BY John Hickey 02:38PM 02/14/2011

Bedard could provide Mariners a 2nd punch

Once again what-ifs surround Erik Bedard. The lefty starter offers experience and skill – as long as he remains healthy after three injury-shortened seasons.

What Erik Bedard could provide is once again a tantalizing discussion this spring / Otto Greule Jr., Getty Images

PEORIA, AZ – The Mariners went down to the wire in 2008 before pulling off the trade that brought Erik Bedard to Seattle in exchange for future All-Star center fielder Adam Jones and a raft of pitching.

Bedard was such a find that then-manager John McLaren installed him as the opening day starting pitcher over Felix Hernandez, a move that Hernandez took with relative equanimity but that infuriated several of the veteran pitchers on the staff.

They never wanted to talk about it on the record, but privately a couple expressed the feeling that Hernandez’s 2007 season – 14-7 with a 3.92 ERA for a bad Seattle team was the equal of Bedard’s 13-5, 3.16 for a bad Baltimore team – and that Hernandez deserved the opener based on his history with the organization.

It wasn’t the greatest way for Bedard to come into a new organization. He hadn’t wanted to be traded at all, and he had no particular affinity for Seattle. He was brusque with the media and quiet in the way only a relatively reserved newcomer can be with his new teammates, to the point where some Mariners thought him standoffish.

So who in the world was the guy wearing Bedard’s No. 45 Monday on the first day of Seattle spring training workouts in Peoria? He was, in no particular order, healthy, pain-free, smiling, interactive and cordial.

And, oh, yes, he was still a Mariner. In 2008 it wouldn’t have seemed possible that Bedard would still be around in 2011. But he has grown to like the city of Seattle and Mariner fans, he likes Safeco Field and he both likes his teammates and is liked back. One of his best buddies is Hernandez, who says the left-handed starting pitcher needs to be watched this spring and beyond.

“He’s healthy, and when he’s healthy he’s one of the best,’’ Hernandez said Monday. “We hang out a lot away from the field. I told him last year that he had to come back, and he told me he wanted to come back, so I’m not surprised he’s here.

“When he’s healthy, me and him together, we can be good.’’

All of which proves that optimism blooms in the desert. Seattle is coming off 101 losses, and that came with Seattle having, for half a season, the best 1-2 punch in club history with Hernandez and Cliff Lee comprising 40 percent of the rotation. Bedard isn’t Cliff Lee, and yet he says he’s not the pitcher he’s been the last three seasons, which is a pitcher in name only.

He’s been on the disabled list for two-thirds of his time in Seattle. Except for some relatively rare but tantalizing interludes, Mariners fans haven’t seen the power fastball and fall-off-the-wall curve that allowed Bedard to strike out 221 batters in 2007 for the Orioles.

Bedard has experience and a high skill level going for him. Injuries have kept those qualities hidden for three years. If he could be close to the pitcher he once was, the top two-fifths of the Seattle rotation would be in good shape.

“Two years ago, I felt good for two months, then everything went downhill from there,’’ Bedard said. He’s had three surgeries in three years as a Mariner, two of them since the last time he threw a pitch in a Seattle uniform halfway through the 2009 season. “So to be out here today, to be able to enjoy pitching again, I feel really happy.

“It’s just outstanding to be pain-free.’’

Bedard threw deliberately but smoothly, his arm angle optimized and with stuff that his catcher, Josh Bard, said meant “everybody in Seattle can sleep good tonight. He’s throwing good.’’

Bedard never said he owed it to the organization to come back – for the second year running he has a contract with a low base (relatively; it’s $1 million) and high incentives ($6.35 million if they’re all reached) – but he did seem to suggest something along those lines, if only because he’s come to enjoy Seattle.

“I definitely had some options,’’ he said. “I had other offers, but I wanted to come here, so I waited for the Mariners to make an offer, and I took it.

“It’s not about the money. I took less to come back here. Here’s where I feel comfortable. And that’s very important.’’

Manager Eric Wedge said that he saw Bedard in 2006-07 when the lefty was at his best, when “he was as good as they come.’’ He would like to think that much of the venom in Bedard’s pitches still lives in that arm.

“He was throwing free and easy today, which was good to see,’’ Wedge said. “It’s a good start.’’

The Mariners would like to see about 30 of those this year. Having Hernandez and Bedard healthy and throwing hard at the top of the rotation would give Seattle a presence in the rotation missing for most of the last three seasons.

John Hickey is a Senior MLB Writer for AOL FanHouse (www.fanhouse.com)

Twitter: @JHickey3


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