Hickey: Time for Jack Z to start dealing pitching

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by John Hickey

SportsPressNorthwest

Posted on July 20, 2012 at 8:30 PM

The mid-season mini-calendar is turning, page after page, for the Mariners.

The time between the All-Star break and the July 31 trade deadline is about more than the chatter last weekend over whether Ichiro will be back in a Seattle uniform in 2013 and beyond.

His contract ends with the season. His decline in productivity over the last season and a half raises serious questions about what is best for him and the Mariners.

If he comes back, it will have to be at a fraction of the $17 million he is earning this year, which will make more money available for the rest of the roster.

But there are questions more immediate than Ichiro, questions about players who might be gone in two weeks.

At the top of the chart are three pitchers, reliever Brandon League and starters Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood.

Despite (or because of, depending on your point of view) his ongoing struggles, League is by far the most likely to be traded by general manager Jack Zduriencik. The loss of his job as the team’s closer and a mediocre season so far may not be a burden in the Mariners’ bid to get young talent in return.

The last five games have seen League get back to doing what he does best, throwing down in the strike zone, getting ahead in the count, then using his splitter when he has the advantage.

The turnaround has been all but unnoticed with League doing setup work, but pitching coach Carl Willis is quick to point out that the kinds of outs League is getting these days are better.

Things could hardly have been worse. After walking 10 in 61.1 innings last year, he’s walked 17 in 38.1 innings this year.

Sunday saw him pitch in the eighth inning of a 4-0 loss. He faced three batters, gave up one hit and basically did no damage. Monday was better. Coming in with two on and two out in the seventh, he faced four batters, retired all and stranded the two runners he inherited.

Over the course of these five games, League has recorded 14 outs, only three made in the outfield. He has eight infield outs and three strikeouts. That, Willis said, is more of what he sees as League pitching to his strength.

“Over the last (five) games, he’s really been throwing the ball good, not allowing the hitters to get the ball in the air,” Willis said. “That’s when he’s at his best. His slider has been good all year but his fastball was in and out. The fastball is better now.”

Make no mistake. Teams looking for late-game relief help are taking notice. If they are convinced that League can keep it up, he might be a good addition for one of the 15 teams still within contention.

Will he bring in return a can’t-miss star? No chance. But if Zduriencik and his scouts do their job right, they might unearth another Casper Wells up-and-comer. That would be in keeping with the team’s need to keep building with kids.

It may seem counter-intuitive for the Mariners to trade Vargas, whose nine wins are two more than anyone else on the staff, including Felix Hernandez. But there is some sense to it. The Mariners aren’t going to win anything this year, or probably even next year, and by the time the club gets it together, the 29-year-old Vargas will have become a free agent.

He’s one year away from free agency now. That enhances his value to a team in a pennant race, because they would have him for more than one year.

Vargas may not have higher value than after Monday’s win in Kansas City. He’s always been a first-half pitcher. At the All-Star break this year he was 24-23 with a 4.09 before the break in his career but just 12-23, 5.07 after it. If that history is going to play out again, there may be no better time to deal him.

On the other hand, the young pitching that the Mariners are counting out isn’t ready yet. If the Mariners opt to trade Millwood, signed as a one-year stopgap for a club waiting on the minor leagues to send up Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, then they are almost obligated to keep Vargas.

Millwood got off to a tough start (0-4, 5.88 through May 8) and has been in and out of the rotation because of minor injury issues. But his trade value has risen steadily for two months now in which he has gone 3-3 win 11 starts with a 2.56 ERA.

Vargas is eight years younger than Millwood. The left-hander costs more, though. Zduriencik and his crew have to make a call on whether Vargas’ age outweighs the fact that he makes $4.85 million, $3.85 million more than Millwood.

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