"In my 21 years in the Major Leagues, I never saw so many teams go through so many streaks, good and bad, and we were the streakiest team of all" - Mariners manager John McLaren.
It's usually during a losing streak you would expect a managerial change but that was not the case in the Emerald City last season. Mike Hargrove apparently felt so bad about his club completing a Canada Day weekend sweep of the Jays that he decided he should step down. For public consumption, Hargrove said he called it quits because he was burned out and felt he couldn't give 100 percent of himself to the club. So, it was "Move over Grover, let Johnny take over" as former Jays 3rd base coach John McLaren was elevated from bench coach to handle the reins.
The M's reeled off 8 wins in a row at that point but their streakiness also went the other way with a pair of 6 game losing streaks and a 7 game skid. The real killer was a 9 game funk in late August and early September that put the Mariners out of contention in the American League West. They were on the verge on taking over first in the AL West by percentage points over the Los Angeles Angels August 25th but they blew a 3-0 lead against Texas and wound up losing 5-3. That snowballed into a pair of three game sweeps by the Angels and Jays at Rogers Centre. The M's inability to beat the Halos cost them a shot at winning the AL West for the first time since 2001, winning just 6 of 19 games as they lost the division to the Angels by a half-dozen games.
Still, it was a surprising year for the Mariners, who won 88 ball games and outperformed their Pythagorean record by 9 victories. After seeing their starters unable to go at least 6 innings in over 90 games last year, General Manager Bill Bavasi felt that if he could upgrade the rotation, they could contend again in the West. As a result, Bavasi has decided to go for broke this year by acquiring lefty Erik Bedard from the Baltimore Orioles and signing free agent Carlos Silva from the Minnesota Twins after being turned down by Japanese free agent Hiroki Kuroda, who signed with the Dodgers instead.
The Bedard deal came at a heavy price as it cost the Mariners top outfield prospect Adam Jones, lefty set-up man George Sherrill and minor league pitchers Chris Tillman, Kam Mickolio and Tony Butler. The fine folks at www.ussmariner.com are not altogether thrilled with the deal because they feel that Jones will come back to haunt the team in the near future. On the bright side, the M's now have arguably the best lefty in the American League for this season and next.
Let's run down what's happening with the Mariners roster at each position........
CATCHER - Kenji Johjima has proven to be durable behind the plate as he has led the American League in innings caught the last two seasons with 2, 279 1/3. The former All-Star from Japan is working on improving his plate-blocking technique this spring. According to manager John McLaren,"When he goes out to catch the ball, he doesn't realize how far in front of the plate he is. He gets so anxious to get the ball that he leaves the plate wide open, and he doesn't have time to catch the ball, get back and make the tag. We want him to plant himself, let the ball come to him, and then go down with the tag." Johjima threw out nearly 38 percent of would-be basestealers on the season and that mark improves to 44 percent after May 1. His offensive numbers were down slightly from his first year in Seattle but he still hit .287/.322/.433 with 14 homers.
Johjima will be backed up by Jamie Burke, who hit .301 last year and connected for his first Major League home run on the last day of the season. Waiting in the wings is top prospect Jeff Clement, the number 3 pick in the 2005 draft from USC who holds the U.S. high school record with 75 home runs. Clement hit two homers for the Mariners during his first taste of big league action in September, including a walk off tater against Texas. However, he was batting just .158 (3-for-19) this spring and has been sent down to AAA Tacoma. Likened to Jason Varitek but with more power, Clement will continue to hone his game behind the plate.
1ST BASE - Richie Sexson assumed whipping boy status at Safeco Field last season. Despite cranking 21 homers, he hit just above the Mendoza line at .205 - a drop of 50 points from his career batting average. Sexson says he has taken 200 swings a day from his batting cage at his home near Portland since October, instead of beginning in January in past seasons. An aching left knee also gave "Big Richie" problems last season. He says, "I couldn't do what I wanted to do....I had to hit off a bad front knee and that's not my style. I had a stiff front side and couldn't rotate." On the bright side for Mariners fans, Sexson is in the final year of his huge 4 year, $50-million dollar contract so he'll be plenty motivated to have a big 2008.
