MANAGER JOHNMcLaren isn't one to set modest goals for his players. In the off-season heopined that 34-year-old Ichiro Suzuki was capable of stealing 80¬†bases,though the centerfielder's career high is 56 (in 2001) and he nabbed 37 lastyear. McLaren suggested that 33-year-old first baseman Richie Sexson, whoendured injuries, fan wrath and a miserable year at the plate, would hit40¬†homers (nearly double last year's total) and win AL Comeback Player ofthe Year. And for 21-year-old righthanded pitcher Felix Hernandez, the skipperset the bar just a little higher. "I'm very, very convinced that at somepoint in his career Felix will be the best pitcher in baseball. This year I'mjust asking him to be the best pitcher from Venezuela." With all duerespect to Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Kelvim Escobar, McLaren added,"I think it's a legitimate challenge."
This is an article from the March 31, 2008 issue
It's not as ifHernandez, whose fastball tops out in the high 90s, hasn't been held to highexpectations before. Since his electric debut as a teenager at the end of the2005 season, in which he had a 2.67¬†ERA and held opponents to a .203batting average, King Felix has had mixed success. A pedestrian '06 (12-14,4.52¬†ERA) could be attributed in part to his being out of shape. Afterdropping 20¬†pounds in the off-season, he started '07 by striking out 12A's, then came within six outs of a no-hitter in his second outing, againstBoston; after visiting the DL with a strained elbow, he finished strong, too,going 8-1 in his final 13 starts. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement.He allowed more than one hit per inning last season and showed a maddeninginconsistency when he got ahead in the count. Opposing batters, for example,had a .561 on-base plus slugging percentage when they fell behind0¬†and¬†2 against Hernandez, 88¬†points higher than the leagueaverage and a jolting figure for a power pitcher.
"One thingwe've talked about a lot this spring is using his fastball more," newSeattle pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "He's got such a good one, butat times he wants to show his other pitches. He's on board with it."
For the firsttime in his brief career Hernandez will have a worthy complement at the top ofthe rotation. In fact, within a week of landing lefthanded starter Erik Bedardin February (at the great cost of highly touted outfielder Adam Jones and fourothers), McLaren named the former Orioles ace his Opening Day starter over KingFelix. "Pitch first or second, it doesn't matter to me," saysHernandez. "I'm feeling good, and I'm ready to go whenever they needme." In either order Bedard and Hernandez give Seattle perhaps the bestyoung one-two combination in the league and keep the club in the discussion fora postseason berth.
The Mariners' 88wins were somewhat suspect as they were outscored by 19¬†runs for theseason. While the lineup is full of high-contact hitters (the team's .287batting average was tied for second-best in the majors), it's an impatientgroup (only the AL's seventh-best OBP despite the high average) that is shorton power (seventh in runs scored). The loss of Jose Guillen (23¬†homers), afree agent who signed a three-year, $36¬†million deal with Kansas City, andJones doesn't help. Ever the optimist, McLaren expects big things fromGuillen's rightfield replacement, Brad Wilkerson, who hit 20¬†homers forthe Rangers and is that rare Mariner willing to work a count. "Our ballparkcould be well-suited to him," says McLaren.
McLaren, who isembarking on his first full season as a major league manager (he took over theMariners last July, after Mike Hargrove abruptly resigned), expects as muchfrom himself as he does from his players. "Last year we proved to ourselvesthat we can win, and now the bar has gone up," he says. "This yearanything short of making the playoffs will be a major disappointment."
CONSIDER THIS amodest proposal ...
The ancientMariners, with such 33-and-older regulars as Raul Iba√±ez, Richie Sexson andJose Vidro, will score the fewest runs in the AL this season, 690, according toPECOTA projections. The big issue is designated hitter, where Vidro is expectedto bat; though he hit .314 last year, Vidro contributed only six home runs and59 RBIs in 548 at¬†bats. One solution? Bring back the Kid. Make catcherKenji Johjima, who is 31 and in the last year of his contract, the centerpieceof a trade for Reds rightfielder Ken Griffey Jr. Cincinnati would get a muchneeded catcher while loosening its outfield logjam (and clearing room for JayBruce). Seattle's starting catcher could then be 24-year-old Jeff Clement(left), for whom PECOTA projects a .733¬†OPS--better than Johjima's .704.More important, Griffey would become the best power hitter on the club.
Ichiro Suzuki'smajor-league-leading batting average with two outs and runners in scoringposition, which marked the third time in seven seasons that he's been themajors' best hitter in that situation. Known more as a table-setter than a runproducer, Ichiro's .366 lifetime average in 421 at bats with two outs andrunners in scoring position is the best in the big leagues in the last 30 years(minimum 150 at bats).
PROJECTED ROSTERWITH 2007 STATISTICS
JOHN MCLARENSECOND SEASON WITH SEATTLE
|BRAD WILKERSON (New acquisition)||RF|
|LH||Erik Bedard (New acquisition)||5||13||5||10.9||1.09||3.16|
|RH||Carlos Silva (New acquisition)||152||13||14||4.0||1.31||4.19|
New acquisitionB-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plushits per inning pitched
PVR: Player ValueRanking (explanation on page 62)
NOW AT SI.COM
EXCERPTED FROM SI
MARCH 18, 1996
JAY BUHNER may not have been the Mariners' bestplayer, but, scary looks and all, he was the poster boy for Seattle'sdivision-winning season. He was a block of granite in the middle of the lineup,a popular and unshakeable leader who never stopped assuring his teammates thattheir fairy tale would come true. When the Mariners overtook the Angels, thistobacco-spitting country-music fan from the Lone Star State became a cult heroin Grungeland.--Gerry Callahan
Free access to all Mariners stories and photographsfrom the SI archive, plus video clips.