured, seldom-used Putz and the late-inning arms before him. Morrow is now in the rotation and Sean Green and Mark Lowe had their second-half struggles. The Mariners have also played a cat-and-mouse game with fireballing University of Georgia reliever Josh Fields, their No. 1 draft pick in June, who has been holding out for $2 million.

The Mariners want to pay $1.5 million and are willing to wait Fields out, at least until the new GM arrives. Fields could make a jump from college to the majors, as Morrow did. But only if the Mariners decide to sign him rather than take a compensatory pick and let Fields go back into next year's draft.

Batista is another potential answer, if bumped from the rotation. But his terrible bullpen outings this month have certainly provided reason for pause.

Of additional concern will be a situational lefty. Since the trade of Arthur Rhodes and the departure of Rowland-Smith to the rotation, no southpaw has stepped up. Eric O'Flaherty spent all but the first two weeks of the season in Class AAA.

But bullpens can be cobbled together — or rebuilt — more cheaply than a rotation. And if some additional lefty questions in the bullpen are the price of Rowland-Smith providing another dependable starter, it's one the team can live with.

"That was the whole idea behind sending him to the minors when we did," interim GM Lee Pelekoudas said. "We wanted to see him pitch here in August. Not just in September, when rosters of other teams were expanded with minor-league call-ups. We wanted to take a real good look at him."

The Mariners have, and they like him so far. And come this winter, with plenty of dark clouds looming, Rowland-Smith enables them to see at least some light.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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