2ND BASE - Jose Lopez was the other half of the inconsistent tandem on the right side of the infield. Lopez's play drastically tailed off after his brother died in a motorcycle accident in Venezuela June 14th. His batting average was .295 at the time but he wound up with a .252 mark with 11 homers and 62 runs driven in. Lopez was criticized for his lack of focus by none other than Mariners infield coach and former Jays great (insert sarcasm here!) Carlos Garcia, "His focus wasn't what it should have been, and we worked on it. I was really tough on him and I think he got better later in the season.". It would've been nice if Garcia had focused on playing better for the Jays in 1997. The youngest second baseman to appear in the All-Star game since Robbie Alomar in 1990, Lopez's stock has fallen since his 2006 All-Star appearance to the point that management told him he was not guaranteed his starting job this season. However, the M's are hoping Lopez's strong winter season in Venezuela where he batted over .300 will get him back on track. If not, the Yung Chi-Chen era could begin at Safeco Field. The 23 year-old had a solid season in the Arizona Fall League, hitting nearly .340 with a dozen RBI.
SHORTSTOP - Yuniesky Betancourt had a strong season with the bat and glove. He set career highs in runs (72), doubles (38), homers (9), RBI (67) and slugging percentage (.418) as well as batting .345 with runners in scoring position. With the leather, he made just 4 errors after the All-Star Break and helped turn 110 double plays, the highest total in the American League last season. The Mariners would like to see him steal more bases as he was 5-for-9 in that department last season. Former Mariner Rich Amaral was brought into camp to teach the finer points of running the bases.
3RD BASE - Adrian Beltre put together his best all-around season as a Mariner. He socked a team best 26 homers, finished one RBI shy of the century mark and captured his first-ever Gold Glove. Beltre certainly doesn't have a swelled head over winning his first gold mitten, "I don't think I have soft hands. I do my best to keep the ball in front of me. I probably am not one of the most mechanically sound third baseman. When the ball is hit hard to me, my focus is to keep it in front of me. If I do that, I know I have a chance to get him out."
One of the best defensive plays from Beltre didn't result in an out and it came against Toronto at Rogers Centre. He fielded a hard smash down the 3rd base line from Alex Rios. He snagged the ball while diving at least five feet from the foul line. Then from the seat of his pants, he got the throw away to first and replays showed Rios was out but umpire Rick Reed called him safe. Manager John McLaren called it the best play he'd ever seen by a third baseman.
Playing great defence isn't the only thing Beltre isn't known for. He and his left-side of the infield partner Yuniesky Betancourt also share the distinction of shall we say, "not supporting the troops on the field".
OUTFIELD - Raul Ibanez, or Raaauuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuul, as he's better known to the Mariner faithful connected for 21 homers and drove in 105 last season. He was fairly consistent except for the month of July when he batted . 184 but he followed that up with a .374 mark in August and .340 in September/October. As for his defence, google "Raul Ibanez defensive stats 2007" for fun and the common theme is it sucks. According to STATS Inc's Zone Rating, Ibanez checked in at .761, only ahead of noted butcher Manny Ramirez's .713. However, a move to first or DH is not in the cards as those spots are occupied by Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro respectively.
Ichiro Suzuki is looking for his record 8th consecutive 200-hit campaign, a mark he shares with Wade Boggs. He ruined his chances for the Cactus League battling title thanks to an 0-for-22 start. He even had a sense of humour about his struggles. On his first hit, "I was planning to keep the ball and send it to Cooperstown, but we couldn't get the ball back." Ichiro signed a 5 year contract to remain in Seattle. His .351 average was 12 points shy of the 2007 batting title, won by Detroit's Magglio Ordonez. He also picked up his 7th straight gold glove in his first full season in center field.
