Young starters give Mariners hope

Young starters give Mariners hope

SEATTLE -- With three-fifths of the supposed-to-be starting rotation currently unable to pitch for various reasons, the Mariners are getting a good look at what could be the heart and soul of their next five-man rotation.

Putting Tuesday night's rough outing aside, ace right-hander Felix Hernandez (9-10, 3.41 ERA) has been solid virtually the entire season and should have a much better record. Left-handers Ryan Rowland-Smith (4-2, 3.61) and Ryan Feierabend (1-2, 5.53) have had their shining moments. And right-hander Brandon Morrow (2-2, 1.42) could to be on the fast road to stardom as a starter.

All of them are 25 years or younger.

"You have to be careful projecting too great of things for young pitchers," Mariners pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre said on Wednesday, "but they are all growing as pitchers, and I'm anxious to see what they do for the rest of this month."

Barring any offseason trades, the Mariners also have left-handed starters Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard through next season, and right-hander Carlos Silva for three more years.

And it might not be too long before right-hander Phillippe Aumont makes a strong pitch for the rotation.

Aumont, the organization's first-round Draft choice in 2007, has such a high ceiling that the Mariners are taking every step necessary to keep him healthy -- shutting him down this past summer when there was some discomfort in his powerful right arm.

Going into Wednesday afternoon's series finale against the Rangers, Mariners starters had recorded a quality start (three or fewer runs in six innings) in 13 of the 17 games they started since Aug. 21. Eight consecutive quality starts from Aug. 23-30 ties for the fifth-longest in franchise history and the longest since the starters reeled off 10 quality starts in a row from Sept. 4-14, 2003.

The future looks brighter now than it has most of the season.

"The two guys we sent down, Morrow and Rowland-Smith, certainly have done very well as starters," Stottlemyre said. "They did a good job in the bullpen, but went down there [to Triple-A] Tacoma and got stretched out. The pitching coaches down there, Dave Wallace and Dwight Bernard, did a fantastic job with both of them, especially Morrow.

"He came back a little different pitcher than when he left, with a little different arsenal."

Primarily a fastball-slider pitcher during his 60 games as a reliever this season, Morrow spent a month at Triple-A developing a curveball and changeup and commanding his fastball.

Morrow tested his conversion from reliever to starter against the Yankees last Friday night in his first Major League start and held the Bronx Bombers hitless for 7 2/3 innings.

Rowland-Smith started the next game and held the Yankees to three runs over 6 1/3 innings. And Feierabend subbed for an ailing Silva in the series finale and stopped the vaunted New York offense on two runs over seven innings in a Seattle victory.

"He really responded," Stottlemyre said. "Boy did he jump in and do a tremendous job."

Prior to that string of solid starts, Hernandez held the Rangers to one run over 7 1/3 innings in a tough loss at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. Everyone, though, is bound to have a difficult game, and Hernandez had his on Tuesday night in a return engagement against Texas.

It did not go well -- six runs in a season-low 4 1/3 innings -- but everyone passed it off as "one of those days."

"With Felix, his potential is still out there and he hasn't reached it," Stottlemyre said. "He's still growing, although at 22 he's a young veteran. He's been through the wars and aside from [Tuesday night], when he basically wasn't himself, he has so much promise.

"I don't think I'm putting too much pressure on him to say he will be a 20-game winner. It's just a matter of the right time and the right place. He has that kind of ability."

And so, when you are sitting around agonizing over the mysterious shoulder problems that have kept Bedard on the sidelines since July 4, and Silva winning four games in the first year of a four-year, $48 million contract, think of the young guns that could carry the franchise back to respectability.

Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.