Two or three times annually, I revert to my years-ago role as a Seattle sportswriter, usually to assess the state of our Mariners — despite Seahawks and Husky claims, the local team closest and most important to the hearts of Seattle sports fans.
The Mariners leave town today for their final road trip of the season. They will finish out here at the end of the month. They hope to avoid a 100-loss season and become the first baseball franchise with a $100-million-plus payroll to lose 100 games. It will be close. But, under interim manager Jim Riggleman, the team has shown greater focus and improvement and just might squeeze through short of 100 losses. It will, in any case, have either the first-, second-, or third-worst record in the major leagues this season and will receive a top-three 2009 draft choice as its reward.
This is a team which will not climb back into contention in 2009. But, with sensible decision-making, it can play .500 ball next year and be back in contention a year later. Here is a season-end sum up of where the franchise stands.Management Needs Improvement
Any organization reflects the quality and character of the people running it. This is a forgiving, even complacent city when it comes to tolerating less than high performance among its elected, business, and even sports-team leaders. Yet, in 2009, few would dispute that Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and COO Chuck Armstrong have done well in presenting an enjoyable game experience at Safeco Field but have been careless and, at times, outrightly stupid in their stewardship of the team on the field.
Former general manager Bill Bavasi, fired at mid-season, made dreadful decisions about player talent and value during his tenure. Huge multi-year contracts were bestowed on mediocre and weak performers such as Richie Sexson, Jarrod Washburn, Miguel Batista, Jose Vidro, and Carlos Silva. Pitcher Rafael Soriano, a valuable asset, was traded to Atlanta for a weak-armed Horacio Ramirez. Two good young players, both now major-league regulars, were traded to Cleveland for half-year, stop-gap veterans long gone from the team. Most damagingly, coming outfield star Adam Jones, relief ace George Sherrill, and three quality pitching prospects were traded to Baltimore for pitcher Erik Bedard, who has been down with a sore arm since early this season. No one knows if he will be able to pitch again in 2009, the final year of his contract here. Bedard had an injury history in Baltimore. Clearly, the Mariners did not do their due diligence in checking him out before making the trade. Only third baseman Adrian Beltre, a steady rock at third base, has been a successful multi-year signer from the Bavasi era.
The first task, therefore, for Lincoln and Armstrong, will be to get the right general manager sometime next month to lead the team into 2009 and beyond. Reportedly, a huge number of qualified candidates have expressed interest in the job. Lincoln and Armstrong must get this hire right. Lee Pelakoudas, a longtime Mariners front-office employee, has been acting as general manager since Bavasi's departure. But he is unlikely to get the permanent job. Lincoln and Armstrong demonstrated their lack of confidence in him when they refused to allow him to deal Washburn and outfielder Raul Ibanez to pennant-contending teams at the July 31 trading deadline, and again in August, when they were at the height of their trading value and could have brought young talent in return. Armstrong last week took responsibility for cancelling a Washburn trade, indicating he might be too valuable to lose. (Washburn will never be more than a .500 pitcher, is aging, and will make about $10 million next year in the last year of his Mariners conract. Ibanez has had a good year but his contract expires at the end of this season. He no longer can field, run, or throw, and the club would be foolish to re-sign him for next year, when he will be 37, at the big salary he will seek).
Smarter management would have instructed Pelakoudas to deal both Washburn and Ibanez for best offers, if just to clear payroll and send a signal about the future. Lincoln and Armstrong complicated the new general manager's job immeasurably by signing fading and mediocre catcher Kenji Johjima to a three-year, $24 million contract extension early this season, reportedly at the order of Japanese ownership. They might have told ownership that it would be $24 million down the toilet, and better spent elsewhere, but you wonder if they did. There are at least three catchers better than Johjima on the Mariners' major- and minor-league rosters.Riggleman, Good But Endangered
Former manager John McLaren was fired shortly after Bavasi. He has been replaced by Jim Riggleman, who started the season as the Mariners' bench coach (No. 2 man). Riggleman is a professional with a solid background as both a player-development director and both minor- and major-league manager. McLaren was popular with his players as an 'inmates can run the asylum' proponent. They liked McLaren but played sloppily for him. Entering the season as a supposed pennant contender, the club did a top-to-bottom dive. Fundamentals were glaringly lacking. No one appeared able to work a pitch count, lay down a bunt, run the bases professionally, or understand stituational hitting. It was careless, hack-away sandlot ball being played by multimillion-dollar athletes. The expensive starting-pitching staff, assembled by Bavasi, kept incurring minor injuries and failing on the mound. Relief ace J.J. Putz came down with a sore arm, lost playing time, and made every appearance a Perils-of-Pauline experience in which he flirted with late-inning disaster. Often he found it.
Riggleman quite quickly restored order, although reportedly, he is less liked than McLaren. That is good. During his short tenure, discipline clearly has tightened. Even free-swinging shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt has begun to draw a walk and to take a pitch or two per at-bat. His diffident fielding also has improved recently. Second baseman Jose Lopez' hitting has picked up at the end of the season, not dropped off as in prior years. His fielding lapses also have been less frequent. The team now is playing hard. Riggleman appears to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of his players and is using them to get maximum efficiency from the talent at hand.
Riggleman has knowledge of the players on and near the Mariners major-league roster. He clearly is a tough-minded pro. Trouble is, a new general manager almost certainly will want to bring his own manager on board — unless he has known and worked with Riggleman previously. A new manager in 2009 will have to start fresh in learning about Mariners players and will have his own approach. The rebuilding process thus will be slowed several months during the transition.
