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Johnson, after all, has a history of back trouble, including surgery to repair a herniated disk in 1996, which limited him to only eight starts. That would make anybody think twice about signing him to a long-term deal, as would Johnson's asking price, which is in the $10-million-a-year range. Since Johnson is in the final year of his contract, the Mariners felt their only option was to explore a trade before they lost him to free agency.
A disgruntled Johnson arrived at spring training insisting he would not talk about his contract situation, then he promptly began answering questions about it. "What's funny is that I know how important I am to this team, so I thought I would get an extension and finish my career here," Johnson said. "But now they've asked me to get them to the postseason again and then see myself out."
Woodward admits that the primary reason that Johnson is still with Seattle is that he could mean the difference between the club winning and not winning the World Seriesif they should get that far. "We would only have made a trade if it didn't hurt our chances to win a title," Woodward says. "When we couldn't get a top starter in return, we decided to stick with the best pitcher in the game and try to win with him. That puts a lot of pressure on us to reach our goal this year."
Are these the inevitable growing pains for a franchise that manager Lou Piniella likes to call "the new kids on the block"? Having failed to make the playoffs in their first 18 years of existence, the Mariners won the American League West two of the last three seasons. But they have yet to win an American League pennant, thwarted last year in the Division Series by the Orioles, who beat Johnson twice during the regular season and twice in the postseason. "We worked so hard last season to get on the big stage, and then we got humiliated in front of the whole country," shortstop Alex Rodriguez says. "We owe it to ourselves to earn another chance. Who knows? This could be a do-or-die season for us. This group might not stay together much longer."
Indeed, for new kids on the block, these are some ancient Mariners. Designated hitter Edgar Martinez and lefthanded starters Jeff Fassero and Jaime Moyer are 35. The team's heartcenterfielder Ken Griffey Jr., Johnson, Rodriguez, rightfielder Jay Buhner, Martinez and catcher Dan Wilsonaccounts for $28 million of this year's $52 million payroll, and leftfielder Glenallen Hill is the only player in the lineup not making at least $1 million this season. How long will the Mariners choose to keep the team intact at those prices?
Unfortunately, the franchise has mortgaged much of its future by trading young prospects. During three straight seasons of mostly fruitless deals at the trading deadline, Seattle has disposed of promising young players such as outfielder Jose Cruz Jr., pitcher Derek Lowe and shortstop Desi Relaford, leaving the system so barren that the Mariners were believed to be the only team to protect just one minor leaguer in the expansion draftand they still had nobody selected from the farm system. Every Seattle first-round draft pick between 1988 and '95 has reached the majors, but only one of those players, Rodriguez, is still in the organization. This is the first spring during Piniella's six-year tenure that no rookies will make the roster.
In his opening spring training speech, Piniella spoke about "unfinished business." He didn't need to mention the tight deadline. "I'm 35, and with each passing year, that's one less chance to get to the World Series," Martinez says. "Still, I think it's too dramatic to say now or never."
Maybe. But this distinguished generation of Mariners is running out of now and sliding inexorably toward never.
by Tim Crothers
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