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Grip on Sports: Hisashi Iwakuma’s return could define M’s

Soon, the Mariners will put the ball back in Hisashi Iwakuma’s hand. So who is odd man out? (Associated Press)
Soon, the Mariners will put the ball back in Hisashi Iwakuma’s hand. So who is odd man out? (Associated Press)

Wednesday: In a week or two, Hisashi Iwakuma will come off the disabled list. The M’s will have to find the right-handed pitcher a spot on the roster and in the rotation. Who they decide to part with when that happens will tell us a lot about the future of this team. 

Why am I worried about this?  Over the years you could almost always count on the Mariners to make the most inexpensive decision, not necessarily the best one. It’s been a hallmark of the administration.

You remember JFK’s “New Frontier?” The M’s version is “New Guy Always Goes.” Not nearly as sexy, nor as smart.

If the M’s had $5 million wrapped up in a veteran who was not performing, and they would have to eat the money if they let him go, they always sent a young guy down to the minors, even if the latter was playing at a higher level than the vet.

You could make book on it, and in a sense the Mariners did. The financial books always looked better because of it. But this year should be different.

After loosening the purse strings the past couple offseasons, the M’s seemed poised to make a run at the postseason. And yet that hasn’t happened. Mainly because the offense has been stagnant to putrid. The bullpen has had its wobbles as well. For the most part, however, the starting rotation has been solid. That’s even with the No. 2 and No. 3 guys going down with injuries.

The reason for that is two young left-handers, Roenis Elias and Mike Montgomery, have stepped in and pitched well. Which brings us to our dilemma. Or a defining decision, if you will.

Though left-hander James Paxton isn’t returning anytime soon, Iwakuma is just a couple rehab starts away from coming back. When he’s on, he’s as good as anyone in the rotation not nicknamed “The King.” Probably better.

But he wasn’t on earlier this season, more than likely due to his injury problems. So what do you do when he’s ready to come off the disabled list? The Mariners of the past wouldn’t have hesitated. Montgomery would have been sent back to Tacoma. After all, he’s under club control, has options left and, well, J.A. Happ isn’t.

Though terms like “veteran” and “experienced” would have been thrown around, the old-time M’s – and by that I mean the past 10 years or so – would have made the decision, pure and simple, due to the about $4 million they would owe Happ if they cut him loose.

But the problem is Happ hasn’t thrown well recently. He’s lost his last three starts, throwing just 13 1/3 innings combined. In that stretch he’ s given up 12 earned runs and 20 hits while struggling to find the strike zone (he’s walked six). He hasn’t won a game since May 9 and has lasted seven innings just twice in eight starts since.

Contrast that with the way Elias and Montgomery have been throwing, especially Montgomery. He’s made five starts since being called up from Tacoma to replace Paxton. All of them have been at least OK (the worst was a seven-inning stint against the Giants in which he gave up four runs but he still threw 96 pitches and gave the M’s a chance to win).

(Tuesday) night was his best, no doubt. A complete-game, four-hit shutout in which he struck out 10 – he had 12 strikeouts coming in – and wasn’t threatened after working out of a base-loaded, no-out jam in the first. It was the best non-Hernandez start of the season. And it probably assured him of a spot in the rotation.

Elias is a bit more problematic. He’s been up-and-down, though his ups have been better than Happ’s and his downs have been no worse. So whom do you pick to move aside when Iwakuma comes back? (As an aside, I have not mentioned another youngster, Taijuan Walker, a candidate early in the season for demotion, because he has thrown so well his last five starts, lowering his ERA from 7.33 to 4.94 – and going 4-1 – in that time.)

Do you keep Happ, figuring he is a veteran who will help if you do get back in the pennant race (but really doing it to justify an offseason trade and the assumption of a $6.7 million contract)? Or do you stay with the young guys who have pitched better?

The old Mariners would have certainly chosen the former – and the season could be written off. If it happens again, you know nothing has changed, despite all the pronouncements of the past six months.

If the M’s decide to ride the hot hands, damned the cost, then you know a sea change has occurred. Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

Thursday: What’s up with the seven-run fourth inning, Roenis Elias? Here we are, feeling really good about our column from yesterday as Elias rolls through the Royals lineup for one, two, three perfect innings. We know the M’s are going to be stuck trying to figure out what to do when Hisashi Iwakuma comes off the disabled list and then, boom, a built-in reason (excuse?) to send Elias to Tacoma rears its ugly head. “Work on his consistency,” will be the phrase used in some form. J.A. Happ should send Elias some flowers or something.

• Franklin Gutierrez has returned to the major leagues. It’s not that we’re down on Guti, it’s just that James Jones wasn’t given much to do in his short stint back in the bigs. Give the guy a chance, will you? Though maybe Jones served a purpose. His presence seemed to have lit a fire under Dustin Ackley. Though it will probably smolder and die out soon.

Sunday: When I wrote in this space I wanted a new edger for Father’s Day, I think the Mariners’ brass misread it as, “I want a new Edgar.” So they gave me one. How nice of them. 

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