When the Seattle Mariners re-signed Hisashi Iwakuma just before the beginning of the free agency period on Friday night, I paused for a minute and got to thinking. Iwakuma would be staying in a rotation where he thrived in the second half, combining with ace Felix Hernandez, blossoming star Erasmo Ramirez, and consistent veteran Jason Vargas to create a rotation that looks pretty solid on paper, even when you throw Blake Beavan into the fifth spot. My original point was that Seattle's rotation could be the best in the AL West for 2013, but they were actually the second best in 2012 behind just the A's. But could this Mariners staff actually be the best starting five in the American League?
Despite their status as a middling, offensively-deficient team, the Mariners weren't a totally lost cause in 2012. Their pitching staff (bullpen included) had a 3.76 ERA for the season, good for fourth-best in the AL in 2012 and just a hair behind the pennant-winning Detroit Tigers for the third spot. And to think, they achieved that ERA despite Hector Noesi contributing a 5.82 ERA in 106 2/3 innings before being demoted to AAA at the All-Star Break, returning for mop-up bullpen work and one spot start in the season's final three months. The team will also likely be bidding adieu to Kevin Millwood, who had a 4.25 ERA in 161 innings last year, which was ahead of just Beavan and Noesi on the Mariners staff.
On paper, Seattle's rotation is looking pretty damn awesome. In the second half of the year, the Mariners five likely starters for 2013 combined for a 3.09 ERA in 62 starts. That's pretty damn good, especially when you consider Hernandez's meltdown in his final six starts of the season. Seattle's schedule in the second half of the season wasn't exactly a walk in the park either, with 45 of 75 games against teams that won 85 games in 2012.
Compare Seattle's rotation to the top staffs of 2012. The Rays will return everyone for 2012, but James Shields and David Price are both on the trading block, and while the Rays could survive with young starters in the place of either or both of them, they likely wouldn't post a 3.34 ERA again. Anibal Sanchez of the Tigers is a free agent, giving them a hole in the middle of the rotation that an in-house candidate (Drew Smyly looks like the best option) would be likely to replace). The A's are always in a state of flux, dealing young pitching before they start getting expensive. The Angels could be left without Zack Greinke after the trade of Ervin Santana and the declining of Dan Haren's option, leaving Jered Weaver and CJ Wilson looking pretty lonely in the Big A. Then, there are the Yankees, who can sign anyone they want but may lose both Andy Pettitte and Hiroki Kuroda to retirement (in the case of Pettitte) or free agency (in the case of Kuroda).
It's not out of the realm of possibility at all that the Mariners could have the best starting rotation in the American League for the 2013 season. At the same time, it's also possible for Iwakuma to fade in his second year in America, Ramirez to struggle like the 22-year old he is, and Hernandez to finally break down under the stress of five straight 200 inning seasons (and four straight 230 inning seasons, for that matter). If that happened, it could be an absolute chore to watch the Mariners in 2013. But with the way this rotation is constructed on paper, they have the potential to be the best in the AL.