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Originally published September 24, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 25, 2008 at 1:46 AM

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Rebuilding the Mariners

Part I: M's puzzle tougher to reshape with big contracts

It as the night the Mariners saw their 2008 season die for good. And a nervous Kenji Johjima seemed to be dying a little inside as he spoke...

Seattle Times staff reporter

It was the night the Mariners saw their 2008 season die for good.

And a nervous Kenji Johjima seemed to be dying a little inside as he spoke to reporters after an extra-innings loss in mid-May against the Texas Rangers in Arlington. Less than 20 feet away, the night's starting pitcher, Erik Bedard, was huddled with Felix Hernandez. They were eyeing Johjima, as if attempting to overhear what he was saying, especially when it came to the subject of Bedard.

The Rangers had rocked Bedard for six runs in just two innings, but a clearly uncomfortable Johjima, continuously looking over at the pitchers, kept dodging questions about the left-hander's performance. It would be the final time Bedard and Johjima worked together all season, a battery terminated at the pitcher's request.

That night also ended the last real hope the Mariners had of climbing back into the American League West race. Their No. 1 starter had taken the mound, with the Mariners desperately hoping for a series sweep, but Seattle instead came up short once again.

It was all over, and everyone associated with the team knew it. But the mood of that night would live on, with difficulties lingering between the pitching staff and Johjima, to the point where the Japanese catcher would lose his starting job by midseason.

In many ways, Johjima symbolizes a team at a contradictory crossroads. The Mariners appear to be embarking on a full-fledged rebuilding plan for 2009, yet remain hamstrung by issues — some of their own making — that fly in the face of such an approach.

"We want to sit down and plot out a cohesive plan for the next several years," Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said. "We're not going to put all of our eggs into one basket again. It's not all going to be about the 2009 season. We want a plan that encompasses next year, and 2010 and 2011 and the years after that. This isn't about a quick fix."

And yet, the team will move into the offseason, likely the first club with a $100 million payroll to lose 100 games, knowing that Johjima is still on the books for three more years and $24 million. The signing, said to have come at the insistence of Japanese ownership, makes almost no sense for a team that currently employs four other catchers at the major-league level or close to it.

One oft-repeated rumor making the rounds these final weeks is that Johjima has an "opt-out" clause in his contract that enables him to head back to Japan after this season. But in fact, Johjima's agent, Alan Nero, said the clause won't kick in until the end of 2009, once the second contract — the one containing Johjima's extension — has been in effect a full season.

"He does not have an opt-out for this year," Nero said.

Nero added that, while there is an opt-out clause following 2009, specific language in the contract limits the reasons why Johjima could leave.

"It has to do with something catastrophic happening to a member of his family, that would force him to return to Japan," Nero said, declining to get any more specific. "Not him bailing because he's unhappy."

In any event, he added, Johjima is happy in Seattle, gets along with teammates and wants to remain with the ballclub.

The Mariners make it a policy to refuse to discuss any aspects of player contracts with the media.

But a club official with knowledge of the situation, asked about the existence of an "opt-out" clause, shrugged and said: "That's up to Kenji. It's not our decision."

Nero insists the extension is "a fully guaranteed three-year deal."

But that wouldn't appear to preclude a negotiation toward a financial settlement between the sides if Johjima, increasingly squeezed for playing time by Jeff Clement and Rob Johnson — with minor-leaguer Adam Moore rising quickly — decides he'd rather play every day back in Japan. Johjima wouldn't comment on what he'd do if he again finds himself on the bench next year.

"Ask me that next year if the situation comes up," he said, through interpreter Antony Suzuki. "Then, I'll give you my answer."

For now at least, it appears the Mariners will begin 2009 with a 32-year-old catcher who hit for some of the lowest numbers of any major-league regular and at times lost the confidence of a fair number of the team's pitchers.

Jarrod Washburn mentioned that he was getting signals crossed with Johjima — and stopped working with him for a period of time — but later leapt to Johjima's public defense and told the coaching staff he'd work through the issues.

Carlos Silva was another pitcher who got signals crossed with Johjima early in the season and was frustrated. The Mariners later brought in catching consultant Roger Hansen to get pitchers and Johjima on the same page.

Johjima did pick up his game a tiny bit down the stretch, hitting slightly better and throwing more runners out. But even Johjima admitted: "I don't think anything has changed from the first half to the second half."

The Mariners will try to figure out what to do with Clement, Johnson and Moore. This year's backup, Jamie Burke, wants to stay but will be a free agent after this season and might leave, depending on what the Mariners tell him about their plans.

