PEORIA, Ariz. -- The regular season begins in 12 days and the Mariners' starting rotation has been falling apart faster than it is falling into place. Other than having ace right-hander Felix Hernandez right on schedule and pitching superbly, the rotation is one big question mark after another heading towards the final full week of Spring Training. If the regular season started on Thursday, who would be in the rotation?
"I don't know," pitching coach Rick Adair said. What if the regular season started on Friday? "I don't know," he said. How about Saturday? "I don't know," he repeated. "I really don't." Fortunately, there still is enough time remaining in camp for key pitching questions to be answered and the rotation to get settled, at least for the short-term. "We have some ideas, but health is an issue," Adair said. "There are six, seven or eight guys who still have a chance to be in the rotation and we have to find out some things. "We have to find out how Doug Fister is going to be and when can we get him back in there after being hit on the forearm by a line drive. [Garrett Olson] has the finger issue and hasn't been stretched out. [Luke] French has pitched some innings and so has [David] Pauley." Fister threw a bullpen session on Wednesday and Olson is slated to resume a full schedule on Thursday. But the biggest health issue involves left-hander Cliff Lee, acquired from the Phillies during the offseason to join Hernandez at the top of the rotation. The American League Cy Young Award winner two years ago was slowed at the outset of camp because of foot surgery and is now sidelined with a strained lower right abdominal muscle. Lee played catch on Tuesday, but felt discomfort and his immediate status remains unclear, although he surely will begin the regular season on the 15-day disabled list. Furthermore, a five-game suspension he received for throwing a pitch over the head of D-backs catcher Chris Snyder during a Cactus League game in Tucson on March 15 might also come into play. Lee appealed the suspension and will present his case on Monday. Regardless of the outcome, the Mariners' best-laid plans already have gone awry. "I don't think anything has ever fallen into place perfectly," Adair said, "and if it did, it would scare me." Hernandez, left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith and right-hander Ian Snell are virtual rotation locks, and lefty Jason Vargas is in the running for one of the five spots. Though manager Don Wakamatsu has not officially announced his Opening Day starter against the Athletics on April 5, it will, of course, be Hernandez -- for the third time in his Major League career. Who follows has yet to be determined. "We're still waiting until we have an off day on March 30," Adair said. "We can go from the 31st through April 4, whichever way we want."
That would allow each of the five starters to get one outing before their first regular-season start."How we set things up depends a lot on who matches up best against certain teams for the first 10 games," Adair added. "There are a lot of scenarios being considered, but the biggest thing is having the 30th off. "There still might be some question marks and we might have to split two guys in a game. But we have to get things in order." Seven of Seattle's first 10 games are vs. the Athletics, a team the Mariners played well against last season, posting a 14-5 record -- including a 6-1 mark in Oakland. The other three are against the Rangers, who won the season series, 11-7. Based on 2009 performances, the Mariners might want to match up Hernandez, Rowland-Smith and Snell against both AL West rivals. The trio was a combined 9-1 with a 2.66 ERA. Fister pitched better against the Athletics (1-0, 1.50 ERA in 12 innings) than against the Rangers (0-1, 9.64 ERA in 4 2/3 innings), which would make him a viable candidate to start the four-game series finale in Oakland. The fifth starter would pitch the series opener in Arlington, followed by Hernandez and, presumably, either Rowland-Smith or Snell. "Our biggest objective is to get off to a competitive start, keep our head above water, get through this first month, get healthy, and go," Adair said. It's so rare that the same five pitchers start and finish the season in the rotation that teams plan far ahead to get as many hurlers stretched out as possible. "We had 12 different guys start games last year and 72 of our games were started by pitchers that were not on our Opening Day pitching staff," Adair said. "I have no idea right now how it is going to work out, but we will have guys stretched out, in place and ready to go in certain spots." A few fingers will be crossed as well.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.