The addition of a clubhouse powder keg, a boost in payroll that could have been put to better use and, worst of all, one Japanese superstar seriously considering hitting the free-agent market next winter add up to yet another dreary forecast in the Pacific Northwest. With an extra $17 million available to them in 2007, the Mariners signed, among others, free-agent outfielder Jose Guillen, who is known for his temper and is coming off elbow surgery, rather than nailing down franchise player Ichiro Suzuki with a contract extension. There is a difference between spending and spending wisely, and Seattle not only failed to re-sign Ichiro but also did not land an impact player to help lift the team out of its three-year fog, which includes last-place finishes in '04, '05 and '06 and diminishing attendance in each of those years.
Like many teams Seattle was caught flat-footed by the out-of-whack market for free-agent pitchers (including its own Gil Meche). Intending to land a No. 1 starter to ease the burden on 20-year-old phenom Felix Hernandez, the Mariners fell short in the Jason Schmidt and Barry Zito derbies. Instead, they settled for three less-than-spectacular alternatives: the inconsistent Miguel Batista (three years, $25 million), the even more enigmatic Jeff Weaver (one year, $8.4 million) and injury-plagued Horacio Ramirez, whose cost will be felt more in the talent sacrificed (fireballing setup man Rafael Soriano) in a trade with the Braves than in cash (one year, $2.65 million).
"We wanted to get better, with or without Meche or Joel Pineiro," says general manager Bill Bavasi, referring to his two departed starters, who jumped to the Royals and the Red Sox, respectively. "But that was complicated, and what made it more complicated was the spike in the market."
It's questionable whether the overhauled rotation is an upgrade over last year's starting five, which finished in the middle of the league in runs allowed and ERA. The key to improved run prevention will be the continued development of the slimmed-down Hernandez, who is brimming with confidence after a solid second half (4.02 ERA, compared with 4.95 before the All-Star break), and one of the game's most promising middle-infield combinations, defensively speaking: shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, 25, and All-Star second baseman Jose Lopez, 23, both of whom -- like most of Seattle's regulars -- need to show more patience at the plate. Seattle also has an elite closer in J.J. Putz (36 saves and a filthy 8-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio), but the club burned the perfect bridge to Putz when it traded the 27-year-old Soriano, who struck out more than one hitter per inning and held opponents to a .204 batting average in '06.
Yet for the declining number of Mariners season-ticket holders, the inimitable Ichiro, 33, remains the primary reason to show up at the park every day. (King Felix is a once-every-five-days excuse.) With both Jeremy Reed (.260 OBP) and 21-year-old Adam Jones, the Mariners' top pick in the 2003 draft, in over their heads in centerfield, Ichiro voluntarily made the switch from rightfield last August and looked terrific. Ichiro is not the force he once was with the bat (he hit .228 with runners in scoring position last year, for example), so don't expect a repeat of his ridiculous 2004 (when he won the AL batting crown with a .372 average and set a major league record for hits in a season, 262). Still, he remains one of the game's elite leadoff hitters. The Mariners must re-sign him.
For now, Ichiro is noncommittal. "Everything that was done in the past and has built up to this point is an important part [of my decision]," he says, "but what happens in this season is important also." -- Jacob Luft
Issue date: March 26, 2007