BY John Hickey 07:30AM 03/19/2012

Hickey: Bullpen lefties a problem for Mariners

Desperate for lefty help, GM Jack Zduriencik invited a boxcar-full to spring training, but so far only converted starter Charlie Furbush has done well.

Desperate for a lefty in the pen, Charlie Furbush has been moved out of the starting rotation. / Drew Sellers, Sportspress Northwest file

Reasons were many for the Mariners’ lack of success in 2011, most having to do with an offense that was unproductive in the extreme. Seattle scored 556 runs when the American League team average for runs scored was 723, and when the next-worst offense, the Minnesota Twins, scored 619.

Improving the bats was the prime directive for general manager Jack Zduriencik this off-season. It wasn’t, however, the only shortcoming needing attention.

Take, for example, the way Zduriencik went out of his way to bring in left-handed relievers. Two former All-Stars, George Sherrill and Hong-Chih Kuo, were brought in, as was another veteran, Oliver Perez.

The Mariners dipped into the ranks of the Rule 5 draft to nab lefty Lucas Luetge, plucked out of the Milwaukee minor league system. Sean Henn, who last pitched in the big leagues in 2009, was given a shot.

Charlie Furbush, a starter in 2011 for all but one game after being acquired from Detroit, was pushed into the bullpen competition. Cesar Jimenez, a longtime Seattle minor leaguer who got into a handful of games last year, was brought into camp with another chance to win a job.

Why all this emphasis on the left-handed side of the equation? It’s all about the numbers.

Seven of the top 10 hitters in the American League in batting average were either left-handed or switch-hitters. The top four (and five of the top six) RBI producers were either lefties or switch-hitters. And three of the league’s top five home run producers fit into the same category.

Against that, the Mariners had just two lefties who threw more than one game of relief last year, Aaron Laffey and Jimenez. Laffey, let go on waivers last August and now trying to catch on with the Blue Jays, threw 42.2 innings in 36 games before his exit. Jimenez pitched 6.2 innings in eight games. That was it. Including Furbush’s one inning, lefty relievers contributed 50.1 innings to the cause in 2011.

Consider that 12 AL left-handed pitchers individually threw more innings of relief than that. The White Sox had three, including former Mariner first-round draft pick Matt Thornton.

Three other American League teams had two left-handed relievers exceed the Mariners’ team total, including the Angels and A’s from the AL West.

The Mariners were woefully understaffed in that area. Zduriencik did what he could to make things right.

Trouble is, things have not gone well for most of the left-handed troops this spring. Perez and Henn have already been sent to the minor league camp.

Meanwhile, Kuo has been so awful, giving up 15 hits in 6.2 innings, including a team-worst five homers to go with a 17.55 ERA, that he was released Monday.

“He shows signs, but he’s just been erratic with his fastball, and his breaking ball has been in and out at times,’’ manager Eric Wedge told the Mariners media in putting the best possible spin on a grim-looking spring for Kuo. “He just hasn’t been able to put it all together just yet.’’

Sherrill,  a rock for the Mariners during his first stay 2004-07, had such a heavy workload last year – he appeared in 51 games and estimates he may have warmed up in another 50-60 games for the Braves – the decision was made to bring him along slowly. Swelling in his elbow helped to force the issue.

He’s pitching now – a rainout interrupted plans to pitch Sunday, along with Furbush and Jimenez – but the results have been slow. He’s thrown four innings, walked three and has a 9.00 ERA.

However, Sherrill had a history of tough springs with Seattle – although none of the current power brokers in the Seattle front office were around at the time. Still, his poor numbers this spring get a little bit of a pass.

“When you have a veteran guy like him, he knows his body and what it will take to get ready,’’ Wedge said. “You want to have him ready for the season and be able to keep him going all season. That means you might have to back off a little down here.’’

Jimenez is a something of a long shot based on his numbers – a 9.00 ERA in three Cactus League games. But he has thrown in one intrasquad game and one B game without allowing a run, so the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Furbush has been the only standout of the group – four games, six innings, no runs allowed. But he did allow two runs his last time out in a B game against the White Sox. He may have the best shot of landing a job.

Perhaps the biggest question is Luetge. He’s never pitched above Double-A, but under big league rules, the Mariners have to keep him on the roster or offer him back to Milwaukee. Luetge has thrown well enough – five hits, one walk and seven strikeouts in four innings to go with a 3.60 ERA – and some vets have pitched poorly enough that perhaps Zduriencik and Wedge can find a way to shoehorn him onto the roster.

“He’s had a real good camp,’’ Wedge said. “He’s a young man that’s handled himself well. He’s done a pretty good job against left-handers and right-handers.’’

There is no getting around the fact that Luetge has never pitched against this level of competition.

“It’s been a bit of an adjustment,’’ he said, “getting used to all the new players and coaches. I’m getting it down. I’m watching (the veterans throw) their bullpens. That helps a lot, seeing what they’ve done. I’m trying to pick on every little thing I can.’’

Will he pick up enough to stick?

The club should know this week. If Luetge is one of the 30 players who makes the flight from Phoenix to Tokyo, he’ll have made it.


  • Rvonhoffmann

    Even if the Dawgs win, I don’t see a good end to conference play. To many road games left against teams that will beat the U. UCLA and WSU will win and the Dawgs will drop a home game against Arizona that is playing well now.
    This will be another year where the Dawgs must win the PAC 12 tournament to get to the NCAA tournament. I expect Romar will not be able to coach this team to play 40 minutes of offense and defense in the same game. Washington has the best players in the conference but not the best team. It looks like Romar will be the Tedfraud of basketball, getting the least out of the most.