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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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July 21, 2008 9:43 AM

Morrow versus Rowland-Smith

Posted by Geoff Baker

Many of you have written in, expressing amazement that the Mariners have sent Ryan Rowland-Smith down to Class AAA to work on becoming a starter, while Brandon Morrow remains in the bullpen. I won't weigh in on the merits of Seattle's decision not to move sooner on Morrow. The team made a judgment call a couple of months ago not to go the Joba Chamberlain route with Morrow.

But I will try to explain the difference between Rowland-Smith and Morrow when it comes to this decision.

I talked about this on the radio last week, but Morrow is not going to be worked out as a starter this year. It's too late for that now. First off, J.J. Putz is going to have to be slowly worked back into the bullpen and the team needs a closer for now. Look at how much work Morrow got on the last road trip. Until Putz is ready, which may not be until mid-August, you need a competent late-innings guy out there. I know the games don't mean much, but fans would be in an uproar if this team were to keep blowing late-inning leads, especially after making them sit through the first 2 1/2 hours or so.

Besides, if you keep forcing a bunch of guys to throw the eighth and ninth when they aren't used to it, who knows how it will impact the health of the bullpen in general? The team tried this already back in April, when Putz went down the first time and Morrow was just getting fully healthy. It was an adventure.

And if you know it will take until mid-August to get Putz back to closing games again -- if that soon -- then sending Morrow down is no longer an option. There would be only two weeks left in the Class AAA season and that's not enought time to stretch out a starter. You could try, but you'd wind up with a guy capable of going four innings or so. That's not what you want with Morrow. You don't want to rush him. What you want, is a guy who can routinely go five or more innings.

Rowland-Smith is a different story. His arm is already semi-stretched to begin with. He's been going two or more innings as a reliever and got up to three or four as a spot-starter. You can send him down a couple of weeks and get those extra innings out of his arm. They will likely be needed because of a trade of Jarrod Washburn, the continued uncertainty of Erik Bedard's health and the ongoing struggles by Miguel Batista.

When Rowland-Smith first got a start a few weeks back, we specualted that he was auditioning for the rotation in the event of a Washburn or Bedard deal. That still seems to be the case.

But Morrow is a different story. He's not some end-of-year fill-in as a starter. And I don't mean that disrespectfully to Rowland-Smith, but things are what they are. Morrow is a huge part of the club's future, you've used up a No. 1 pick on him, and you have to treat him with more care.

How long would it take to get him ready? Remember, he's been a closer. That's one inning of letting it all fly with his arm, not holding anything back.

Chamberlain needed a month from the time he began throwing two innings on a regular basis to when he moved up to his first six-inning start. That sounds about right. I remember covering Kelvim Escobar in 2003 when he made his transition from a closer to a starter. He did it the Chamberlain route, out of the bullpen. The move was made at the beginning of May and by May 23, he finally went five innings. By June 3, he was up to six innings.

Escobar is physically a lot stronger than Morrow, so the path might have been accelerated. Remember, with Morrow, it's best not to take chances and do something too quickly that might hurt his arm.

So, right now, if he goes to Class AAA, he'd have maybe two weeks to transition from a one-inning pitcher to a five-or-six inning starter. It's not going to happen. The only way that could work is if Morrow leaves tomorrow and goes to Tacoma. Then, he'd have roughly a month to get up to minimal status and could spend the final month of the season in the rotation.

But it won't happen now. Because of Putz not being 100 percent ready to resume the closer role.

As I said, this isn't only about Morrow. You have the entire bullpen to consider. Who would become the closer? Roy Corcoran? Sean Green? You've already used Green more than any other AL reliever this season. Want to blow his arm out? Send him out in the ninth inning a few days in a row and ask him to gas it up a bit more.

Mark Lowe is too inconsistent to handle the job right now.

Arthur Rhodes is a lefty and has not faced enough hitters to start throwing to three or four in a row.

Not many options for the ninth besides Morrow. And meaningless games or not, you still need the arms to get through nine innings per night. Morrow is helping this team get through those nine innings. Rowland-Smith was not as crucial for that. His role had largely been usurped by Cesar Jimenez.

If the team was going to do the Chamberlain thing with Morrow and get anything out of it, that move had to come back in late May when we were all discussing it here on the blog. The team was discussing it as well.

You'll remember that John McLaren quickly quashed all further talk about it. That was back on Memorial Day weekend.

With what we know now, I think it's pretty obvious to assume that the reason the move was quashed was because of Putz's ongoing struggles. The team likely felt that Putz wasn't himself and that it had to have a backup plan ready for the closer role full-time. Putz indeed went on the DL and Morrow became the closer.

Was it the right move? We'll know more next spring. If Morrow is indeed ready to start after doing so in winter ball then this discussion will be moot.

If not, it should be a fiery spring on the discussion front.

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