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Originally published April 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified April 10, 2007 at 9:08 PM

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Mariners Preview | Time to sink or swim

Much-maligned GM Bill Bavasi, and indeed the entire Seattle organization, is at a crossroads as the 2007 season opens Monday against those arch nemesis A's. Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove need victories to save their jobs this "hot-seat" season. And to try to keep franchise star Ichiro, whose pending free agency could force a midsummer trade and raise the prospect of more empty seats at Safeco Field.

Seattle Times staff reporter

"We're always wrong, but we've never been this wrong. That was frustrating. There were a lot of clubs flush with money and they've used it."

-- Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi, describing at a December news conference how his team, and, he says, the rest of baseball, misjudged the free-agent market.

"One of the things we were concerned about last year, and one of the reasons we pursued [Esteban Loaiza] was because we saw what the market would bear for starting pitching. We knew there was a very strong chance we were going to lose Barry [Zito] and now I'm really happy we have Loaiza. There's no reason to be shocked anymore at anything. I've been here a long time and nothing really shocks me. If you're shocked, that means you're probably not prepared for it."

-- Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in a January interview with Athletics Nation Web site, explaining his decision one year earlier to sign Loaiza, a veteran pitcher, to a now bargain-looking, three-year, $21 million deal.

PEORIA, Ariz. — The two quotations above are fast becoming legendary among Mariners fans who enjoy juxtaposing them for a single purpose: to portray one general manager as a genius, the other a rube.

To them, the American League West boils down to a tale of two Bills. There's Beane, the cost-effective "Moneyball" maven, whose defending division champion Oakland Athletics always seem a step ahead of the pack. Then there's the other Bill, defending three-time last-place finisher Bavasi, portrayed as flailing his hands helplessly while his costly, underachieving Mariners get fleeced again.

The much-maligned Bavasi, and indeed the entire Seattle organization, is at a crossroads as the 2007 season opens Monday against those arch nemesis A's. Bavasi and manager Mike Hargrove need victories to save their jobs this "hot-seat" season. And to try to keep franchise star Ichiro, whose pending free agency could force a midsummer trade and raise the prospect of tens of thousands more empty seats at an increasingly vacant Safeco Field.

So Bavasi, the temperature on his seat already near cooking level, did something highly unusual this winter.

Shunned by his prime free-agent targets like the pimply faced kid at a high-school dance, Bavasi played a little "Moneyball" of his own. Not exactly the kind attributed to Beane in the 2003 best-selling book by Michael Lewis. More like the reworked definition, where the book's supporters claim it's really a tale about reaping gains from assets undervalued by competitors.

Few can argue Bavasi's key offseason acquisitions of Jeff Weaver, Miguel Batista, Horacio Ramirez, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen and Chris Reitsma were all initially undervalued by a vast segment of a scoffing baseball community. But Bavasi is seeking the last laugh, pinning his final hopes on players he feels can deliver — largely because of conditions unique to his squad — greater value than his legions of critics dream possible.

Only one thing is certain as an impatient Seattle fan base and ownership watches to see whether this latest, $111 million concoction can work: The results over the next few months will determine which direction the team takes for years to come.

"The fans give you a mulligan and the city gives you a mulligan where you can lose for a couple of years, but I think we've run out of that," said Mariners first baseman Richie Sexson, whose prolonged power slumps last year were largely behind Bavasi's need to secure additional bats in Guillen and Vidro.

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"We need to win and we need to win now," Sexson added.

No player is on the "hot seat" more than Sexson. Few can hit 30 home runs and drive in 100 runs every season as often as he does and still come under fire from fans, who point to his first-half on-base percentage of .288 last year as evidence of his inconsistency.

"We've got the lineup to do it," Sexson said. "Our lineup is second to none, and with our three new guys in the rotation, we have all the ingredients to do that."

But things rarely go completely right for any team, as witnessed by the question marks surrounding Seattle's bullpen and the dismal spring stats of Weaver, one of the three new starters.

At least Sexson has the luxury of another year on his contract. Not so Bavasi or Hargrove, whose potential replacement is next to him in the dugout — bench coach John McLaren.

A slow start in a tough-looking April could trigger a chain reaction of change. Hargrove could be out, and the countdown to Bavasi's departure could begin at precisely the time he'd be called upon to seek possible trade destinations for Ichiro.

Unless Ichiro signs a contract extension soon, the pressure for the Mariners to deal him will mount.

"I feel that everything that was done in the past and built up to this point, is very important," Ichiro said this spring of the team having to show him it can win. "But what happens in the future is also very important."

Sexson and third baseman Adrian Beltre could also be outbound, depending on their market value, if the team decides to cut its losses and build toward a different future. Others on shorter, one-year-deals, like Guillen and Weaver, would likely become trade bait as well.

