John Donovan
Friday March 28th, 2008

Everybody in baseball gives lip service to pitching and defense. It's one of the oldest clichés in the big ol', dog-eared, clichéd book of baseball clichés. You know how it goes:

Question: How do you win in baseball?

Answer: Pitching and defense.

Yeah, that one is right up there with taking it one day at a time, not worrying about things you can't control and ignoring Jose Canseco. Good ideas, all of them, and largely worth following. But none is that easy to actually pull off on a consistent basis. Sometimes, they're almost impossible.

Which brings us to the Mariners. Every team talks about pitching and defense, yet most end up bringing in a couple of beefy, slow guys with big bats, big holes in their swings and gloves made of steel. They forget about the pitching. As for the defense ... well, that's almost always third in line.

I bring up the Mariners because the Mariners are not one of those teams.

After a bold offseason that remade their rotation, the Mariners aren't just flapping their lips about pitching and defense anymore. They're living it. They're banking on it. And they will be, without much doubt, better for it. They won 88 games last season, remember, and after their team-altering offseason they are good enough, right now, to beat the Angels and win the American League West. They know it, too.

"Yes. Of course. We got everything we need. All the pieces are here. Right now," says Raul Ibanez, the veteran left fielder. "It's incredible how optimistic we are. It's the most optimistic club I've been around. Just from the get-go, it feels like we should be winning."

Now, Ibanez wasn't going all Namath on us there. He didn't mean he feels like the M's should be winning the West. He just meant winning, period. Clearly, though, he and the rest of his teammates have high expectations for this season, based on what they did last season and what the Seattle front office did in the past few months.

The optimism all starts with the trade for Erik Bedard, the former Orioles' lefty who does for the Mariners what Johan Santana does for the Mets -- gives the M's a true ace, pushes everyone else in the rotation down a spot (so Miguel Batista, for instance, a 16-game winner last season, is now a No. 5), eats up a lot of innings (thereby saving wear and tear on the bullpen) and scares the bejesus out of opponents.

The addition of Bedard, alone, addresses the team's most egregious weakness last year: the Mariners, simply, didn't have enough good starting pitching. According to Baseball Prospectus, in the 68 games last year that Felix Hernandez, Jarrod Washburn and Batista did not start, the pitchers that the Mariners ran out there (mostly Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez, both now out of work) won only one more game than a bunch of league-average pitchers would have won.

When you add to that the signing of a slightly better than league-average kind of pitcher, righty Carlos Silva (13-14, 4.31 ERA and more than 200 innings pitched last season for the Twins), the Mariners are infinitely more solid in their rotation than they were last September.

"We knew after the season, if we were going to step forward, we had to upgrade our starting pitching. We did," says Seattle manager John McLaren. "We know to compete with the Angels and the other teams in our division, the only way we're going to do it -- you're not going to out slug them -- you have got to out pitch them. We kind of feel like we replaced a 4-5 with a 1-3."

The Mariners had tried all winter long to land someone for their rotation. They made an awkward, and unsuccessful, run at Japanese starter Hiroki Kuroda before he decided to sign with the Dodgers (three years, $35.3 million). They looked at others. Then they signed Silva to a four-year, $48 million deal just before Christmas, and then they pulled off the trade for Bedard in February, giving up a loaded package to Baltimore that included young outfielder Adam Jones.

Now, the Mariners have a rotation that may be every bit the equal of the Angels'. It may be better, especially if the Angels lose any significant time from starters Kelvim Escobar and John Lackey. Both are expected to miss the start of the season. Escobar, who has some sort of a tear in his pitching shoulder, could be lost for the season and said Wednesday that he is worried that he may have a career-threatening injury.

The pitching means little, in the Mariners' mind, without a decent-enough defense to back it up. A lot of analysts question the strength of the Seattle defense, but the Mariners claim they have one of the best.

"We have a bunch of young guys who are willing to work hard to get better every day," says third baseman Adrian Beltre, a first-time Gold Glove winner last season and acknowledged as the best defender on the team. "Sometimes, you play well for two months and then, the next month, you play crappy. We just have to make sure we put in the nine innings of work every day.

"I'm not one to rank teams, but I think we're going to be above average."

Ibanez -- no Gold Glover in left, but not a complete stiff -- sees more than that. He sees the left side of the infield on a daily basis and says Beltre and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt are the best he's ever seen.

"And I've played behind some good ones," Ibanez says. "These two guys are phenomenal. Their range is phenomenal. And it's not just their ground ball range, but their fly ball range. Their pop-up range. It's unbelievable."

Beltre and center fielder Ichiro Suzuki are the only Gold Glovers on the team. But McLaren points out others -- including Betancourt, second baseman Jose Lopez (who had only eight errors last season at second) and catcher Kenji Johjima -- who he expects to be better than average this year.

In an effort at full disclosure, the Mariners don't look to be the most explosive offensive team in the division. They lost slugger Jose Guillen to free agency, replacing him in right field with Brad Wilkerson. That seems like a drop off, but the team hopes to make up for that with an improved year from first baseman Richie Sexson, who can't help but do better than he did in an awful '07 (.205 batting average, .295 on-base percentage, .399 slugging percentage). The rest of the lineup, one that scored a middle-of-the-league 4.9 runs a game last season, remains virtually intact.

Adding some punch to that lineup, though, was barely a consideration. "When you try to put the extra bat in the lineup, the ball's going to find them, sure as hell," McLaren says. "You're going to give them four outs, and [the extra bat] might get two hits, but he's giving up three runs, and you're screwed. That's how it is."

Instead, they'll stick with their newfound starters, a solid bullpen that will be better because of the deeper rotation and an up-and-coming defense.

Cliché? Maybe. But it sounds awfully good, doesn't it?

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