My vote goes to retaining Riggleman. But I recognize that is a long shot. The first priority is to hire a solid general manager. That person must hire his own manager. If that is Riggleman, good. He also must be left alone to do his job, within general budget parameters, by Lincoln and Armstrong.Player Talent Not Wholly Lacking
The team can get back to .500 without tearing things up completely and starting over.
Third baseman Beltre will be in the last year of his contract in 2009, and there will be strong sentiment to trade him while he has high trading value. Unless his asking price is exorbitant, he should be signed to a two- or three-year extension. He will be only 30 next year, is a Gold Glove infielder, plays hard all the time, and can be counted on for a .275, 25-homer, 80-RBI season year-after-year. He is a cornerstone player. Moreover, he provides a good example to infielders Betancourt and Lopez, whose attentions sometimes wane.
The two infielders sometimes lose focus in the field or at the plate. But better replacements would be difficult to find. Betancourt is a better fielder than Lopez, who has limited range. He also, potentially, is a better hitter, if he can exert greater plate discipline. Lopez is a solid hitter now.
First base will be wide open in 2009. But a solid replacement may be at hand in Mike Morse, only 26, who tore things up in spring training and then injured his shoulder earlier this year and went on the disabled list. He is headed for Arizona to play through the fall. He has strong physical skills and certainly would be an improvement over the departed Richie Sexson in the field, at the plate, and in the head. Brian LaHair, called up from Tacoma awhile back, is no better than a journeyman who is no long-term answer as a starter. The team should not shell out big bucks or talent in order to acquire a borderline first baseman from another team. If Morse can't do it, catcher Jeff Clement could shift to first base easily. He has a bad knee, and his catching skills have not impressed. Clement is going to be a good hitter, with power, and could plug the first-base hole for 10 years, thus freeing Morse for duty at several other positions.
Catching is OK. If Clement is found wanting as a receiver, or shifts to first base, young Rob Johnson could be a starter, with both veteran Jamie Burke and Johjima on deck. The Mariners have two good young catching prospects still in the minors, Adam Moore and Travis Scott, who will be ready for major-league duty in a year or two. The glut could be eased if a Japanese team would take Johjima off the Mariners' hands and payroll.
In the outfield, you start with right-fielder Ichiro Suzuki. His skills have eroded a bit, but he remains a 200-hit-per-season performer with strong fielding skills. You wish Suzuki, who has power, would hit the long ball more frequently or bunt his way on base a bit more. Since Riggleman's arrival, he too has shown a bit more patience at the plate and no longer appears to regard a base on balls as a disgrace. Right field, in any case, is taken care of for at least a couple more seasons.
Centerfield, at present, is being split between left-hand-hitting Jeremy Reed and right-hand-hitting Wladimir Balentien. Both are good fielders, but not in the first tier. Reed is a journeyman, cut-and-slash hitter, with some speed, and a good fourth outfielder. Balentien has star potential, but it is far too early to see if he can reach it. He may prove to be nothing more than another big, strong, athletic guy with loads of potential — the majors are filled with such players — but who never hits for average and strikes out too often to make up for his occasional homers. Only time will tell.
Ibanez needs to vacate left field, signing with another team or, if he stays, moving to designated hitter. In the past he has insisted on playing the outfield on a daily basis. The Mariners no longer can afford his legs, arm, or glove in the field. He plays hard, however, and is an example to younger players. If he does sign elsewhere, the Mariners will receive two high draft choices in return — which would be a fair exchange, given Ibanez's advancing age and declining talents. There are good young outfielders in the Mariners farm system, including Greg Halman and Mike Saunders, but they are not yet major-league-ready. This might be a place where a free-agent-signing is called for until Halman and/or Saunders are ready. Willie Bloomquist can play any infield or outfield position, has speed, and is a fundamentally strong player. But his contract, as Ibanez's, runs out after this season, and he would have to re-sign here for 2009. The Mariners could be outbid by another team looking for his diverse skills set.
Pitching, curiously, could be a 2009 strong point. Felix Hernandez and young Brandon Morrow have potential star quality. Bedard, if able to pitch, would be a front-line starter (although likely to be traded at mid-season, if healthy, before his contract runs out). Youngsters Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ryan Feierabend have shown well as late-season starters. That is a starting five right there. Then, stilll around will be money-eaters Washburn, Silva, and Batista, to fill the gap if one of the young starters falters. The Mariners have a surplus of middle-inning and late-inning relievers. No big trades or free-agent signings appear in order here — unless the Mariners can get some other team to deal for Washburn, Silva, Batista, or perhaps Putz. The first three should be offered to any team willing to pick up all or most of their salaries, with a broken bat in return.
Overall, the present team lacks both speed and power. Only Suzuki and Bloomquist, who may not return, are base stealers. Betancourt has raw speed but has never learned base-running skills. Reed and Balentien can run but are not base stealers, per se. This is a team which still does not run, bunt, and hit-and-run successfully, or manufacture runs by "little ball." Neither does it have real power hitters, although Ibanez, Beltre, and Lopez have hit for some power this year. Clement, Balentien, and Morse could do so in the future. It is more like the station-to-station Baltimore Oriole teams of Earl Weaver — except that those teams had exceptional pitching, which enabled them to win many low-scoring games where one or two long balls per day from the batting order were more than enough.
There you have it. With an adjustment or two, this will not be a last-place team in 2009. Fire and energy are badly needed — along with talent. The 2009 general manager and manager will need to bring those qualities with them.