Cliff Lee is, rather obviously, a big part of the ' plans. He's either their best or their second-best starting pitcher, and one of their few best players overall. Cliff Lee's acquisition might've been the biggest reason Mariner fans started thinking about the playoffs.
Cliff Lee also isn't making his season debut until the last day of April. A Mariners team without Lee is unquestionably weakened, and when he first went down, the consensus was that his absence would cost the team about a win in the standings.
Looking back, though, how did things bear out? While the Mariners missed Lee's talent, did they actually miss his performance?
No, I don't think they did. And here's why: the pitcher who got added to the rotation to fill in for Lee was Doug Fister. And Doug Fister, through his four starts, has allowed five runs in 27 innings. That's phenomenal, and though we all know Fister can't sustain that kind of record, what's done is done.
Realistically, it isn't this simple. Lee probably would've gotten different starts. The whole rotation would've been jumbled around. Maybe Jason Vargas would've been the guy left on the outside looking in instead of Fister. There's no easy way for us to compare the Mariners now to what the Mariners would've been right now given a healthy Cliff Lee.
But the overall point, I think, doesn't change. While we can't say what the Mariners' record would be through 20 games with a healthy Cliff Lee, we can say that their problems so far haven't come from Lee's replacement(s). They've come from Ian Snell, and Ryan Rowland-Smith, and some of the bullpen, and most every position player on the team. They've come from players whose performances are in no significant way dependent on Cliff Lee's health.
Cliff Lee's return will be a big boost to this team going forward. Of that there's no doubt in my mind. When a star player gets injured, though, you just hope to get lucky, and the M's got lucky enough that, for a handful of weeks, they didn't really miss him. Should the Mariners ultimately fall short of what's expected of them this year, then, I don't think we'll be able to point to Lee's injury as a contributing factor.