BY John Hickey 10:01AM 04/01/2011

Is a power Mariner bullpen a good Mariner bullpen?

Five of the seven Mariners relievers deliver high 90-mph fastballs.

Right-hander Chris Ray is one of the new power arms in the Seattle bullpen for 2011. / Keith Allison, Wikimedia Commons

OAKLAND – Aaron Laffey and David Pauley were hanging out the other day, discussing the state of the Seattle Mariners’ bullpen.

They were impressed, and not because they were two of the seven men selected to the staff. It was the group of the other five that had them chatting.

“Pauley and I were talking and we got to thinking that we’re the only two guys out there who don’t throw at least 93 (mph),’’ Laffey said Thursday before the Mariners’ workout at the Oakland Coliseum. The season starts Friday night with the Mariners sending their ace, Felix Hernandez, against the A’s No. 1 guy, Trevor Cahill, at 7:07 p.m.

Brandon League, who begins the season as the closer with David Aardsma on the disabled list thanks to hip surgery, can reach 98 on the radar gun, sometimes higher.

Veteran Jamey Wright sits at 93-95, although he’s touched 97. Another vet, Chris Ray, threw 95-96 when he was with Baltimore a few years back and seems close to regaining that power after arm surgery. He averaged about 94 mph last year, a season split between the Giants and Rangers.

Then there are Josh Lueke and Tom Wilhelmsen, neither of whom has pitched in the big leagues before but both of whom are no strangers to fastballs in the upper 90s.

Hernandez, who has pretty good gas himself, said “you watch these guys, and they really throw hard.’’

The Mariners have themselves a power bullpen.

“Good bullpens now are all about power,’’ Laffey said, “When Pauley and I get in there, we’ve got to throw the ball down in the zone and get ground balls. These other guys can just blow you away.’’

The question is, is this power bullpen a good bullpen? That’s yet to be determined.

Laffey and Wilhelmsen have explosive stuff, true, but they have no experience. Big league hitters make more than meal money eating the lunch of guys with pedigrees like that.

“We’re in a position where some of these guys are going to take their lumps,’’ general manager Jack Zduriencik said. Then he slowly adds a word to the end of that sentence, an important word. “Sometimes.’’

“It will happen, but these guys have a lot of promise. And for us too, it’s about moving forward as an organization.’’

Lueke and Wilhelmsen and another young gun with power who didn’t make the roster, Dan Cortes, are the future of the Seattle bullpen. And yet, coming into the spring, there was a reasonable chance that none of the three would make the Opening Night roster.

They don’t seem intimidated. Excited, yes. But not intimidated.

“I got the sense that I could compete up here last year when I was in Triple-A (Tacoma),’’ Lueke said. He was 1-0 with a 2.08 ERA and 18 strikeouts in 17.1 innings over a dozen games with the Rainiers. “I was doing pretty well against those guys. And then I went to the Fall League, and I felt pretty good there, too.’’

Lueke’s success carried over to the Cactus League, where he had a 2.31 ERA in 11.2 innings. Wilhelmsen’s ERA of 4.91 wasn’t up to par, but his fastball was such that the Mariners couldn’t hold him back.

“It’s all about the future,’’ Zduriencik said.

Lueke and Wilhelmsen both started 2010 in Class-A ball. Not that many pitchers make the jump right from there to the big leagues, but ones who do can impact teams in unexpected ways. Exhibit A is Detroit’s Rick Porcello, who went from Class A to the Tigers rotation in 2009 and went 14-9 with a 3.96 ERA.

There’s no way to know if the Mariner bullpen will have that kind of talent infusion, but there is excitement internally about the pitchers involved even if externally is seems likely Seattle is in position to have another tough go in 2011.

“I like Lueke a lot. He’s really, really good,’’ Hernandez said. “He’s got a good split, a good slider and a great fastball. I haven’t seen Wilhelmsen as much, but everybody loves his fastball. I think they will be big for us.’’

Given that Hernandez, who won the 2010 Cy Young Award, was doing the speaking, that’s high praise indeed.

It will be interesting to see if Lueke and Wilhelmsen can live up to it.

Twitter: @JHickey3


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