2004 and lessons for 2014

In 2004 the M’s were coming into the new season after consecutive 93 win, no playoff appearance seasons.  But there was hope for the new year. The team had a young Ichiro (this is the year he broke George Sisler’s hit record,) a productive Raul Ibanez, and many of the heroes of 2001, Dan Wilson, John Olerud, Brett Boone, and Edgar Martinez.  Bill Bavasi replaced Pat Gillick as GM and he brought in Scott Spiezio, an Angels hero in the World Series, Rich Aurilia would play shortstop.  It was the season of Bucky Jacobsen, Hiram Bocachica and Jeremy Reed.

The pitching staff was a juggernaut, featuring Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Ryan Franklin, Gil Meche and Joel Piniero.  In 2003, the five starters pitched every scheduled start.  All except Meche threw 200 innings (he had a respectable 186.0.) The first three had above league average years with ERA+ over 100, and the youngsters, Meche and Piniero weren’t bad with ERA+ of 94 and 95 respectively.  When the ’03 season ended the talk was about the youngsters in Tacoma, Clint Nageotte a right-hander, and Travis Blackley a lefty.  They chewed up the Coast League and it seemed clear the M’s should be set with pitching for years to come.

The 2004 season was a disaster, the first of a decade’s worth of disasters that has spun into little more than ennui today.  The heroes of 2001 were too old.   Spezio and Aurilia were awful. The pitching staff collapsed in a season of injury and poor performances. Moyer finished the year  7-13, Franklin was 4-16, and Piniero was 6-11.  Old stats aside, these guys were terrible.

But most relevant to today’s team is the performance of Nageotte and Blackley.  Called up to fill in for the injured Freddy Garcia and Gil Meche, both showed they couldn’t throw strikes and were sent back to Tacoma.  Nageotte’s career floundered and threw a total of five more major league innings and was gone from the majors after the 2006 season.  Blackley was injured in 2005, and played briefly with the Giants in 2007, and was out of the majors until 2012. He’s started 20 games the past two years, but has never approached league average effectiveness.

What does this have to do with anything?  The M’s are attempting to cobble together their pitching staff for the coming year.  You can write in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma at one and two respectively.  Erasmo Ramirez, Taijuan Walker, and James Paxton will compete for the four and five slots.  The third slot remains wide open.

Today the M’s signed pitcher Scott Baker to a minor league deal.  Baker was a very good pitcher for the Twins until he had Tommy John surgery.  Baker missed all of 2012 and pitched in three forgettable games with the Cubs in 2013.  Lookout Landing did a nice  analysis of Baker’s style and what it might mean, so I’ll skip that. The Mariners risk little with this signing.  It’s an incentive laden deal that is worth Baker’s while if he can make the team.  The Mariners were an attractive choice because they have that third slot open.

But looking at the larger picture, what does Baker’s signing mean for the M’s?  While I wish Baker the very best, he is still an unknown, an unproven commodity coming off a serious injury.  He clearly wasn’t ready to pitch last year and we don’t know how his current situation is different from his September starts.  The Mariners are placing considerable faith in the their young pitchers and Baker to fill out the rotation.  They did the same thing last year when they gave rotation slots to Brandon Maurer and Jeremy Bonderman.

At the very least the M’s seem thin in their rotation.  Jack Zdurencik balked this weekend when he concluded giving four or five years to the remaining free agents was risky and potentially very costly. I’m not sure I disagree with him, but it seems to me the lessons from 2004, that pitching staffs break, and that youngsters often disappoint, calls for a known quantity in that third spot in the rotation.  If Ervin Santana and Ubaldo Jimenez are asking for too many years and dollars, what about Bronson Arroyo or Chris Capuano?  They won’t require as much of either.  They aren’t recovering from a serious arm injury.  The M’s need a plan B; there must be another guy.  I wish Baker the best, and I love his story and I rooted for Bonderman last year.  But more than anything I want to win.

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