Battle for fifth starter job under way in Mariners camp
The Mariners are seeking a fifth starter and will likely choose between the quartet of Jason Vargas, Doug Fister, Luke French and Garrett Olson.
Seattle Times staff reporter
PEORIA, Ariz. — Four of the pitchers involved in the biggest competition at spring training don't spend time chatting about it as a group.
"That doesn't really bring us together too well," quips Jason Vargas, a left-hander who split time between Class AAA and stints in the Mariners' rotation and bullpen last year.
The Mariners are seeking a fifth starter and will likely choose among the quartet of Vargas, Doug Fister, Luke French and Garrett Olson. To the runners-up, there's a long-relief spot up for grabs and possibly a situational left-hander's bullpen role, though the team might not choose to specialize in that regard.
What's not in doubt is that some of the four will be back in AAA this season, adding some urgency to the situation each time they take the mound. Vargas had his turn Thursday, allowing one hit over two scoreless innings in his team's 9-3 win over the San Diego Padres in their annual Charity Game at Peoria Stadium.
"Obviously, starting's what I've always done," said Vargas, who went 3-6 with a 4.91 earned-run average for Seattle last year in 14 starts and nine relief outings. "When you're a pitcher, unless you've been built into a relief role, then that's kind of where your head always is. The pace of the game depends on you and how you come out and do your job. And that's what you like to feel."
That said, Vargas knows it was helpful to do both last season. He says his entire body feels stronger after a complete offseason throwing regimen, rather than the rehabilitation from hip labrum surgery he had to undergo the previous year.
Thursday, the Mariners saw Vargas get three ground outs in the first inning, then, after a one-out double, he notched another ground out and a strikeout on Matt Stairs to end his day. His outing went somewhat smoother on a whole than did Fister's on Wednesday, when he allowed three first-inning runs before striking out the side in his second frame.
Fister could have an edge in the competition, given that he's right-handed and performed well down the stretch last season, going 3-4 with a 4.13 ERA in 10 starts and one relief appearance. The remaining three pitchers are southpaws and would force the Mariners to go with back-to-back lefties in their rotation at some points if kept.
Fister's big thing this spring is to keep his pitches down in the zone. It's something he failed to do in his opening inning, when the San Francisco Giants took him over the fence and down the outfield line, but he made an adjustment and recovered well from there.
"If things don't go the way they're going to go, then all I can control is myself," Fister said. "So, I've got to stay calm, cool and collected."
Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said the coaching staff will be evaluating a number of things as camp progresses.
"Obviously stuff and looking at the quality of pitches," Wakamatsu said. "But also, kind of like what we saw with Fister (Wednesday). Damage control and can he reel it back in? I thought Vargas' tempo and everything was great (Thursday). So, they both pitched well."
Wakamatsu wants Vargas to avoid "overexposing" his breaking ball this year and focus more on his fastball and strong changeup. Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair said Vargas has bettered some of the action on his changeup.
"It's not always exactly where I want it to be," Vargas said. "There are some keys for me. When it's not as good as other (times), I sometimes get too high with it rather than staying in my arm slot."
Next up is French, a left-hander who went 3-3 with a 6.63 ERA in seven starts and a relief outing after being acquired last summer in the Jarrod Washburn trade.
French takes the mound Saturday against the Padres, followed right after his two innings by Olson, another lefty who split time between the rotation, bullpen and AAA last season.
"They just told me they don't know where I'll be," Olson said.
"They have some decisions to make."
Olson had better splits as a reliever last season, going 3-5 with a 6.49 ERA in 11 starts and 0-0 with a 3.90 ERA in 20 bullpen appearances. But he insists those statistics could be misleading.
"It wasn't necessarily the time of the game, but the part of the season," he said. "There was that one time of year where I was scuffling as a starter and even if I was relieving, I wouldn't have had much success."
Pitching coach Adair says that with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee — who throw simulated games on Friday — both being eased in slowly this spring, there will be added time for the quartet to show what they can do.
"We keep it pretty loose when we're in here together," Olson said. "We're professionally going about our business. We're not bitter about our rivalry by any means."
Not off the field. But on it, things stand to get much more heated this spring.
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or email@example.com.
Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners
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