Mariners have buzz, but will they be better?

Cliff Lee made his first start for the Mariners on Wednesday, which made it a convenient time to ask, again, how long he plans to stick around.

"I like where I’m at," Lee said after allowing one earned run in three innings against the Rangers. I believe him, because he’s a pretty low-maintenance guy. As if to drive home that point, he took three spit breaks during his post-start conversation with reporters.

Still, I doubt Lee will re-up with the Mariners rather than file for free agency after this season. (To clarify: That’s opinion, not fact.)

Lee said Wednesday that he hasn’t discussed a contract extension with the team yet. And he has made clear that he would prefer not to negotiate during the regular season. Meanwhile, general manager Jack Zduriencik told me Wednesday that he wants to "let the pieces fall where they may" when it comes to Lee.

So while Lee suggests that he doesn’t want to talk contract after April 4, the team doesn’t seem to be feeling much urgency. What does that tell you?

Maybe that’s just as well. Too much has been made about which uniform Lee will be wearing at this time next year. The more pressing matter is whether he will pitch for a contender in 2010.

I think he will. But I’m not convinced.

Even after an attention-grabbing off-season, Seattle might be only the third-most talented club in the American League West, behind the Angels and Rangers.

I know, I know. The Mariners were an 85-win team last year. They added Lee, Chone Figgins and the mercurial Milton Bradley. Zduriencik has done a terrific job, bringing Ken Griffey Jr. (and a lot of baseball enthusiasm) back to Seattle. Ticket sales are ahead of where they were at this time last year, too.

But the Mariners were a fortunate team in 2009. They scored the fewest runs in the American League but contended into the second half. That’s not supposed to happen, although having the league’s best team ERA (3.87) certainly helps.

Don Wakamatsu squeezed about all the wins he could from a pitching-and-defense outfit. He inspired great loyalty within the clubhouse — a difficult task for anyone, let alone a first-year manager. His influence is the second-biggest reason why it would be foolish to write off the Mariners now.

The biggest one: He will hand the ball to Lee or Felix Hernandez in two of every five games.

Amid the optimism, though, there are real questions surrounding the Mariners. Here they are, in no particular order.

Over the first four months last year, Jarrod Washburn went 8-6 with a 2.64 ERA in 20 starts. Will Lee be that much better?

An executive with another club asked me this question a few days ago. It was so poignant that I had to start with it here.

I realize that Washburn benefited greatly from the Mariners’ superb defense and big home ballpark. But he was still half a run better than Lee (7-9, 3.14) over the same four months, pitching in the same league.

Washburn had a 164-134 edge in ERA+, according to Those statistics are weighted according to ballparks.

Based on what we saw in the World Series, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Lee match what Washburn did last year. But it would be very difficult to be better.

On Wednesday, I asked the still-unsigned Washburn how well he expects Lee to pitch this year.

"I think he will do awesome," Washburn wrote in an e-mail. "He is a strike thrower, very aggressive in the zone. The defense that will be behind him there should just enhance his abilities. I think with his style, stuff, makeup, ballpark, coaching staff and the M’s defense, in my opinion, he could have the best year of his career."

Because I couldn’t resist, I also asked Washburn, 35, what the odds are that he will ultimately join Lee in the Mariners’ 2010 rotation.

"I have always loved watching him in the past, and would love the opportunity to do that, but the odds are probably not great," Washburn said. "However, nothing in baseball surprises me."

Which leads me to my next question . . .

Can the Mariners win enough games when Hernandez and Lee aren’t on the mound?

This is the answer that will probably determine the Mariners’ ultimate success or failure this year.

Right now, the Mariners’ third, fourth and fifth starters, as a group, aren’t as strong as their counterparts with the Angels and Rangers. In fact, the A’s might be better in that area, too.

Seattle’s group currently consists of Ryan Rowland-Smith, Ian Snell and probably Doug Fister or Jason Vargas.

"Currently" is an important word in that sentence, because lefty Erik Bedard is under contract with the Mariners but not "currently" healthy enough to pitch.

Zduriencik said Bedard has progressed well in his rehabilitation from shoulder surgery and should begin throwing off a mound "pretty soon." But he’s not going to be ready for Opening Day.

Speaking of players who are occasionally reliable . . .

What can the Mariners expect from Milton Bradley?

Ah, Milton.

I keep waiting to read a story in which he says, "You know what? I had a lousy year for the Cubs. My fault. It was too bad. They paid me a bunch of money, and I hit .257. I let people down, but I learned from it, and I’m really excited to be a Mariner. We’ve got a chance to have a special season."

Instead, Bradley continues to point fingers and talk about the Cubs in a way that makes me wonder if he has truly moved on.

This would be less of an issue if the Mariners weren’t counting on the guy to be a major part of their offense. But the current plan is for him to be their everyday left fielder, someone who will be relied upon to drive in runs and occupy a key spot in the order.

And he’s never had more than 77 RBIs in a major-league season.

Wakamatsu, Griffey and Mike Sweeney were lauded as chemistry experts last year. But this is the baseball equivalent of mixing flammable liquids with your toes.

Where is the run production going to come from?

The Mariners don’t have a single player who finished with 100 RBIs in the majors last year.

Does that matter? Well, I think it does. Of the eight postseason teams in 2009, only the Colorado Rockies didn’t have a 100-RBI man.

Jose Lopez, with 96 RBIs last year, is Seattle’s most obvious candidate. Even if Lopez has a big year, the Ichiro-led Mariners are built for small ball. That’s fine when Hernandez and Lee are on the mound, less so on the other days.

Can the relievers have good seasons in back-to-back years?

David Aardsma was a revelation for the Mariners last year. He didn’t have a guaranteed role in the bullpen when spring training began. By season’s end, he had saved 38 games.

Aardsma, 28, hasn’t had two good seasons in a row at the major-league level, which makes you wonder if he can do it now. And we’ve barely had a chance to start finding out: A groin pull has limited him to only one spring appearance.

The Mariners have said that it isn’t serious, but groin pulls in March are never a good sign.

Bradley will see a lot of time in left. Lopez could be the new third baseman. Adam Moore will probably start a lot of games behind the plate. What does that mean for the defense?

Defense remains a team strength. Figgins has looked terrific at second base. And although there are questions about Jack Wilson’s durability, he’s a very good defender when healthy. ("He’s lost weight. He’s in good shape," Zduriencik said.)

I have been skeptical about Lopez’s ability at third base, although Sweeney said that Lopez has great hands and will "surprise a lot of people" with his play.

Bradley doesn’t move very well, and Safeco has a massive left field. That could be an issue. And while Lee praised Moore’s receiving skills on Wednesday, he is still a 25-year-old rookie. (Catcher Rob Johnson is more experienced but is still working his way back from multiple off-season surgeries.)

What if the Mariners aren’t as lucky as they were in 2009?

The Mariners had a little magic about them last season (and during the winter, for that matter). It’s hard to sustain that.

Baseball Prospectus conducted some fascinating research on teams that had an improvement of at least 23 wins from one year to the next, as the Mariners (24) did in 2009.

This scenario has unfolded 21 times in non-strike-affected seasons since 1976. And those teams regressed by an average of 11.2 wins the following year, according to BP.

Mariners fans must hope that their team doesn’t become a casualty of those numbers. They could win the division, but they will need to get lucky, too. For the second year in a row.