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SI FOR KIDS
Same old story: Hitters to spare, but hurting on the mound with no relief in sight
By David Fleming
On the day of the Mariners' Fan Fest at their training site in Peoria, Ariz., booths were set up in the stands so groups of players could sign autographs between practice drills. In an especially cruel bit of scheduling the Mariners pitchers put down their gloves and picked up their pens just as centerfielder Ken Griffey Jr. and shortstop Alex Rodriguez started taking their batting practice cuts. Thus, the pitching staff was largely ignored as fans who'd lined up for autographs turned their backs on lefthander Jeff Fassero and his mates to gape at the power display by the Seattle superstars.
That neatly sums up the choice presented to Mariners faithful in recent seasons: Would you rather watch Fassero serve up a gopher ball, or watch Griffey rip one? The disparity between Seattle's offensive prowess and its often-offensive pitching has been, and will most likely continue to be, the team's fatal flaw. The Mariners finished nine games under .500 last season despite leading the majors with 234 homers. With a staff ERA of 4.93, Seattle was 9-49 in games in which it scored three runs or less and had fewer saves (31) than every other American League team except Tampa Bay (28).
The lineup features Griffey (56 homers in '98); Rodriguez (42 homers and 46 stolen bases to become, at 23, the third 40-40 man in baseball history); designated hitter Edgar Martinez (100 RBIs for a team-record fourth straight season and named the league's top DH for the third time in four years); and rightfielder Jay Buhner (15 homers in 72 games despite spending two months on the disabled list with an injury to the patellar tendon in his left knee). With a crew like that, the Mariners' pitching staff needs to be only average for the team to have a shot at the West Division crown.
Manager Lou Piniella says this is the most talented group of every-day players he's had in his 12-year managerial career, and that includes his 1990 Reds team that won the World Series. Consequently, he is not alarmed that nobody is picking his team to win the division. "Most people will pick us to finish third, and that's understandable," Piniella says. "But I'll tell you, we're not going to finish third. We're going to finish on top. We don't want to just move into a new park [SAFECO Field, which is scheduled to open on July 15]. We want to move into a new park as a first-place team."
To accomplish that, the Mariners will not only have to improve their pitching, but their fielding as well. They committed 125 errors last year (85 before the All-Star break), the third-highest total in the American League, including a league-worst 32 by third baseman Russ Davis, who during the off-season went through a rigorous regimen boxers use to improve their footwork.
But the worst news is that the team doesn't have a No. 1 starter to replace the departed Randy Johnson. The top two candidates are Fassero, who was 13-12 last year but is throwing his split-fingered fastball without pain following off-season surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow, and righthander Jamie Moyer, who has a superb changeup and excellent control (42 walks in 234 1/3 innings). Both, however, are 36. After Fassero and Moyer, Seattle's starting rotation gets cloudy, as in Ken Cloude, who had the highest ERA (6.37) of any major league pitcher with more than 150 innings of work last year.
To bolster a bullpen that blew 21 saves last year, the Mariners signed closer Jose Mesa, who hasn't dominated hitters since blowing Game 7 of the 1997 World Series with the Indians. Seattle officials, though, believe Mesa will benefit from a change of scenery; last year the 32-year-old righthander had a 7.02 ERA at Cleveland's Jacobs Field, but a 2.98 ERA elsewhere. Mark Leiter, who saved 23 games for the Phillies in '98, gives Piniella another closer option. "If the bullpen can hold its own -- and I don't see any reason why it shouldn't -- this team will do well," says Leiter, who also blew 12 save chances in '98. "If the pitching improves, how could anyone look at this team and think it's not going to do some damage?"
Griffey finished his workout early on the day of the Fan Fest in Peoria. As he made his way off the field, he stopped to high-five Moyer's young sons, Dillon and Hutton, who were waiting for their father. Then he turned to the Mariners' pitchers, who were running sprints, and yelled, "Goodbye pitchers, y'all can keep working at it, but I'm outta here."
One day soon, that could be the refrain that will haunt Seattle for years.
Issue date: March 29, 1999
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