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A Shot in The Dark
THEY WERE both Pac-10 stars blessed with golden arms, and in the 2006 draft the Mariners had their choice of either. One was more of a risk, a scrawny righthander who grew up near Seattle in Bellevue and went to the University of Washington; the other was a 6'3", 185-pound flamethrower from Cal. With the No. 5 pick, the Mariners—to the dismay of legions of their fans—made the safe choice: the flamethrower, Brandon Morrow. The local kid they passed up: Tim Lincecum, who two years later would become the National League Cy Young winner with the Giants.
For two seasons Morrow has been living in Lincecum's shadow, but the Mariners think that's about to change. Last year, in his rookie season, Morrow was impressive working out of the bullpen, putting up a 1.47 ERA in 36 2/3 innings while earning 10 saves in 12 opportunities while filling in for injured (and now departed) closer J.J. Putz for a month and a half. Morrow also made five September starts—one-hitting the Yankees for 7 2/3 innings in his debut before four uneven performances—as Seattle completed its first 100-loss season in 25 years. Now the Mariners are returning him to the bullpen, where he could become one of the game's elite power closers.
Last season Morrow relied mostly on a 98-mph fastball and a killer slider; to expand his repertoire, he was at work this spring on a new curveball and reintroducing the splitter that was his signature pitch in college. The Mariners had slotted him in the third spot in the rotation during spring training, but forearm soreness and a bout with the flu prevented him from building up arm strength. (One suspects the prospect of Miguel Batista in the ninth-inning role had something to do with the move too.) Morrow has no quibbles. "Once you get a taste of closing," he says, "I don't think many people would want to go back to anything else."
How well the 24-year-old anchors a thin bullpen will go a long way toward determining if new general manager Jack Zduriencik's decision not to shake up a stagnant roster this off-season was a wise one. "On paper we're probably the fourth-best team in the division, but the club wasn't nearly as bad as the record indicated," says Zduriencik of a team that was the first in history to lose 100 games with a payroll of more than $100 million. "I didn't want to rebuild, because we have the pieces to be competitive."
Playing in the soft AL West will help, as will a rotation fronted by two arms that will miss plenty of bats. Seattle can contend this year if Felix Hernandez continues on the path of becoming an elite starter (his ERA has fallen in each of the past three seasons) and Erik Bedard stays healthy (the lefty is fully recovered from shoulder surgery). A year after being outscored by 140 runs, the Mariners should close that gap thanks to a vastly improved defense bolstered by the addition of outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez, both of whom are Gold Glove--caliber.
Optimism would be greater if not for an offense that was second to last in the AL in runs scored, slugging and on-base percentage and projects to be even worse with the departure of leftfielder Raul Ibañez, who led the team in OPS and total bases. Yes, the return of Ken Griffey Jr. energizes the fan base—Seattle's steadily shrinking attendance ranked 20th in the majors last year—but Zduriencik is being overly optimistic about what the 39-year-old can give them in run production when he says, "Ken will really help us [at Safeco Field], where lefthanded power plays well." In 131 at bats after being traded to the White Sox (and hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field) in July, Griffey had just 13 extra-base hits.
If the losses start piling up early and often, a raft of players could leave town at the trade deadline, with Bedard, Carlos Silva, Kenji Johjima, Jarrod Washburn, Adrian Beltre and Miguel Batista all candidates to go. (Former G.M. Bill Bavasi committed $97 million to Silva, Batista and Johjima alone.) At that point, Zduriencik will be forced to do what he didn't this winter: tear down and rebuild.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
The Mariners signed masher Russell Branyan (left) in the off-season to be a low-cost source (one year, $1.4 million) of lefthanded power at first base. It's a nice move by a new front office that has embraced traditional (scouting) and modern (statistical analysis) approaches to player evaluation. A peek at Branyan's numbers, however, shows him to have significant difficulty with southpaws: a career .284 OBP. Fortunately, there's an inexpensive solution in camp. Chris Shelton is available to share the job. Shelton, 28, has a career .346 OBP and a .461 slugging percentage, he crushed Triple A pitching in half a season last year (.340 batting average), and he's beaten up minor league lefties to the tune of a .413 OBP and a .574 SLG the last four years. A Branyan-Shelton platoon would be one of the five best first base situations in the league.