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What Lies Beyond Hernandez and Lee?

Heading into last season the Mariners' pitching staff held a lot of question marks on their starting staff. Things are definitely getting better with Felix Hernandez and Cliff Lee forming perhaps one of the toughest one to punches in all the Majors. However, the question remains what else do they actually have?

Right now penciled in to the last three rotation spots are Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell, and Doug Fister with Luke French, Garrett Olson, Yusmeiro Petit, and Jason Vargas the other potential options. That group consists of a lot of retreads and former top prospects.

Rowland-Smith produced a 3.74 ERA over 15 starts for the Mariners in 2009 and based on that is a bit more certain of his spot in the rotation than others. While he continues to show good command (1.6 BB/9 in triple-A and 2.5 upon his promotion to the majors), he has yet to eclipse the 6.0 K/9 mark as a starter in the majors. Frighteningly he is a fly-ball pitcher who has allowed them over 40|PERCENT| of the time each of his seasons in the majors. He held his ERA down via a .262 BABIP and 6.7 HR/FB percentage and an xFIP of 4.88. Drafting him is playing with fire.

Ian Snell is a mess. After showing improvement in 2006 and 2007 that made him a hot sleeper he lost his ability to throw strikes at the MLB level. There was a glimmer of hope earlier this season in six triple-A starts where he posted an 11.3 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9, but that small sample size of success was quickly eradicated as he was no longer able to generate strikeouts on top of command producing a near 1:1 K/BB ratio. To me says perhaps that he has been trying to pitch his way through injuries when perhaps he should not. Time will tell, but there were no signs of improvement or decline from one half to the other, just misery, making it impossible to consider him for drafting purposes.

Douglas Fister was a welcome late-season addition to many AL only teams in 2009 and his skills suggest perhaps the best chance for success going forward of what is beyond the Hernandez/Lee duo. His command and control have been consistent strong points for him – 3:1 K/BB and 2.2 BB/9. While he was more of a neutral pitcher over his short time in the majors, he also owns a career 48|PERCENT| minor league ground-ball percentage. Now Fister is by no means a potential upper end of the rotation pitcher as we are talking about a nearly 26-year old right-handed pitcher who averages around 88 mph on his fastball. It should be noted that his strikeout rates tumbled as he proceeded from double-A to the Majors from a 7.9 to under a 6.0 within the confines of a single season. Fister's stuff is fringy, even his secondary stuff – his curve and his change, so the challenge here is whether he can improve those offerings. Regardless, his upside is that of a fourth or fifth starter, but at least has shown some skills recently that might keep him in the majors in an inning eating role, though also, not necessarily on a role that includes a spot on your team.

As for the rest: Yusmeiro Petit – an even softer-tossing right-hander than Fister, though with better secondary stuff to the point where he has a career mlb 6.9 K/9. Unfortunately he is a chronic fly-ball pitcher (50|PERCENT| of the time for his career) whose command in the strikezone is not nearly as good as his ability to throw strikes – career 13.6|PERCENT| HR/FB and never below 12.5|PERCENT|. Moving to a more pitcher-friendly park may help, but not a pitcher to use on the road and perhaps a better profile as a reliever.

Garrett Olson is a former top Oriole draft pick and prospect noted for his pitchability, but has yet to translate his minor league strikeout skills to the majors and his control has evaporated. It has not helped that he is a fly-ball pitcher too. He is now 26 and the Mariners have openings for left-handed relievers – Olson and his curveball might end up a good fit for that role. There is upside here, but no mlb track record for success that suggests you should take a flier on him.

Happy almost 27th birthday to Jason Vargas. There is something of a trend here for soft-tossing, former top prospects that have good control, but give up a ton of fly-balls. That fits Vargas to a tee though he did have some promising results in 8 triple-A starts with an 8+ K/9 and 2.6 BB/9. While he is a factor in the rotation race, he has a better chance of sticking as a loogy like Olson.

Our last rotation candidate is minor league left-hander that lacks the pedigree of some of our candidates as a former 8th round pick of the Tigers. Like others in this group, French is not a pitcher you bother to take out the radar gun on as he averages just over 87 mph. Instead he mixes that with his slider and changeup. The Mariners picked this 23-year old up in the Jarrod Washburn trade after he had the best minor league season of his career with a sub 3.00 ERA, 7.9 K/9, and 2.2 BB/9. His transition to the majors was a bit of a rude awakening as his K/9 dropped to a sub 5.6, his BB/9 jumped to a 3.7 and 48|PERCENT| of his balls in play were fly-balls. Fortunately for French the last two numbers are fairly out of context with his minor league career (46|PERCENT| ground-ball rate and 2.2 BB/9) so there is some hope here for improvement. Just still keep in mind that his talent still remains more of a back-end of the rotation starter.

I wish it were a bit rosier picture for Mariners fans and for better pickings for fantasy players. I've always liked them and Lou Pinella's abuse of Dave Fleming still irks me (OK he was never very good in the first place), but that aside it is clear that this an assortment of pitchers you should stay away from with perhaps Fister or French worth a $1 end-game flier. Daniel Cortes is the closest to the majors of the Mariners' pitchers with upside, but his control problems and development of his changeup may move him to relief.