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Seattle awaits arms race results

Kirby Arnold Everett Herald

SEATTLE – Next week, Joel Pineiro will step onto the bullpen mound at Safeco Field and, in a 25-pitch session, learn if his right elbow really feels as strong as everyone with the Seattle Mariners says it is.

Next month, Eddie Guardado will do the same at the Mariners’ spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz., where the shape of the team’s relief pitching will depend on the strength of his left shoulder.

On a team that addressed most of its major weaknesses in the offseason by strengthening the offense and defense, pitching now is the Mariners’ big uncertainty.

It could be solid. It could have holes.

Pineiro could be the opening-day starter if he has fully recovered from the strained elbow that kept him out the final three months of the 2004 season.

Guardado will return as the Mariners’ closer if he has successfully recovered from a torn rotator cuff.

Jamie Moyer, at 42, is a veteran who can anchor the rotation if his poor 2004 season wasn’t the result of the aging process.

Pitching, a strength on the Mariners’ playoff teams in 2000 and 2001, became a weakness in 2004 when nearly everyone on the staff under-performed. The team earned run average of 4.76 was eighth in the American League and last in the A.L. West Division.

“It’s a legitimate and logical concern, coming off last year,” manager Mike Hargrove said this week at the Mariners’ annual pre-spring training media briefing. “It comes down to the fact that we all think they’re better than they showed last year.”

Hargrove is hanging his hopes on several factors, the most important being the good health of Pineiro and Guardado.

Pineiro threw two pain-free bullpen sessions in October at the Mariners’ fall instructional league camp in Arizona. He has been playing catch recently at Safeco Field and next week will throw twice more in the bullpen as he tunes up for spring training, which begins Feb. 16.

Guardado, who also is recovering from minor knee surgery, has been working out and playing catch near his home in Southern California. He has lost about 8 pounds, on the Mariners’ orders, to take the stress off his legs.

“I believe it’s one of the biggest reasons he had the shoulder problem last year,” trainer Rick Griffin said.

The Mariners say neither Pineiro nor Guardado will be restricted in their spring training workouts, but they’ll be watched carefully. Griffin said the true test for both will be their work in the exhibition games when they’re throwing with full effort.

“Once we get into the games, we’ll have a real good indication of where they are,” Griffin said. “But going into the spring we’re very happy with where they are and we don’t anticipate any problems.”

Guardado’s situation will have an impact on the entire bullpen.

If he’s healthy, other relievers will fall into clearly defined roles. If not, Hargrove is more inclined to move right-handed setup man J.J. Putz into the closer’s role. Putz recorded nine saves and posted a 1.13 ERA in the final month in 2004.

“I think J.J. is the first logical name to come up with,” Hargrove said. “You must identify your closer, and everybody else falls into the roles behind the closer.”

Hargrove also could use right-hander Shigetoshi Hasegawa, who recorded 16 saves in 2003 after Kazuhiro Sasaki was hurt, or a combination of pitchers in the closer’s role. Hargrove isn’t fond of a closer-by-committee approach, though.

“The Red Sox were the last ones to prove that closer-by-committee is not a good thing,” Hargrove said, referring to the 2003 Boston team that struggled to finish games before acquiring Keith Foulke for 2004. “We certainly don’t want to have to do that. It’s important that Eddie be healthy and stay healthy, and every indication is that he is.”

Putz is open to any role, especially closing.

“If Eddie is back we’re a better ballclub,” Putz said. “Then I can be a late-inning setup guy again, maybe sometimes close. I don’t know if Eddie will be able to close every day, and if he can’t, I feel comfortable doing that.”

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