It's a scenario few associated with the team really want to contemplate. And that's why winning now, whether probable or not, is really the only option they can afford to believe in.

"I feel good about what we've be able to do down here," said Hargrove, who maintains even the Cleveland Indians playoff squads he managed in the 1990s didn't have him this excited about a season. "There are a lot of things, I think, we were able to accomplish. Our guys believe in themselves. They believe in their ability to win this thing, and that's what we're all about."

But winning the division likely won't be as easy as some suspect. While some predict as few as 86 wins could claim the AL West, history tells a different story.

Of the 36 AL division titles handed out since six-division play began in 1994, there has been only one 86-win champion over a full season — Hargrove's 1997 Indians.

The closest to an 86-win AL West champion was the 1998 Texas Rangers at 88. But the average needed to take the AL West has been 96 wins, while 91 is the average of any AL division crown winner.

So, winning the AL West won't be easy.

The way Seattle's winter shopping began, with free agents avoiding the team, even .500 seemed out of the question. That's where the secondary — value-added, if you will — plan kicked in.

It went as follows: Secure a stable of mid-level, ground-ball-inducing starters shunned as overpriced, or going nowhere fast, and stick them in front of a stellar group of gloves.

All of the sudden, a pitcher like Batista, who has never topped 11 wins, becomes a potential 15-game winner and 200-inning rock. Ramirez transforms from an underachieving, injury-prone, non-tender candidate, into another 15-win possibility — worth the Mariners giving up top reliever Rafael Soriano.

Soriano, in turn, is replaced by ground-baller Reitsma. Is Reitsma a serious liability coming off elbow surgery? Heck no, say the Mariners, he's an out machine. One whose sinker will induce grounders for Beltre and Yuniesky Betancourt to suck up the way a Hoover goes after dust bunnies.

That's the plan, anyway. Or, at least the way these acquisitions have been sold. Stare at it long enough and it starts to make sense. Well, at least some of it does.

It's all about the hidden value. Call it Moneyball if you want. Or "Buzzie-ball," as a tribute to Bavasi's father, a former Dodgers GM. Then again, given how other aspects of Seattle's plan unfolded rather sketchily, perhaps "Fuzzyball" is more appropriate.

There was little ground-ball sucking value — or value, period — in pursuing free agent Barry Zito with a rumored nine-figure offer that might have hamstrung this franchise for years. The Mariners also balked at bidding for pitcher Daisuke Matsuzaka — a supposedly bona fide Japanese star and marketing opportunity — yet were willing to throw eight figures at a consensus mediocrity in countryman Kei Igawa.

Fuzzyball also sees the Mariners paying $8.32 million for a fifth starter in Weaver. While he may overcome his disappointing spring, he could also become the most expensive fifth-starter flop in history.

The Mariners gambled a more palatable $5.5 million on Guillen remaining healthy, producing 25 homers in right field and further improving the defense. Another $12 million — and minor-leaguers Chris Snelling and Emiliano Fruto — secured Vidro via trade.

Vidro was a bigger gamble than Guillen, given his cost, his injury history and lack of typical designated-hitter power. But the Mariners covet his ability to get on base and hope it keeps him closer to the top of the order than a lesser-valued No. 6 or 7 spot.

Seattle is in a rather unique situation, because power-hitting third baseman Beltre, who slumped last April and May, hit .310 with a .367 on-base percentage and .574 slugging percentage after a shift to No. 2 in the order midway through the season. Vidro's high on-base totals this spring have the Mariners taking the unorthodox step of installing him in the No. 3 spot — typically reserved for power hitters — so Beltre can keep hitting second.

It only works if Vidro gets on and a more-comfortable Beltre hits for power early. Anything else could spell disaster at the top of the order and team-wide on-base and power struggles similar to 2006.

"I just want to be more consistent," Beltre said. "If I get into a slump, I don't want to get too deep into it. I just want to keep swinging the bat better than I did the first couple of months the last two years."

So, the hidden "value" sought from Vidro is two-fold.

That his singles, doubles and walk prowess, just two spots down the order from Ichiro, will strengthen the team's on-base attack. And that Vidro's ability to keep the No. 3 spot from becoming a black hole will enable Beltre to stay at No. 2 and boost the team's power numbers from there.

"Last year, we had a good team but we had a couple of holes," Beltre said. "This year's team is more complete."

It will have to be. This isn't the usual route to contention. Call it perseverance, or desperation. Call it Fuzzyball. But Beane got a book written about him when he made the playoffs by going the unconventional route. Should the Mariners defy the odds and qualify for postseason play, more pen will arguably have to be put to paper to describe the game's very latest winning formula.

But they'll be penning something very different should the opposite happen: the baseball obituaries of Bavasi, Hargrove, Ichiro and countless others in Seattle, as the franchise leaves them all behind.

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

Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners

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