By John Donovan, SI.com
Winning 93 games is a big deal in a lot of places. Not in Seattle. Not in the AL West.
The Seattle Mariners know they'll have to do better than that to make the postseason. But there are some questions gnawing at this club.
Winners of a whopping 116 games in 2001, the Mariners faded in the second half of '02, going 38-36 and finishing with 93 wins, third in the AL West and out of the playoffs. They are an aging team with an unproven manager and an unsettled rotation. It already looks like injuries may pose a huge concern. And, oh yeah, they play in the toughest division in baseball.
On the plus side, Ichiro Suzuki is still maybe the best leadoff hitter in the game. Edgar Martinez is one of the league's best DHs, even at 40. John Olerud is steady as they come and now the Mariners have an everyday left fielder in Randy Winn, who came over to the Mariners in exchange for manager Lou Piniella. The bench has been beefed up.
But the rotation has some soft spots, the team's closer is coming off surgery and the whole baby is being minded by Bob Melvin, the ex-Arizona bench coach who has never managed in the big leagues.
There's optimism. But don't be surprised if the Mariners end up skidding to a 90-win season -- or worse -- in 2003. Which is nowhere near good enough in this division.
Melvin will have decisions to make as the team gets into Spring Training in Peoria, Ariz. Faced with a killer schedule (the M's open against Oakland in Tokyo), the decisions will have to come quickly, too.
Will Kazuhiro Sasaki, who had elbow surgery in the offseason (the third of his career), remain a legitimate closer? Has reliever Norm Charlton, who missed all of '02 recovering from rotator cuff surgery, really recovered? Will third baseman Jeff Cirillo come around? Can Mike Cameron cut down on the 176 strikeouts he had last year?
The spring also will be when Melvin makes a decision on who pitches after Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro. Ryan Franklin? Gil Meche? Jamey Wright? Young Rafael Soriano? Who steps up?
Third baseman Cirillo was a huge disappointment in '02. An average year out of him (he's a .304 career hitter), instead of .249, six homers and 54 RBIs, might have been enough to get Seattle past Anaheim for the wild card. Instead, Cirillo has some reputation mending to do. Without improvement from him (only one player, Jack Wilson of the Pirates, hit worse against righties than Cirillo's anemic .226), the Mariners will be no better than middle of the pack in run production.
Willie Bloomquist came up last September, played in 12 games, was solid in left field and hit .455. It's called making a heck of a first impression. Considering he also can play infield, can run and makes contact, he could be a perfect utility guy to go with Colbrunn and Mark McLemore. His presence gives the Mariners more of the versatility they crave. Unless he completely tanks in the spring, look for Bloomquist to be a big part of this team from the start.
Arrivals: OF Randy Winn (from Tampa Bay in Lou Piniella deal), OF/3B John Mabry (free agent), 1B/3B Greg Colbrunn, RHP Jamey Wright (minor league contract), LHP Steve Kent (claimed on waivers from Tampa Bay).
Departures: OF Ruben Sierra (unsigned), INF Jose Offerman (unsigned), RHP James Baldwin (signed with Kansas City as free agent), LHP Doug Creek (signed with Toronto as free agent), LHP John Halama (signed with Oakland as free agent, UT Charles Gipson (signed with Chicago Cubs as free agent), INF Desi Relaford (signed with Kansas City as free agent), RHP Paul Abbott (unsigned).
Injuries could hurt a lot of teams. A couple of injuries could devastate the Mariners. That's one reason the team strengthened its bench with the signing of Greg Colbrunn. Using him judiciously should help keep the aging regulars stronger as the season wears on. (Ichiro, remember, hit only .248 after August.) The pitching staff has its nicks, too. Keeping everyone fresh and as healthy as possible for a season that starts in Tokyo in late March and stretches, hopefully, into October will be Melvin's biggest task as a rookie manager.