BY John Hickey 04:03PM 03/04/2011

Vargas’s soft landing; M’s sign draft pick Paxton

In the morning Friday, LHP Jason Vargas threw a simulated game; in the afternoon, LHP James Paxton, the fourth-round pick last year, signed his first big-league contract.

Jason Vargas - Seattle Mariners - 2010 - 1

The Mariners are giving Jason Vargas the Felix Hernandez treatment / Ben Van Houten, Mariners

PEORIA, AZ. – It’s been a bit of an odd spring for Mariner left-handed starter Jason Vargas.

It’s not so much that the Mariners under new manager Eric Wedge and pitching coach Carl Willis are holding some of the starters out of game action the first time through the Cactus League.

“I’ve seen that before.’’ Vargas said.

What he hasn’t seen before is that he’s part of the discussion.

Vargas threw in a simulated game Friday, letting fly with pitches that were mostly fastballs, sliders and changeups.

As expected, he said he felt good, felt strong and his pitches looked like they were leaving his hand nice and easy.

What he finds to be a little odd is that he is being accorded basically the same treatment that the Mariners are giving to last year’s Cy Young Award winner, Felix Hernandez.

“While I have seen this kind of treatment before, I’ve never done it before,’’ Vargas said after his 31-pitch outing that covered basically two innings. “It’s a new experience and takes a little getting used to.’’

As was the case with Hernandez, who led the league with 249.2 innings last year, the Mariners are concerned with the workload that the left-handed Vargas had handed to him last year, his first year starting in the big leagues for a while season. He started 31 games and threw 192.2 innings, both career bests. A year earlier, he threw 143.1 innings split between Triple-A Tacoma and Seattle, and the year before that, coming off left hip surgery (basically the same problem David Aardsma’s dealing with now, although more severe), he didn’t pitch at all

“I did show an increase in innings last year, and they are looking for me to back that up,’’ Vargas said. “I appreciate their concern.’’

At the same time, Vargas has always been able to throw as many innings as needed. And despite the kid gloves he’s seeing right now, he expected to be out there grinding out innings start after start as he did last year.

The Mariner could live with that, because he showed last year that he offers not just innings, but good, competitive innings. He had 21 quality starts, nine behind Hernandez and eighth-best in the league.

While Vargas is being eased into live action – he should start Tuesday against San Francisco – the Mariners’ other breakout starter from the 2010 season, Doug Fister, has made two starts, including three innings Friday against Cincinnati in which he allowed five hits and two runs in what turned out to be a 3-1 Seattle loss, the Mariners’ third consecutive defeat after beginning the Cactus League 2-0-1 in the first three games.

His sinker was staying up in the strike zone, a problem that has dogged him all spring. Even in bullpen sessions, Fister, who threw 171innings in his first full season in 2010, clearly was a little frustrated.

“It was a struggle to get the ball down, especially to right-handed batters,’’ he said. “It’s the same as it’s been in the bullpen. It’s my focus now, the key to my game.’’

Wedge said he wasn’t overly concerned with Fister’s day.

“To see a pitcher slide in and out like that isn’t unusual,” Wedge said. “I like the way he competed.”

NOTES: Seattle announced late in the afternoon that the club has signed 2010’s fourth-round draft pick James Paxton, who ranked third in the NCAA with 13.22 strikes per nine innings while pitching for Kentucky. Paxton, who hails from Ladner, B.C., just over the Canadian border from Blaine, WA., will join the Seattle big league camp for at least a few days as a non-roster player. Minor league pitchers and catchers are due to report to the Peoria Complex Monday. “This is awesome,’’ Paxton said Friday. “It’s nice to say I’m a Seattle Mariner.’’ He left Kentucky after being drafted in 2009 by Toronto as a sandwich pick between the first and second rounds, but he didn’t sign after his agent, Scott Boras, couldn’t get the deal he wanted from the Blue Jays.. The 6-foot-4, 220-pounder pitched for Grand Prairie in the independent American Association last year before the Mariners took him last year. GM Jack Zduriencik said “we like him a lot; we’ve been looking at him the last two years.’’ … It came out Friday that left fielder Milton Bradley is being sued by his wife, Monique, for divorce, and there are allegations of abuse. Bradley, who was arrested on Jan. 18 after Los Angeles police got a call from Monique Bradley claiming he was threatening her. He is due for a hearing March in L.A. at which time a decision will be forthcoming on whether or not to proceed with the case. Through a Mariner official Bradley indicated Friday he would have no comment. … Felix Hernandez’s first start in the Cactus League will be Monday against Oakland. The Mariners are due to play the A’s again five days later, so it’s likely that Hernandez will pitch in a “B’’ game that day to avoid having him face the A’s twice. He’s due to face them on opening night, April 1 in Oakland. … David Aardsma, the closer who is two months post surgery on his left hip, is negotiating the clubhouse without any noticeable pain. “I like walking around,’’ Aardsma said. … The Mariners offense has five runs and 17 hits the last three games. “It’s still early,’’ Wedge said. “We’re seeing some occasions of young at-bats. We’re evaluating. Are they being too aggressive? Too passive? But we need to be able to (score more).’’


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