The question of whether Seattle shortstop Carlos Guillen can fill the shoes of Alex Rodriguez was answered in the affirmative during spring training. Inside Guillen's locker were three pairs of Rodriguez's size-11 spikes with A-ROD embroidered on the heel. They fit just fine.
Guillen, however, can't come close to producing the runs Rodriguez gave the Mariners last year in the winningest season in franchise history, which ended two victories shy of the World Series. Guillen, 25, is a switch-hitter with eight home runs, a .260 batting average and 50 RBIs in 346 career at bats.
"Carlos will do fine," Rodriguez says. "He can hit .280, 15 to 20 home runs and 70, 80 RBIs." Those numbers, however, would be fractions of what Rodriguez put up (.316,41,132) before leaving for Texas as a free agent.
Guillen says he first realized that Rodriguez would be leaving when they flew to Miami together after losing Game 6 of the American League Championship Series to the Yankees in New York. "I sat next to him on the plane," Guillen says. "He told me, 'I might not be back. The job next year looks like it could be yours.'
"I'm ready. This is my first opportunity to stay in the big leagues at one position. Shortstop is the position I know best."
The transition from Rodriguez to Guillen, who has been hurt or unsuccessful in assignments at second base and third base, completes a major makeover for the Mariners. What was once a fearsome slugging team in the hitter-friendly Kingdome, with Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr. at its core, has morphed into an old National League-style team—think the mid-1960s Dodgers—that needs exceptional pitching and defense to survive in spacious Safeco Field.
Starting pitchers Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele, John Halama and Paul Abbott are solid, and Kazuhiro Sasaki, Jeff Nelson, Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua may be the best late-inning quartet in baseball. But the Mariners' season comes down to this: How can they hit enough to compete with the A's in the AL West? The Mariners are swimming upstream in a league in which Texas, Chicago, Boston, Cleveland and Oakland might be pushing 1,000 runs apiece.
"You've got Chicago and Cleveland in the Central, and one of them is going to be the wild card," says G.M. Pat Gillick, alluding to the other teams' scheduling advantage in playing more games against AL Central and NL Central teams—perhaps the two weakest divisions in baseball—than against other AL teams. "To get into the playoffs, we are going to have to win our division. I think it's that simple."
Despite an $80 million payroll, the Mariners have only two players who hit 20 home runs last year, and one of them is a part-timer: Jay Buhner, who shares the leftfield job with Al Martin, whose 36 RBIs in 480 at bats last year were embarrassingly low for a corner outfielder. DH and RBI champion Edgar Martinez, who hit 37 homers and drove in 145 runs—the most ever for a 37-year-old—is the team's only every-day power threat. "He's going to set a record for walks," one AL West veteran says. "You'd be crazy to ever throw him a strike in that lineup."
The Mariners' biggest addition is rightfielder Ichiro Suzuki, the slap-hitting batting champion from Japan who attracted about 100 media members to his first official workout. The Mariners expect his adaptation to America to be as smooth as that of Sasaki, the 2000 Rookie of the Year closer. Indeed, Ichiro, as Suzuki is universally known in Japan, declined a team offer for a translator while learning the kind of clubhouse idioms you won't find on a Berlitz tape. "Jay's teaching him the King's English, and Paniagua's teaching him the King's Spanish," manager Lou Piniella says with a howl of laughter.