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Monday, March 26, 2007 - Page updated at 09:06 PM

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Larry Stone

Missed time for Putz would put hole in Mariners' ship

Seattle Times baseball reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — The initial diagnosis was "tightness."

Indeed.

When J.J. Putz's golden right elbow tightened this week, so did the mood in Camp Hot Seat.

Awaiting the result of Putz's MRI — in this case, the initials could stand for Mariner Reality Intrusion — was an excruciating exercise for a team that needs to win early and often in 2007.

And, presumably, needs J.J. Putz to do so.

With Putz's definitive status on 24-hour hiatus Friday while the Mariners tried to coordinate all the medical opinions necessary for a prognosis, it allowed time for all sorts of worst-case scenarios to be mulled.

Putz, mind you, is hopeful that all is well, and that this latest scare will turn out to be, as Yogi Berra once said (or at least should have), a mute point.

Indeed, the preliminary word on the fateful MRI from Seattle manager Mike Hargrove was promising. Hargrove is acting like — or at least trying to convince himself that — Putz will still be ready for opening day, even though the time line for that is shrinking fast.

Asked if there was a "drop-dead" date for Putz, who has just one inning of Cactus League work this spring, to get back on the mound in time to prepare for opening day, Hargrove resorted to gallows humor.

"Yeah, if he's not ready, I'm probably going to drop dead," he said grimly.

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It might be a stretch to say the Mariners' season hangs in the balance — but the Mariners' season just may hang in the balance.

The delicate, tentative optimism engendered by the strong work of their starters in Cactus League play is all predicated on the presence of a dominant Putz behind them.

Putz wasn't just effective in 2006, he was overpowering, using the split-fingered fastball he learned from Eddie Guardado to blow away hitters. Putz gave the Mariners the comfort, and confidence, that comes from having a guy that will slam shut the door in the ninth.

No wonder the faces of Mariners officials were tense and the answers terse Thursday, when Putz went out for his bullpen session that initially seemed an unqualified success. He threw well and felt great — until 30 minutes after he finished. That's when his elbow tightened. Again.

"It was kind of like an achy stiffness," Putz explained Friday before hustling off to his MRI. "They made it sound like that's a good thing, just because that it's showing it's getting fatigued and stressed. As the night went on and this morning, it's kind of gone away, so that's good."

Is this a full-blown crisis, or merely a false alarm? The Mariners are leaning heavily toward the latter characterization, but when MRIs and elbows are involved, it's hard to rest easily until the pitcher involved is throwing free and clear.

Any potential setback for Putz is serious business for many reasons, not the least of which is the Mariners are left with no perfect options for replacing him.

Rafael Soriano was once billed as the Mariners' closer of the future, but now he's in Atlanta, where the Braves' beat writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday deemed him in his blog, "practically unhittable and very intimidating." The Mariners traded Soriano to Atlanta for No. 4 or 5 starter Horacio Ramirez, who is having a strong camp.

The Red Sox have deemed Joel Pineiro, not tendered a contract this winter by Seattle, to be their likely closer (misguided as that decision may be). Mark Lowe showed closer stuff and mentality last year, but he's on the shelf indefinitely with a bum elbow.

So the prime options on the current staff would seem to be Chris Reitsma, who couldn't hold on to the closer's job in Atlanta for both health and performance reasons, or Jon Huber, who saved 23 games in the minors last year and was outstanding in 16 major-league games, but is untested at the big-league level.

There's 37-year-old Arthur Rhodes, who has 30 major-league saves in a 15-year career. But he was a bust as Oakland's closer in 2004 and doesn't seem to be a likely candidate. Nor does it seem viable to move Miguel Batista, who saved 31 games two years ago as Toronto's closer, out of the rotation after signing him to a three-year, $25 million contract. George Sherrill has minor-league closing experience, but has struggling mightily this spring.

The Mariners could get bold and go with one of their impressive young arms — 21-year-old lefty Ryan Feierabend or 22-year-old righty Brandon Morrow — but that would be a mighty gamble for a team in win-now-or-else mode.

The best guess here is they would go with Reitsma if convinced that any potential Putz absence would be short-term.

If the news is worse, or he has another setback in the coming days, they may have to join the Red Sox, Phillies and Marlins, all of whom are scouring the trade market for relief help.

The names that have been linked to those teams in trade rumors include San Francisco's Armando Benitez, Arizona's Jorge Julio, San Diego's Scott Linebrink, Washington's Chad Cordero and Texas' Akinori Otsuka. Other pitchers who could be available are Rheal Cormier and Byung-Hyun Kim, neither of whom are too inspiring.

Obviously, what the Mariners need most is a healthy Putz. They're waiting anxiously to find out if that's what they have.

Larry Stone: 206-423-0617 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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