Brad Wilkerson will man Ichiro's old spot in right. He turned down a multi-year deal from Boston in order to get more playing time befitting a starter. Shoulder and hamstring injuries have slowed down the former Expo, who clubbed 20 dingers but hit a paltry .234 with Texas last season. However, he claims to be 100% healthy heading into 2008. Wilkinson replaces Jose Guillen, who wanted a 3 year deal to stay in Seattle and the team refused. The M's bought out Guillen's contract and he found the deal he was looking for with Kansas City.
It's a four way battle royale for the fourth outfield spot, which is being contested by Mike Morse, Wladimir Balentien, Jeremy Reed and Charlton Jimerson. Going by spring training stats alone, Morse would appear to have the inside track at he is batting over .500 at this point. If the Mariners elect to carry 11 pitchers instead of 12, Jimerson could join the big club as he and Morse are out of options. Balentien and Reed can still be sent down as they have options remaining.
DESIGNATED HITTER - Jose Vidro may not make Mariners fans forget Edgar Martinez anytime soon but he batted .314 in his first season in the Northwest, coming over from Washington last off-season. He batted .348 after the All-Star break and put up an impressive .381 on-base percentage. However, he didn't provide much power, sending just a half-dozen balls over the fence. The M's hope Vidro can also contribute with the leather at 1st and 2nd base.
BENCH - Miguel Cairo is back with the Mariners for the second time and hopes his stay is longer than 20 days. He was traded from the Dodgers to the Mariners during the 1995 offseason but was then flipped to Toronto along with reliever Bill Risley for fellow pitching lumanaries Edwin Hurtado and Paul Menhart. Cairo batted .253 last season and stole 10 bases while he was with the Yankees and Cardinals.
Greg Norton comes over to Seattle on a minor league deal after spending the last two years in Tampa, hitting just .243 last season. Since 2000, Norton has been one of the major's best pinch hitters, ranking second in extra base hits (27), third in homers (10) and fourth in RBI (46).
STARTING ROTATION - Erik Bedard, the pride of Navan, Ontario, will be the opening day starter March 31st when the Mariners host Texas. A 221-57 K/BB ratio helped him win 13 of 18 decisions with Baltimore before a strained oblique shut him down for the final month of the season. The lefty will be counted on to reduce the pressure on soon to be 22 year-old "King" Felix Hernandez, who went 14-7 while keeping his ERA below 4.00. Miguel Batista, a 16 game winner who is set to be the number 5 starter in the rotation, hopes he is seeing the second coming of another strong one-two punch as he was a member of the 2001 World Series Champion Arizona Diamondbacks, who featured a power lefty-righty combo in Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.
Bumping Batista down to number 5 are Carlos Silva and lefty Jarrod Washburn. Silva will be counted on to continue his workhorse ways after pitching a pair of 200-plus innings and 180-plus innings the last four seasons. He was 13-14 with a 4.81 ERA with the Twinkies in '07 but he went 7-4 in the second half of the season with a 3.72 ERA. Silva credits former teammate Johan Santana for teaching him a split-finger pitch. He is currently working a developing a cut fastball to go along with his sinker. Lifetime, Silva is 16-8 against the AL West and 3-1 versus the Angels.
Washburn will be the number 4 man on the staff. The lefty says he will like working between two righties instead of going back to back with since-released southpaw Horacio Ramirez, "It wasn't working to my advantage. We're pretty similar, and hitters get into a rhythm when they see the same type of pitcher two nights in a row. It makes it a lot easier on them." Washburn, who was 10-15 last year, is working on a new grip for his changeup this spring.BULLPEN - J.J. Putz did not live up to his last name as a closer. He had more saves than hits allowed (40-37) and saved 28 games in a row. Brandon Morrow, who pitched all of 16 innings in the minors before landing a spot with the big club last season, was in Venezuela working as a starter. However, he may not be ready for the start of the season after experiencing inflammation in his right shoulder this spring. Morrow was working on commanding his mid-90's fastball and honing his slider and change. His achilles heel last year was walkings, issuing 50 free passes in 63 1/3 innings.
