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MANAGER JOHN McLaren isn't one to set modest goals for his players. In the off-season he opined that 34-year-old Ichiro Suzuki was capable of stealing 80 bases, though the centerfielder's career high is 56 (in 2001) and he nabbed 37 last year. McLaren suggested that 33-year-old first baseman Richie Sexson, who endured injuries, fan wrath and a miserable year at the plate, would hit 40 homers (nearly double last year's total) and win AL Comeback Player of the Year. And for 21-year-old righthanded pitcher Felix Hernandez, the skipper set the bar just a little higher. "I'm very, very convinced that at some point in his career Felix will be the best pitcher in baseball. This year I'm just asking him to be the best pitcher from Venezuela." With all due respect to Johan Santana, Carlos Zambrano and Kelvim Escobar, McLaren added, "I think it's a legitimate challenge."
It's not as if Hernandez, whose fastball tops out in the high 90s, hasn't been held to high expectations before. Since his electric debut as a teenager at the end of the 2005 season, in which he had a 2.67 ERA and held opponents to a .203 batting average, King Felix has had mixed success. A pedestrian '06 (12-14, 4.52 ERA) could be attributed in part to his being out of shape. After dropping 20 pounds in the off-season, he started '07 by striking out 12 A's, then came within six outs of a no-hitter in his second outing, against Boston; after visiting the DL with a strained elbow, he finished strong, too, going 8-1 in his final 13 starts. Nonetheless, there is room for improvement. He allowed more than one hit per inning last season and showed a maddening inconsistency when he got ahead in the count. Opposing batters, for example, had a .561 on-base plus slugging percentage when they fell behind 0 and 2 against Hernandez, 88 points higher than the league average and a jolting figure for a power pitcher.
"One thing we've talked about a lot this spring is using his fastball more," new Seattle pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says. "He's got such a good one, but at times he wants to show his other pitches. He's on board with it."
For the first time in his brief career Hernandez will have a worthy complement at the top of the rotation. In fact, within a week of landing lefthanded starter Erik Bedard in February (at the great cost of highly touted outfielder Adam Jones and four others), McLaren named the former Orioles ace his Opening Day starter over King Felix. "Pitch first or second, it doesn't matter to me," says Hernandez. "I'm feeling good, and I'm ready to go whenever they need me." In either order Bedard and Hernandez give Seattle perhaps the best young one-two combination in the league and keep the club in the discussion for a postseason berth.
The Mariners' 88 wins were somewhat suspect as they were outscored by 19 runs for the season. While the lineup is full of high-contact hitters (the team's .287 batting average was tied for second-best in the majors), it's an impatient group (only the AL's seventh-best OBP despite the high average) that is short on power (seventh in runs scored). The loss of Jose Guillen (23 homers), a free agent who signed a three-year, $36 million deal with Kansas City, and Jones doesn't help. Ever the optimist, McLaren expects big things from Guillen's rightfield replacement, Brad Wilkerson, who hit 20 homers for the Rangers and is that rare Mariner willing to work a count. "Our ballpark could be well-suited to him," says McLaren.
McLaren, who is embarking on his first full season as a major league manager (he took over the Mariners last July, after Mike Hargrove abruptly resigned), expects as much from himself as he does from his players. "Last year we proved to ourselves that we can win, and now the bar has gone up," he says. "This year anything short of making the playoffs will be a major disappointment."
CONSIDER THIS a modest proposal ...
The ancient Mariners, with such 33-and-older regulars as Raul Ibañez, Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro, will score the fewest runs in the AL this season, 690, according to PECOTA projections. The big issue is designated hitter, where Vidro is expected to bat; though he hit .314 last year, Vidro contributed only six home runs and 59 RBIs in 548 at bats. One solution? Bring back the Kid. Make catcher Kenji Johjima, who is 31 and in the last year of his contract, the centerpiece of a trade for Reds rightfielder Ken Griffey Jr. Cincinnati would get a much needed catcher while loosening its outfield logjam (and clearing room for Jay Bruce). Seattle's starting catcher could then be 24-year-old Jeff Clement (left), for whom PECOTA projects a .733 OPS--better than Johjima's .704. More important, Griffey would become the best power hitter on the club.
Ichiro Suzuki's major-league-leading batting average with two outs and runners in scoring position, which marked the third time in seven seasons that he's been the majors' best hitter in that situation. Known more as a table-setter than a run producer, Ichiro's .366 lifetime average in 421 at bats with two outs and runners in scoring position is the best in the big leagues in the last 30 years (minimum 150 at bats).