With the Washburn contract on the verge of becoming official, and Gil Meche likely to be tendered a contract at the expense of Ryan Franklin (ok, so it doesn't really work like that, but you get the point), the Mariners are staring at a five-man rotation of:
That said, is it an improvement? Absolutely - we'll have a full season of Felix to replace whatever service it was that Aaron Sele (and Jeff Harris) provided, and Washburn's going to be a step up from Ryan Franklin, even if the gain isn't quite as significant as most of us would've liked. By my admittedly rough estimation, this year's starting five could improve on last year's by 70-80 runs without over-exerting itself. If you buy into the whole Pythagorean Won/Loss deal, that's enough of an impact to push the team above .500 even before you factor in the practically guaranteed improvement of the offense. So all isn't lost.
Here's the problem, though: behind the starting five, the Mariners have precious little depth (one could say "behind Felix" and make the same argument, but I digress). I guess it depends on how much confidence you have in guys like Jeff Harris, Bobby Livingston, Clint Nageotte, and Jesse Foppert, but none of them can be considered MLB-caliber pitchers right now, with the likelihood being that they'd post ERAs in the 5.00-5.50 range given enough time in Seattle.
Why is this important? Depth is one of the more underrated aspects of roster construction. Players get hurt all the time, for every team, and how well they get replaced can have a considerable effect on the standings. Just look at last year's Dodgers - with a healthy Eric Gagne, Odalis Perez, Milton Bradley, and JD Drew (among a few others), they probably win that division by a few games, but because they weren't able to come up with adequate replacements, they wound up near the basement. That example is kind of a worst-case scenario, but you get the point. An effective GM needs to plan for injuries, because they're an unavoidable but significant part of the game.
The Mariners, right now, have no contingency plan. With a perfectly healthy roster, they'd win 85+ games and probably challenge for a playoff spot, but a major injury to a member of either the starting lineup or the rotation changes everything, because their roster depth sucks. I'll leave the matter of replacing the position players for another day; for now, I just want to talk about the starters.
Last season, the five starters with which each team entered the year made an average of 130 starts. This means that, again, on average, each team handed 32 starts to some guy(s) they didn't think they'd need so badly back in April. Some organizations got lucky and made it through the year essentially unscathed, but teams like the 2005 Cardinals or 2003 Mariners are exceedingly rare, and shouldn't be considered anything close to the norm. 22 of the 30 teams in baseball last year had to give at least 20 games to their so-called emergency starters. At six frames a pop, those innings add up.
So how have the Mariners planned for this? Where a year ago they at least had Ryan Franklin ready and willing to move into the rotation should the need arise (which it did, after Bobby Madritsch's first start of the season), this year they have a few arms in Tacoma who are the very definition of replacement-level, if not a little bit worse. I like Jesse Foppert as much as the next guy, but he has to show me a hell of a lot more than he has before I want him starting games for the big club. Same goes for the others. By no means am I a Franklin supporter, but at least you always have a pretty good idea of what he'll bring to the table.
So, knowing that they don't have much depth in the system, the Mariners will probably enter the season with a 20 year old who has questionable mechanics, an expensive free agent lefty who's missed a dozen starts over the past two years with various arm injuries, a 43 year old, a righty with a developing medical history and a performance line that suggests that the problems aren't all gone, and one of the only "successful" torn labrum patients in the history of professional baseball. Color me unimpressed.
There's a chance that these five starters could be the picture of perfect health going forward, but the odds are overwhelmingly against that actually happening. Instead, I'd say it's pretty likely that at least one of them goes down next year, handing a bunch of starts to a guy who either doesn't deserve them or isn't ready to take them. If it's Meche, I guess we could survive, but if it's one of the front four, then that'll deal a considerable blow to what are already fairly slim playoff odds.
The 2006 Mariners - much like four-fifths of its starting rotation - will be living on the edge, needing to remain absolutely perfect in order to make a push for October baseball. And, like with anything, there's a chance that that happens, and I find myself opening up ALCS Open Game Threads for our series against the Indians. Just be sure to temper your expectations, because doing so would make this team a rare exception to a powerful rule.