BY John Hickey 06:30AM 03/14/2012

Hickey: Mariners live/die on trades of starters

The majors are sprinkled with premier pitching that once belong to M’s, but that is the price paid for having few quality draft choices from the eras of GMs Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi.

Michael Pineda is just one of several top pitchers traded to make up for lost draft picks. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest

Ask any major league general manager about the most difficult position on a roster to fill, the answer is the same: Starting pitching.

New York Mets GM Sandy Alderson described starting pitchers as baseball’s “coin of the realm.”
The Mariners have had trouble getting hitters, but that’s at least in part an organizational decision. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder have been available in free agency. But because of age concerns and money worries, the Mariners haven’t been players for top-end offense.

On the other hand, the Mariners put more good starting pitching on the market in the last two years than just about any team.
They traded:

Brandon Morrow to the Blue Jays.
Cliff Lee to the Rangers.
Erik Bedard to the Red Sox.
Doug Fister to the Tigers.
Michael Pineda to the Yankees.

Among them, they won 53 games in 2011. With Fister and Pineda pitching for teams capable of scoring runs in a most un-Seattle-like way, it’s likely that total will soar in 2012.

Lee and Bedard were going to leave as free agents anyway, so trading them made sense. But Seattle had long-term control over Morrow (three years), Fister (four years) and Pineda (five years). Those trades didn’t have to go down.

If you could have paired current Seattle starters Felix Hernandez and Jason Vargas with Morrow, Fister and Pineda, it’s no stretch to say the club would have as deep a starting rotation as any heading into this season.

So why isn’t that general manager Jack Zduriencik’s agenda? Why is it that rather than stockpiling baseball’s most valued commodity, he’s become the go-to GM for other teams in need of starting pitchers?

It’s all about long-term performance. Not long-term forward; long-term backward. As in, back-filling. For most of the first decade of the 21st century, the Mariners had some of the least productive drafts in club history.

The club’s push to sign free agents under general managers Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi robbed the Mariners repeatedly of first-round draft choices, and picks later in the draft weren’t much to speak of.

From 2000-2005, the Mariners drafted 295 players. Of those, just 35 made it to the big leagues, and only one, center fielder Adam Jones, has gone on to become an All-Star. And Jones didn’t get to that level until being traded to Baltimore.

Over the same time, one team completely dedicated to the draft, Tampa Bay, had 56 players make it to the big leagues. That’s ample proof that it was possible to reap more rewards from the draft than Seattle did.

Another team, Milwaukee, matched the Mariners with 35 draftees making it to the big leagues. But the Brewers, who had Zduriencik running the draft in those days, reaped five All-Stars – outfielder Corey Hart, shortstop J.J. Hardy, first baseman Prince Fielder, second baseman Rickie Weeks and starting pitcher Yovani Gallardo.

That doesn’t count two other players, outfielder Hunter Pence and closer Andrew Bailey, who were drafted subsequently by other teams (Houston and Oakland, respectively) and became All-Stars with those franchises.

When Zduriencik came aboard after the 2008 season, the failures of the 2000-05 drafts meant that the Mariners didn’t have much in the way of homegrown talent. They didn’t have bundles of cash, either, thanks to declining attendance.

To compensate, Zduriencik decided he had to spend whatever capital he had. That capital was pitching. And while it can be argued about whether any of the trades was the right one to make, it’s clear the Mariners’ 2012 roster will owe much of its makeup to the trades of those five pitchers.

Closer Brandon League (Morrow deal), DH/catcher Jesus Montero (Pineda) and first baseman Justin Smoak (Lee) are locks to make the starting lineup. Starters Blake Beavan (Lee) and Hector Noesi (Pineda) are likely to make the rotation. And outfielders Casper Wells (Fister) and Trayvon Robinson (Bedard) could make the roster, as might pitcher Charlie Furbush (Fister).

That means as many as eight players picked up in those trades could start the season on the roster, all of them locked to the club for the long-term. Add to that the fact that three of Seattle’s top minor league prospects, third baseman Francisco Martinez and outfielders Johermyn Chavez and Chih-Hsien Chiang, come from those trades, and it’s evident that the club has molded its future around the trades of the five starters.

If the Mariners held on to any three of the five starting pitchers they traded, they would have a much stronger rotation for 2012. But Zduriencik was willing to risk that for his vision of a brighter future in 2013 and beyond, one in which the trade pickups were coupled with Zduriencik-era draft choices such as second baseman Dustin Ackley, third baseman Kyle Seager and pitchers Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen.

Is it a winning formula? Maybe not this year. But with good drafts coming out of Team Zduriencik, there’s at least hope for fans that it will be sooner rather than later that the Mariners will no longer be also-rans.