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The Mariners' rotation problem (and possible solutions)

By Gary Hill

What do the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, Detroit Tigers, St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates and Atlanta Braves have in common?

1. All six of those teams are currently holding down a postseason spot as either a division or wildcard leader.

2. They are the top six teams in starting pitchers' ERA.

Good starting pitching is critical to postseason chances. Here is a peek at the teams holding down playoff spots and where they rank in starting pitchers' ERA:

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Erasmo Ramirez and the rest of Seattle's rotation aside from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma have a combined 30-45 record and a 5.49 ERA this season. (AP)
Los Angeles Dodgers, 3.14 (first)
Cincinnati Reds, 3.30 (second)
Detroit Tigers, 3.41 (third)
St. Louis Cardinals, 3.42 (fourth)
Pittsburgh Pirates, 3.44 (fifth)
Atlanta Braves, 3.59 (sixth)
Boston Red Sox, 3.82 (10th)
Oakland A's, 3.90 (13th)
Tampa Bay Rays, 3.92 (14th)
Texas Rangers, 3.92 (15th)

There is not one team in postseason position that is in the bottom half of MLB in rotation ERA. Not one team sitting among the bottom 10 teams in starting pitchers' ERA even has a winning record.

The Mariners are included in this bottom-tiered group.

Their rotation is 20th in the big leagues with a 4.24 ERA. The M's have a better record than fellow American League teams Toronto, Minnesota, Chicago, Los Angeles and Houston and their rotation features a better ERA than all but one of them. The Baltimore Orioles are the only AL team with a better record than the M's but a worse rotation ERA.

The Mariners find themselves in a curious situation. A strong rotation is crucial to success. Their rotation features a Cy Young Award candidate and an All-Star. But despite the star power, their rotation is stuck in the bottom third in ERA.

The Mariners are 29-25 when either Felix Hernandez or Hisashi Iwakuma starts. They are 30-45 when all other starters take the ball. There has been just one more win in 20 more starts for the other three spots.

Felix and Iwakuma have thrown 363 2/3 innings this season and have a wonderful 2.80 ERA. The rest of the starters have chucked 414 2/3 innings and have boasted a 5.49 ERA. Their ERA is nearly a run and a half over the average for an MLB starting pitcher (4.03).

Felix and Iwakuma have fanned 342 hitters and only walked 72 in 54 starts. The rest of the rotation has struck out 264 and walked 126 in 75 turns.

The rotation has been the biggest reason why the M's have struggled to find consistency this season and they will need to find a fix going into 2014.

However, the Pittsburgh Pirates are a great example of how quickly it can turn. They have the fifth-best starters' ERA in the game at 3.44 this season. They were 18th last year with an almost identical ERA to the M's this season at 4.21. The major difference for Pittsburgh this season was the signing of Francisco Liriano and the emergence of youngsters Jeff Locke and Gerrit Cole.

Heading into next season, Felix is at the top and Iwakuma is second. Here is an early look at options to fill the final three spots in the rotation:

Erasmo Ramirez: 4-1, 5.44 ERA.

Ramirez was expected to be a part of the Mariners' rotation to open the season, but injury has wrecked most of his year. He has struggled to find his form but has shown flashes of promise. He has yielded three earned runs in his last 13 2/3 innings and could be a solid answer in the back end.

Taijuan Walker: 9-10, 2.93 ERA with Jackson and Tacoma.

There is little doubt the young phenom will be given every opportunity to win a job in the spring and he has the ability to make a major impact in the rotation for years to come.

Danny Hultzen: 4-1, 2.20 ERA with Tacoma.

Hultzen was pushing his way into the Mariners' rotation before shoulder issues derailed his season. If the modifications he has made to his delivery hold then he has a chance to be everything the M's hoped he would be when they selected him No. 2 overall in the 2011 draft.

James Paxton: 7-11, 4.64 ERA with Tacoma.

The lefty has had his struggles this season in Triple-A . He turned in an extremely impressive July, but has stumbled in August. He has the talent to be a factor.

Brandon Maurer: 4-7, 6.58 ERA.

Maurer broke camp in the rotation but struggled mightily to start the campaign. He is still only 22 years old and could be an answer if he can fully harness his natural ability.

Jason Vargas: 7-5, 3.77 ERA with the Los Angeles Angels.

The former Mariner will be a free agent at the end of the season. He pitched well for the M's while he was here and his shortened season this year may depress his value. He is a great fit for Safeco Field.

Jorge De La Rosa: 14-6, 3.28 for the Colorado Rockies.

He has had a tremendous bounce-back season after losing parts of the last two years recovering from Tommy John surgery. The lefty is not striking guys out at the same rate as previously in his career and part of the reason is that his velocity is down about 2 mph. The 32-year-old fanned 193 hitters in 185 innings in 2009. Trading Coors Field for Safeco Field may be a great move for him.

Tim Lincecum: 7-13, 4.55 ERA for the San Francisco Giants.

The two-time Cy Young Award winner was expecting a major pay day when free agency hit after the end of 2013, but his performance the last two years has changed that. The local product has suffered through two tough years and has left some speculating that a career move to the bullpen may be in order. The M's may was to bring him home to try and revive "The Freak".

Paul Maholm: 9-10, 4.51 ERA with the Atlanta Braves.

The lefty pitches to contact and would fit Safeco Field. He would not turn around a rotation, but could be part of the solution at the back end.

Phil Hughes: 4-12, 4.88 ERA.

He has a 5.79 home ERA this season and a 3.67 ERA on the road. He has yielded 17 homers at home compared to just six on the road. Yankee Stadium can be brutal for a righty and Hughes has suffered badly at home. A change of scenery may just be what the free agent and former first-round pick needs.

Blake Beavan: 0-2, 6.13 ERA.

He has been given opportunities to win a spot in the rotation and has not been able to seize them. There may not be many more chances to come.

Hector Noesi: 0-1, 5.64 ERA.

He has shown ability but not consistency. He has only started one game this season for a struggling rotation.

Trades can always change the dynamics of the situation, but this was the early look nonetheless. There are some intriguing possibilities as the M's get ready to launch their work to solve the rotation puzzle.

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