MANAGER MIKEHARGROVE third season with Mariners
THE ADDITION of a clubhouse powder keg, a boost in payroll that could havebeen put to better use and, worst of all, one Japanese superstar seriouslyconsidering hitting the free-agent market next winter add up to yet anotherdreary forecast in the Pacific Northwest. With an extra $17 million availableto them in 2007, the Mariners signed, among others, free-agent outfielder JoseGuillen, who is known for his temper and is coming off elbow surgery, ratherthan nailing down franchise player Ichiro Suzuki with a contract extension.There is a difference between spending and spending wisely, and Seattle notonly failed to re-sign Ichiro but also did not land an impact player to helplift the team out of its three-year fog, which includes last-place finishes in'04, '05 and '06 and diminishing attendance in each of those years.
Like many teamsSeattle was caught flat-footed by the out-of-whack market for free-agentpitchers (including its own Gil Meche). Intending to land a No. 1 starter toease the burden on 20-year-old phenom Felix Hernandez, the Mariners fell shortin the Jason Schmidt and Barry Zito derbies. Instead, they settled for threeless-than-spectacular alternatives: the inconsistent Miguel Batista (threeyears, $25 million), the even more enigmatic Jeff Weaver (one year, $8.4million) and injury-plagued Horacio Ramirez, whose cost will be felt more inthe talent sacrificed (fireballing setup man Rafael Soriano) in a trade withthe Braves than in cash (one year, $2.65 million).
"We wanted toget better, with or without Meche or Joel Pineiro," says general managerBill Bavasi, referring to his two departed starters, who jumped to the Royalsand the Red Sox, respectively. "But that was complicated, and what made itmore complicated was the spike in the market."
It's questionablewhether the overhauled rotation is an upgrade over last year's starting five,which finished in the middle of the league in runs allowed and ERA. The key toimproved run prevention will be the continued development of the slimmed-downHernandez, who is brimming with confidence after a solid second half (4.02 ERA,compared with 4.95 before the All-Star break), and one of the game's mostpromising middle-infield combinations, defensively speaking: shortstop YunieskyBetancourt, 25, and All-Star second baseman Jose Lopez, 23, both of whom--likemost of Seattle's regulars--need to show more patience at the plate (box,below). Seattle also has an elite closer in J.J. Putz (36 saves and a filthy8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but the club burned the perfect bridge to Putzwhen it traded the 27-year-old Soriano, who struck out more than one hitter perinning and held opponents to a .204 batting average in '06.
Yet for thedeclining number of Mariners season-ticket holders, the inimitable Ichiro, 33,remains the primary reason to show up at the park every day. (King Felix is aonce-every-five-days excuse.) With both Jeremy Reed (.260 OBP) and 21-year-oldAdam Jones, the Mariners' top pick in the 2003 draft, in over their heads incenterfield, Ichiro voluntarily made the switch from rightfield last August andlooked terrific. Ichiro is not the force he once was with the bat (he hit .228with runners in scoring position last year, for example), so don't expect arepeat of his ridiculous 2004 (when he won the AL batting crown with a .372average and set a major league record for hits in a season, 262). Still, heremains one of the game's elite leadoff hitters. The Mariners must re-signhim.
For now, Ichirois noncommittal. "Everything that was done in the past and has built up tothis point is an important part [of my decision]," he says, "but whathappens in this season is important also."
a modest proposal...
For the Marinersto have any hope of being an AL West dark horse, they have to make a teamwidecommitment to reaching base. Their .325 on-base percentage last season ranked13th in the league, thanks mostly to drawing an AL-worst 404 walks (49 of whichwere intentional). You can get away with fewer bases on balls if you're IchiroSuzuki and hit .320, but there's only one Ichiro. Young Seattle players such asYuniesky Betancourt (left, 17 walks in 558 at bats, .310 OBP) and Jose Lopez(26 walks in 603, .319 OBP) have to be more selective, while even veterans suchas Adrian Beltre (47 walks in 620 at bats, .328 OBP), Ben Broussard (26 in 506,.331 OBP) and Kenji Johjima (20 in 423, .331 OBP) can improve. As the Yankeeshave shown in recent years, making plate discipline an organizational prioritycan lead to more runs and victories.
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2006 STATISTICS
|YUNIESKY BETANCOURT SS||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†|
|BEN BROUSSARD 1B||¬†||¬†||¬†||¬†|
|WILLIE BLOOMQUIST INF-OF||¬†||¬†||¬†|
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 77)
GO TO mySI
Instant access tothe latest and best Mariners stories from across the Web, handpicked by SI'seditors
SI.com recommendsthese media sites
Which blog or fansite has the best Mariners info? Vote now at SI.com/marinersvote. These siteswill be featured at SI.com's new Mariners team page.
.667 Combined OPS of the Mariners' designated hitters, the worst such mark inthe league last season. With a .235 batting average and only 38 extra-basehits, DH was essentially a wasted spot in the order. That the rapidly decliningJose Vidro (.744 in '06), obtained in a trade with the Nationals, can beconsidered an improvement in this spot says it all.