Armstrong maintained that he has yet to give up on the team contending in 2009. Nor will he use the word "rebuilding" to describe what has taken place.

But the rebuilding already began this year and will continue.

Gone from opening day are first baseman Richie Sexson, designated hitter Jose Vidro and right fielder Brad Wilkerson. Heading into this winter, no one is certain whether left fielder Raul Ibanez will return, or if Johjima will retain his starting job.

Throw in a revamping of the rotation, where Brandon Morrow, Ryan Rowland-Smith and Ryan Feierabend could potentially be added, while Bedard, Washburn and Miguel Batista might be exiting, and it seems foolish to pretend that anything but rebuilding is taking place.

And still, the team did not trade away Washburn and his remaining $13 million in salary through 2009 when the Minnesota Twins offered to take him off Seattle's hands in August. Armstrong insists the Mariners would not have gained any value, but sources with the Twins insist another starting pitcher — someone other than the rumored Boof Bonser — was offered back and had the potential to be better than Washburn right away.

Such statements are always subjective.

But many around baseball find it odd that the Mariners are still hanging on to a pitcher who'll make $10.3 million in 2009 while trying to squeeze in fellow lefties Rowland-Smith and Feierabend, who combined would earn less than 10 percent what Washburn does. The potential long-term loss of Bedard to surgery could prompt the Mariners to hang on to Washburn — knowing his salary could be offset simply by not tendering Bedard a contract.

And even though Armstrong has put the kibosh on high-priced free agents for next winter, he insists the club would like to retain Ibanez if the price is right. As one of the better hitting corner outfielders in baseball, Ibanez could command a three-year deal worth upward of $10 million per year.

Where Ibanez would fit here is anyone's guess. The Mariners go into this winter also knowing they've got third baseman Adrian Beltre for one more year at $12 million. They've got an untradeable Carlos Silva for three more years at $36 million and a surplus pitcher in Batista for another year at $9 million.

Bedard's pending surgery could prompt the Mariners to shed their ties with him and other pricier players more quickly. But then again, the sight of this team getting walloped down the stretch without Beltre's bat could make the Mariners frightful of what would happen without him, Ibanez or some newly-imported big hitters next year.

"We have three guys who can hit for power," Mariners interim manager Jim Riggleman said, naming Ibanez, Beltre and Jose Lopez. "But we need one more."

When it was suggested his team really needs at least two more power bats, Riggleman said there are limits to what any manager can ask for from a generous-spending ownership. And that's before Ibanez's potential departure is factored in, meaning the team at minimum could need at least two or three bats added.

In other words, it might be more sensible to take a longer-term approach of a complete rebuild and set a target of 2011 as a more realistic date for contending.

But while it's fashionable among some fans to root for teams to "blow it up," it doesn't always work from a business end. The Cleveland Indians drew more than 3 million fans each of the first six years that Progressive Field (then Jacobs Field) was in existence.

But after embarking on a rebuilding plan in 2002, attendance fell to 1.7 million by the 2003 season. Even though the Indians had winning seasons in 2005 and 2007 — coming within a victory of a World Series berth last season — their attendance last year was only 2.2 million and will be just below that in 2008.

In other words, the Indians lost a million fans per season who never came back. Some likely would have left anyway as the luster of a new ballpark wore off, in similar fashion to circumstances at Safeco Field.

The Mariners have lost more than a million fans — down from a franchise-high 3.45 million in 2002 to roughly 2.2 million this year — as their ballpark's novelty faded along with the team's competitiveness. One huge difference from the Indians is that the Mariners are still facing a major rebuilding process.

This season was supposed to be the one that saw Seattle reach the playoffs after four years of working toward that goal under fired general manager Bill Bavasi. Instead, the Mariners are now facing a Cleveland-style teardown and shuddering at what the possibility of another 100-loss campaign next year could do to a shrinking base of paying customers.

"There are different circumstances in different markets," Armstrong said. "Everybody says 'Look at what Cleveland's done,' but they've had their challenges as well."

But a complete teardown might be the best option left for the Mariners.

Before Bedard was shelved, there were arguments being made within the organization that the Mariners, with a little luck, were close to being able to compete as quickly as next year. The thought was that a starting rotation of Hernandez, Bedard, Brandon Morrow, Rowland-Smith and Silva could produce a formidable team in 2009 if Beltre and Ibanez were retained and a couple of impact bats brought in.

But now, with uncertainty over whether Bedard will even be offered a contract for next season, all bets are off.

And the continuing existence of several large contracts, on a team facing renewed pressure to tear it all down and start over, remains more of an obstacle than ever.

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

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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