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Sunday, February 11, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bavasi busy in offseason but are the M's better?

Seattle Times staff reporter

 

Give the Mariners credit on one front: They sure were active this winter.

No matter what some pundits think about the intelligence of Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi, the willingness of ownership to go for broke, or the medical histories of some of the acquisitions, no one can accuse Seattle's baseball team of standing still. The big question facing the three-time defending American League West doormat is whether the sheer quantity of moves made this offseason came at the expense of true quality.

"We think that our club has much improved this offseason," Bavasi said of his winter maneuverings after recently adding free-agent starter Jeff Weaver to a rotation that also includes newcomers Miguel Batista and Horacio Ramirez. "I think [the winter] has gone well for us."

Just how well remains to be seen.

Players arriving for spring training in Peoria, Ariz., this week will find a Seattle team with a rotation of pitchers that is 60 percent different from a year ago. The closer and setup man in the bullpen have also changed from opening day of 2006, though J.J. Putz did spend most of last season in the fireman's role.

There will also be a new right fielder, center fielder and designated hitter, with two of those three sporting an injury history even more woeful than Seattle's record against AL West opponents. In theory, it's a team that could strive for .500 and boast a superior mound staff and offense than the squad that finished 78-84 last season.

But for that theory to work, virtually all of the team's new additions will have to meet or exceed expectations. And they will have to accomplish that in a sport where most teams have come to accept that even the best-laid plans will, at some point each season, go dreadfully wrong.

"We feel we've been able to add to our club in the offseason ... and fill the holes that needed to be filled," Mariners manager Mike Hargrove said at a recent gathering with local baseball writers. "In my heart, I believe we have a chance to do some really good things here this year."

For those things to take place — and Hargrove is already on record saying that a division title isn't out of the question — the Mariners need the pitching to take a giant step forward.

The team feels it has bolstered itself offensively, especially in right field where free agent Jose Guillen is being counted on to add home-run pop while Ichiro shifts to center. That move alone, if it works out, could vastly improve a lineup that was one of the league's worst in the power-hitting categories.

Seattle also hopes that newly acquired Jose Vidro will regain his .300-hitting form now that he has been moved to designated hitter and won't be punishing his body as an everyday infielder. That those moves were accomplished without giving up the power of Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre could, barring any serious injuries, arguably make the Mariners an offensive force in the AL West.

That's not a given, because both Guillen and Vidro have had their share of injuries in recent years. And even if the Mariners do score more runs, the Angels, A's and even the Rangers can each argue they own better rotations in a division where pitching ultimately decides the champion each year.

It is still unclear how much the Mariners accomplished on the mound this winter.

"When we got into the offseason, we looked at [free-agent pitching] and most people saw Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt towards the top, or at the top of the market," Bavasi said. "But there was this group right with them. We had five names there, actually four. And of the four, we got two of them."

Now that Weaver and Batista are both here — after Bavasi was foiled in efforts to land Zito and Schmidt — just how close the two groups of free-agent pitchers really were will go a long way toward determining Seattle's fate.

In the best-case scenario, the M's would see a better-conditioned Felix Hernandez morph into a 15-to-18-game winner and receive 12 to 15 wins out of Jarrod Washburn and the three newcomers. That alone would earn the team at least a dozen more victories than the 51 notched by starters in 2006 and theoretically vault Seattle toward contender status.

But Hernandez is still only 20 years old and entering his second full season. And of the remaining four starters, Weaver is the only one to have surpassed 11 wins in any year since 2003.

Bavasi has talked often this winter about the depth he has added, both pitching and hitting. Everyone in baseball knows that depth is the only real way to prevent big-time injuries or individual player flops from destroying a season.

And by managing to land three rotation arms — Ramirez was acquired via trade — while keeping Jake Woods in the bullpen and Cha Seung Baek in Class AAA, the Mariners do have some mound depth in the event of serious injury or abject failure by any one of the starters. The replacing of a traded setup man with free-agent signee Chris Reitsma also helped Bavasi solve a self-created depth issue in the bullpen, but only if Reitsma is fully recovered from elbow surgery.

There also remains the issue of depth being one thing, quality quite another. Treading water alone won't help the Mariners reach .500, let alone leapfrog the three teams ahead of them in the division.

If Bavasi is ultimately ejected from the "hot seat" of Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln, it likely won't be because of the volume of work he did this winter. Bavasi faced the monumental task of having to replace three-fifths of his rotation at a time when the price of starting pitchers was about to go through the proverbial roof.

It's clear that the Mariners badly misread the market and the overall financial health of baseball in leaving themselves so exposed on the mound heading into the winter. And the patch job Bavasi has done, quite admirable given the circumstances, was only completed after his team failed to land Zito, Schmidt, Ted Lilly, Adam Eaton, Kei Igawa and others.

Should that patchwork prove ineffective, Bavasi and Hargrove will be the ones taking the fall. The bulk of the starters may not have been Bavasi's first choice, but their ability to induce ground-ball outs with a solid defense behind them is what will almost certainly determine his final Seattle legacy.

It is also what should make this one of the more interesting — if not winning — seasons in recent team history.

"In our division, if you look at it statistically, it's probably the most improved club," Bavasi said recently of the team's nine-win improvement last season. "We have to make up the little ground we have left out on the field."

 

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com

 

 
Mariners Cactus League schedule
Home games at Peoria Stadium
Date Time Opponent
March 1 1:05 p.m. S.D.* (charity)
March 2 1:05 p.m. at San Diego
March 3 1:05 p.m. San Diego
March 4 1:05 p.m. at San Fran. (ss)
March 4 1:05 p.m. at Arizona (ss)
March 5 1:05 p.m. Chicago Cubs
March 6 1:05 p.m. at Texas
March 7 1:05 p.m. San Francisco
March 8 1:05 p.m. at Kansas City
March 9 1:05 p.m. Colorado
March 10 1:05 p.m. at L.A. Angels
March 11 1:05 p.m. Chicago WS (ss)
March 11 1:05 p.m. at San Fran. (ss)
March 12 1:05 p.m. Oakland
March 13 1:05 p.m. Milwaukee
March 14 OFF DAY  
March 15 1:05 p.m. at Chi. Cubs (ss)
March 15 7:05 p.m. San Fran. (ss)
March 16 1:05 p.m. Kansas City
March 17 1:05 p.m. Texas
March 18 1:05 p.m. at Milwaukee
March 19 1:05 p.m. Arizona (ss)
March 19 1:05 p.m. at Chi. Cubs (ss)
March 20 1:05 p.m. at Arizona
March 21 1:05 p.m. at Colorado
March 22 1:05 p.m. at Chicago WS
March 23 1:05 p.m. L.A. Angels
March 24 1:05 p.m. Kansas City
March 25 1:05 p.m. at Oakland
March 26 7:05 p.m. at Texas
March 27 1:05 p.m. San Francisco
March 28 1:05 p.m. Texas
March 29 12:05 p.m. at S. Diego (ss)
March 29 7:15 p.m. at S.F. (ss)*
March 30 7:15 p.m. Chicago Cubs**
March 31 1:05 p.m. Chicago Cubs**

*At AT&T Park in San Francisco.

**At Cashman Field in Las Vegas.

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