Eric O'Flaherty will be looked upon to become the pen's top lefty after the departure of George Sherill in the Bedard trade. The 23 year-old held left-handed hitters to a .183 average last season. Righty Sean Green won 5 of 7 decisions with his funky delivery and sinker-slider combo while posting an ERA of 3.84. His groundball percentage was over 60 percent. 24 year-old righty Mark Lowe is trying to bounce back after his impressive 2006 season (1.98 ERA, 18.2 IP) was cut short by an elbow injury. Calgary's Chris Reitsma is hoping to bounce back from elbow woes, undergoing his 5th surgery on the sore wing. Lefty Arthur Rhodes, making his second go-around with the M's, nearly made the club last year but was derailed by Tommy John surgery.
The most intriguing candidate vying for a spot in the Seattle pen is knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, a Rule 5 claim from Minnesota. He was in the Milwaukee organization last year, going 13-6 with a 3.72 with AAA Nashville, where he earned Pitcher of the Year honours in the Pacific Coast League. ESPN's Jim Caple put together a video featuring Dickey and his knuckleball. Should Dickey make the club, he'll have a catcher who is familiar with him. Jamie Burke caught Dickey during the 2006 season in Oklahoma, Texas' AAA squad. Mariners GM Bill Bavasi did not realize this when he acquired Dickey in the Rule 5 draft at the time. Burke says he did not use a special glove to catch Dickey's knuckleballs, "I've heard that he has changed a little bit in the way he throws it. He threw a very hard knuckleball when I caught him, and it took a few times to get used to it. The main thing is to relax and let the ball get to you. It's a difficult pitch at times, so you just have to knock it down the best you can. Dickey is battling Cha Seung Baek for a role in the pen. Baek worked mostly as a starter last year in Seattle, going 4-3 but with an ERA north of 5.00. The Korean righty is out of options so he may have a different address in 2008.
In charge of the pitchers this season is former Yankees pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre. He replaces Rafael Chavez. Stottlemyre says he will be urging his charges to pitch inside, "You have to pitch inside to be successful outside."
Odds and Ends - Mariners manager John McLaren wants to utilize the running game in terms of taking the extra base and stealing them. The M's had 81 steals last year while their division rivals, the Angels, had 139.........McLaren made a point of establishing links to the Glory Days of the franchise by bringing in Rich Amaral as a baserunning instructor while Jay Buhner has worked with the outfielders and Dan Wilson handling the catchers. Former closer Norm Charlton is the team's new bullpen coach.....New hitting coach Jeff Pentland wants to see his hitters exercise more patience at the plate, "We have four or five guys who don't strike out too much, they put the ball in play, sometimes too early". Though the M's struck out just 861 times, the second fewest in the AL, they only drew 389 walks - exactly 300 fewer than the Red Sox. the Mariners will have their most brutal schedule in franchise history as they will be travelling over 55,000 miles in 2008. Seven of their 12 road trips begin in the East Coast, including one in Toronto July 25 to 27. The M's are also at the Rogers Centre June 9 to 11.......Play-by-play man Dave Niehaus will be going into the Hall of Fame as the 2008 Ford C. Frick award winner....the team has released its new set of commercials for the 2008 season.
Prediction - With the upgraded starting rotation, it should lessen the load on what was an overworked bullpen. Richie Sexson can't be any worse than he was last year and Jose Lopez should bounce back from a trying season to give the team a better right side of the infield. The Angels might be vulnerable should John Lackey and Kelvim Escobar miss a substantial amount of time. A strong start to the season will be key in order to make hay.
92-70, 2nd place in the AL West.