THE SEATTLE MARINERS: 2001 brought 116 WINS; WILL 2002 bring the RING?
In order for one team to win, another must lose. It is a fact of life that is all too familiar to Northwest baseball fans, but if three weeks ago you had asked anyone in the Seattle area which team would lose the ALCS, nobody would have replied, "the Mariners."
The surprising and premature end to the Mariners' magical season has left fans with many questions, all centered around the theme of "what went wrong?" The job of answering that question belongs to Mariners General Manager Pat Gillick, who played a large part in creating this year's record-setting team. Gillick's dream team won 116 regular season games with excellent pitching and defense. However that wasn't enough to get them past the Yankee juggernaut, whose postseason prowess is unmatched in recent baseball history.
The problem? It appears that the Mariners, who once had what was arguably the most fearsome lineup in baseball, are in need of some pop.
Gillick's job is to find that missing ingredient; that spark that will light a fire under the Mariners' offense. Fortunately for him there are quite a few gentlemen out there who would fit the bill. One of them is Chicago Cubs outfielder Rondell White. White, who hit .307 last season and drove in 50 runs, would fit in perfectly with the Mariners laid back clubhouse dynamic. White is up for free agency this year, but with the season he had the Mariners should expect to pay.
Then there's right fielder Vladimir Guerrero of the Expos. He's arguably the most exciting young player in the major leagues. In 2001 hit .307 in 2001 with 108 RBIs and 184 hits. He also stole 37 bases and has the potential to become an even better base runner. He hasa great arm, but could become a more effective fielder with experience. Montreal is in such dire financial straights that they might be willing to sell his contract, which has two years left, for the right amount; but how much are the Mariners willing to spend?
A third possibility for a power outfielder comes from the Mariners' 2001 ALDS rival, the Cleveland Indians. Juan Gonzalez hit .325 this year with 173 hits and 140 RBIs. He's good for at least 30 home runs per season, but his conservative base running doesn't fit in with the Mariners' aggressive running style. Defensively, he has good hands and a strong arm, and he usually gets a good jump on the ball. He's not particularly fast, however, which is needed
when playing in the huge outfield of Safeco Field. Because he tends to swing big, he may not enjoy playing most of his season in a pitchers' park, and like all good free agents he will cost a good sum of money.
Another option for run production comes in the possible vacancy at third base with the free agency of David Bell. Scott Rolen, who has one year left on his contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, would fit in nicely. He's a gold glove level player who is good
for at least 90 RBIs next year. The Phillies would probably be willing to deal him for some of the Mariners considerable pitching depth.
Another question Gillick must answer is how much the Mariners are willing to spend to keep the core of their team together, particularly their MVP candidate second baseman Bret Boone. Boone has said he would like to stay in Seattle, and that he will give the Mariners the option to match any offer he receives from another team, but he will probably request some hefty cash. Money has been freed up by the retirement of veterans Stan Javier and Jay Buhner, and the free agency of Al Martin, but the Mariners may wind up losing Boone if they're not willing to invest in a long-term and expensive contract.
Another part of that core is veteran pitcher Aaron Sele, who put up a postseason record of 0-3 including two of the Mariners' four losses to New York in the ALCS. His $7 million contract is up this year, and even though he won 17 games in 2001, his inability to put together a postseason win may end his career with the Mariners. His probable absence will leave questions about who will fill the number three spot in the Mariners' starting rotation. Fortunately for Gillick, the Mariners have many options when it comes to pitching.
Joel Piņero, the young Puerto Rican right-hander, is one possibility. He played well as Seattle's number five starter for the latter part of the 2001 season, earning a big-league record of 6-2 with a 2.03 ERA. He is devastating against right-handed hitters, but will need more experience before he is ready to start in the postseason. Gillick could also go with the right-handed Denny Stark, who started the Mariners' 116th win against the Texas Rangers. In that game he went three innings and gave up no runs on only one hit. With a triple-A ERA of only 2.37 and a record of
14-2, he is one of the strongest candidates for the position.
Another option is the right-handed Gil Meche. Meche works the strike zone well and had a 4.25 ERA and 107 Strikeouts with the Tacoma Rainiers this season, but he's had some health issues that make him an iffy candidate. Shoulder problems have also affected Ryan Anderson, the left-hander that has been compared to Randy Johnson for his lanky 6'11" frame and upper-90s fastball. Anderson spent the 2001 season nursing his injury, but he did well in triple-A in 2000, striking out 146 with a 3.98 ERA.
Finally, Gillick could look to Brett Tomko, the right-hander who battled Paul Abbott for a spot in the Mariners' starting rotation for the 2001 season. Tomko started a few games for the Mariners in 2001 and put up a major league record of 3-1 with a 5.19 ERA. If he settles down, he could be a good number five starter for the Mariners in 2002.
The job of a General Manager is never easy. Components of a team must be carefully analyzed during the off-season and before the trading deadline. Salaries must be kept fair for all team members and desirable players treated with great care. Pat Gillick has a huge task ahead of him in deciding which of the 11 Mariner free agents to sign, and which to let go. He must search the market and make the appropriate offers to the appropriate players, all while keeping the team payroll under $100 million. Gillick however, is an exceptional team-builder. With inspiration and a little luck, he should be able to create a 2002 Mariner team that will rival their predecessors. Maybe they'll finally even get that elusive ring.
-Teresa K. Velasquez