The 2009 Mariners: healthier, at least

One key will be getting "a few exceptional years" out of some suspect veterans.
One key will be getting "a few exceptional years" out of some suspect veterans.

Benjamin Franklin was poetically successful grouping the adjectives 'ꀜhealthy, wealthy, and wise.'ꀝ Today at Safeco Field, principals of the Seattle Mariners used the occasion of the annual January media preview mostly to invoke only the 'ꀜhealth'ꀝ component in explaining how a club that last season lost as many games as there are Dalmatians in a popular kids'ꀙ flick might actually become a contender when regular-season play resumes in April. Left mostly unsaid were 'ꀜwealthy,'ꀝ since most pro-baseball personnel already are; and 'ꀜwise,'ꀝ which is what M'ꀙs management hasn'ꀙt been during recent seasons.

But the health component came up early during the two-hour pre-lunch event. Trainer Rick Griffin opened with updates about the physical conditions of key players. New general manager Jack Zduriencik later reiterated that his main goal is to 'ꀜget this club healthy.'ꀝ Earlier his choice as field boss had touched briefly on the notion of wisdom, manager Don Wakamatsu insisting that his primary effort will be toward getting his players functioning well 'ꀜfrom the neck up.'ꀝ The 2008 M'ꀙs didn'ꀙt do particularly well in the cerebral regions of the anatomy but then they weren'ꀙt much good from the necks down, either.

In any case, Z-Jack correctly observed what anybody could have: Teams rise and fall according to players having peak or plummeting performances. The 2001 M'ꀙs had an inordinate number of players achieving at the 'ꀜcareer-year'ꀝ level, and the team won 116 times. Last year, by the measure of one executive in attendance, six M'ꀙs regulars had the worst years of their careers; the team won just 61 times.

The 2009 vintage awaits the nurturing and maintenance provided by Wakamatsu and his staff. Few could venture an informed clue as to what to expect from the new leadership crew. Neither the G.M. nor the skipper has big-league experience in such jobs, so fans will have to take it on faith when Zduriencik says, as he did at the event: 'ꀜWe'ꀙre going to put a product on the field that [fans] can be proud of. But it may take time.'ꀝ He also noted his hope 'ꀜfor a few exceptional years'ꀝ among a suspect bunch of players.

As to the latter, trainer Griffin — he'ꀙs been known for leveling with members of the press during his quarter-century M'ꀙs tenure — was unusually upbeat about the physical conditions of key players, including: Jeff Clement, the supposed catcher of the future who was characterized as 'ꀜgood'ꀝ after recovering from several 2008 injuries. Erik Bedard, the highly paid supposed savior lefty from last season, who was deemed doing 'ꀜvery, very well'ꀝ months after surgery to his throwing shoulder. (When asked if a 12- to 14-win year was possible, Griffin said he believes the taciturn tosser will 'ꀜdo better than that.'ꀝ)

Next was versatile Mike Morse, who showed phenomenal offense during spring training last year only to go down with an early-season injury, rand is now ecovered well enough from shoulder surgery to log eight home runs and 30 runs batted in during a winter season featuring just 150 at-bats. Adrian Beltre has mended from a shoulder ailment and a broken left thumb, though Griffin conceded that any trainer would be nervous the first time the third-baseman dives to his right and slaps the thumb onto the field to pick a ball out of the dirt. And then there'ꀙs Carlos Silva. The pitcher apparently liked his $48 million, four-year contract so much that he spent much of it on food, ballooning to an untenable weight and later sustaining a throwing-elbow injury. Griffin said the latter is healed and Silva has had daily physical therapy, including yoga. The trainer estimated that Silva has lost at least 20 pounds during the offseason.

Other team leaders spoke a lot about finding a pitcher or three to step up to the challenge of the closer role, with J.J. Putz having been traded to the New York Mets. Two candidates, veteran Mark Lowe and former Mets starter Aaron Heilman, were on hand to volunteer for the job, though Heilman would prefer being a starter, even though the most he won during a season was seven in 2007 and he'ꀙs seen as a reliever. Last year he was a very Mariner-like 3-8 with a 5.21 E.R.A.

Wakamatsu, a native of Hood River, Oregon, is the first Japanese-American major-league manager. Cineastes watching and listening to him might have imagined him as a middle-aged Marlon Brando cast as a big-league field boss (a KIRO-radio interviewer recently described the tall, articulate 45-year-old as 'ꀜhot'ꀝ). The skipper asserted several times that he has no fixed line-up in mind other than the logical choices, which is to say, Ichiro Suzuki will play right field.

About all that could be concluded, then, several weeks prior to the opening of spring-training camp in Peoria, Arizona, is that the 'ꀙ09 M'ꀙs might be better than their recent predecessors; but don'ꀙt — especially in this economy — bet any Ben Franklins on it.


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