Fresh off the worst season-to-season collapse by an American League franchise in 70 years, the Mariners had a new spring training look this year: tongues hanging, sweat dripping and heads shaking. New manager Mike Hargrove ran a no-nonsense camp long on hours and drills, including one called 27, in which the defense must obtain 27 consecutive outs in a simulated game without making a mistake. One missed cutoff man and Hargrove would bark, "Zero!"--and start the count all over again.
"Whoa, I haven't been in a camp quite like this," says shortstop Pokey Reese. "I guess when you lose 99 games, you've got to change things. I understand that."
Says Hargrove, "You establish how you go about your business right away--what's accepted and what's not. And after 99 losses, they should be receptive to change."
Plummeting from 93 victories in 2003 to 63 last year, Seattle became only the fifth AL team to suffer a 30-win drop in consecutive full seasons, the first since the 1934 Senators. The Mariners scored the fewest runs in the league, hit the fewest home runs, had the worst slugging percentage and allowed the second-most homers. No pitcher won more than eight games, a new low for a franchise that's had its share of bad teams. Lefthander Jamie Moyer, who turned 42 in November, allowed one homer for every birthday plus two--the fifth most in baseball history. He went 1--11 with a 6.46 ERA in his last 19 starts.
"This year depends on how our pitching bounces back," says second baseman Bret Boone. "Jamie, I think he'll be better. He was like the rest of us--you just get caught up in the losing. I've never seen anything like last year."
Yet in the off-season Seattle did not add a single pitcher from outside the organization to its 40-man roster. When righthander Joel Pi√±eiro, who missed the final two months of 2004 with a forearm injury, developed a sore shoulder in camp, the Mariners were left with only two locks in the rotation: Moyer and righthander Gil Meche, who briefly was sent to the minors last year. The bullpen returns essentially intact--an ominous sign, considering it ranked 10th in the league with a 4.51 ERA--but that's more than can be said for closer Eddie Guardado's right hamstring, which popped during a running drill in camp, putting his Opening Day status in question.
The outfield of Randy Winn in left, rookie Jeremy Reed in center and Ichiro Suzuki in right might not hit 40 home runs combined. Reese, a career .248 hitter, and catcher Miguel Olivo, a .234 hitter, are well-below-average offensive players who also lack pop.
Thus, Seattle's season hinges on its $114 million investment in two free agents from the National League: third baseman Adrian Beltre and first baseman Richie Sexson. With the Dodgers last year, Beltre led the majors in home runs (48) and played a slick third base. "He's been everything as advertised and more," says Hargrove. As a member of the Brewers from 2001 through '03, Sexson averaged 40 home runs a season then ripped nine in his first 22 games with the Diamondbacks last year. But his season ended on April 29 when, while checking a swing, he dislocated his left shoulder and tore the labrum.
"For most players, when their shoulder pops out, it pops out in the front or to the side," says Sexson. "Mine popped out to the back. The doctor told me he usually only sees that kind of injury in football players and car accidents."
Though Sexson struggled early in camp, he is unconcerned about how his rehabilitated power will play in Seattle's spacious Safeco Field, a.k.a. the Cooler, where fewer runs were scored last year than in any other major league ballpark, even though it was fairly neutral (14th) as a home run park. "It's all about RBIs, anyway," says Sexson. "I'd rather get a two-run single than a solo homer."
Even if the corner infielders provide the sock Seattle expects, contending will take yet another historically rare turnaround. Of the previous four AL clubs to take the 30-win plunge, none had a winning record the following season. If spring training was an indication, the Mariners will try very hard to be the first. --T.V.
When Bret Boone led the Mariners with 24 home runs last season, it was the team's lowest-leading total since Ken Griffey Jr. hit 22 as a rookie in 1990.
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Mariners
THEIR PITCHING is going to be a problem, and the main concern is Joel Pi√±eiro, their No. 2 guy. They keep saying there's something going on with his back, but you worry that it's worse than they're letting on. [Pi√±eiro is expected to miss the first two weeks of the season.] Gil Meche could be an ace, but it seems they weren't happy with him last year. Maybe it's his lack of maturity.... Top prospect Felix Hernandez is the real deal--his stuff is electric. He should get called up very soon.... Coming out of the bullpen, Matt Thornton has had trouble throwing strikes. He's either real good or real bad.... I worry about Richie Sexson. He swings and misses a lot, and he's struggling to make contact.... Scott Spiezio doesn't look like the same guy he was in 2002. He looks half the size and doesn't appear comfortable or strong. They're not counting on him to play every day.... They're going to start Pokey Reese at short, but I would go with Jose Lopez--he's better. Reese isn't going to hit a lot. To me, he's a backup, not a 135-games-a-year guy. Lopez has a thick, blocky body but runs well and has good hands.
projected roster with 2004 statistics
4th in AL West
first season with Seattle
JEREMY REED (R)
POKEY REESE [New acquisition]
RICHIE SEXSON [New acquisition]
IPS: Innings pitched per start
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)