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Originally published September 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified September 27, 2008 at 10:04 PM

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Rebuilding the Mariners

Part 5: M's a no-win situation for manager Jim Riggleman

Heading into this winter, with a new general manager almost certainly coming onboard to replace the fired Bill Bavasi, it's doubtful Jim Riggleman has shown enough to be retained. Then again, it's debatable whether he ever could have shown enough.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A no-nonsense manager is what was promised the day Jim Riggleman took over.

And no nonsense is what was received. Mariners players good and bad, popular and unpopular, have taken a seat, been shown the door, or been given a talking-to by Riggleman, who replaced John McLaren, who was fired on June 19.

And through it all, the results have remained largely the same. The Mariners were sporting a 25-47 record when McLaren was let go. Heading into today's season finale, the team was 35-54 under Riggleman — giving him a slight advantage in winning percentage of .393 compared to .347.

But few managers keep their jobs by winning less than 40 percent of the time. And heading into this winter, with a new general manager almost certainly coming onboard to replace the fired Bill Bavasi, it's doubtful Riggleman has shown enough to be retained. Then again, it's debatable whether he ever could have shown enough.

"I really appreciate that the media, the fans, everybody has been more than fair considering we're [more than 30] games under .500," Riggleman said of how he has been perceived here. "And I don't take that lightly. I don't take that as a free pass. I take that as we owe these people something. We've got to get this going because these people have been great to us.

"If this was Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Chicago, the howling would just put such a negative aura on the whole thing. It would be on the players, the organization, everything. And these fans have been more than fair."

But fair or not, the new GM will have the final say on who will be the dugout field boss. And given the wide array of potential GM candidates the Mariners have assembled from across the baseball spectrum, it's highly unlikely the one chosen will have Riggleman tops on their list.

"It will be the most important decision that we make," Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said of the GM. "We have narrowed the list of candidates down, and our plan is to start talking to other clubs about permission."

While that happens, Riggleman will head home to Florida and wait. Some coaches expect to be tipped early on whether they'll be back. Riggleman would like to stay, and if another team calls offering a coaching job, he'll ask whether they can wait a few weeks.

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong has said he'd like to have a GM chosen by late October. He and Lincoln have a list of roughly 20 candidates and will begin seeking permission from other clubs to interview them this week.

Armstrong will speak Monday with baseball commissioner Bud Selig about exactly how he plans to go about approaching teams. In some cases, Armstrong admitted, he expects to be told that some candidates won't be allowed out of their current contracts.

His first round of interviews could include proven veterans such as Brian Cashman, Kevin Towers and Gerry Hunsicker. Not to mention past GMs John Hart and Randy Smith. There will also be a bevy of potential first-timers, assistants such as David Forst of the A's, Al Avila of the Tigers, Kim Ng of the Dodgers and Tony LaCava of the Blue Jays.

Cashman has yet to confirm he's headed back to the New York Yankees next season, and sources say he'd be the leading candidate here because of his successes and experience at handling a higher payroll. On the Yankees' most recent road trip to Seattle this month, Cashman also took the unusual step — for him — of accompanying the team.

Armstrong said he plans to interview 10 to 15 candidates in the first go-round, then whittle his list down to fewer than 10.

All candidates will be asked a standard set of questions by Armstrong and Lincoln. They will include issues currently facing the club, something that wasn't done five years ago when general conversations with candidates carried on for hours and some key discussion points were overlooked.

"It was more informal last time," Lincoln said. "So this time, I wanted, and Chuck wanted, to make sure we're in agreement with attributes, skill level and all that kind of stuff. But also that the interview itself didn't drive this thing. That every interview candidate will be asked essentially the same questions and the same areas will be covered."

Armstrong insists he isn't wedded to any one style and that a heavier use of statistical analysis will not necessarily be required. He points out that Bavasi convinced Lincoln and him to sign pitcher Carlos Silva and trade for pitcher Erik Bedard by using analyses by Mariners statistical adviser Mat Olkin to show what the moves would mean in wins and losses.

"If it had proven to be accurate, we would not be in last place," Armstrong said. "We would at least be in second place."

Lincoln said that, ultimately, a GM can't be judged on a handful of moves, but on a body of work over time.

Riggleman said he isn't sure he has been able to show fans much of a body of work in his three months as manager. Other than the fact that his players will keep going hard.

"I think our players have played hard, considering where we are," Riggleman said. "And for me, it doesn't go unnoticed. I notice [Adrian] Beltre and [Raul] Ibanez — two of our best guys — and Ichiro. Ichiro is going to end up, knock on wood, playing 162 games. Ibanez may play 162. Beltre [was] playing with pain. But these guys hit a fly ball, they get after it. We know they're going to be out. But they round the base, they're looking for second base, it's an out, but they come back in the dugout and I let them know, 'Hey, that's the way to run the ball out.' "

That might wind up as Riggleman's legacy.

He laid down the law from Day 1 by implementing daily pregame defensive workouts. The Mariners have since gone from possibly the worst defensive team in all of baseball to ranking slightly higher — though still not exceptional — in the most advanced metrics.

Riggleman also had Richie Sexson released when he did not like his "body language" after he'd sat out a game in early July. Sexson had left the dugout midgame and was later seen in the bullpen chatting with pitchers.

But the Sexson release came with a price tag.

The first baseman was highly popular among most in the clubhouse, despite an early-season incident with reliever Arthur Rhodes that nearly degenerated into a fistfight. Rhodes had called Sexson out for not taking enough early batting practice despite a prolonged hitting slump.

Despite that, Sexson remained a popular clubhouse figure.

Riggleman orchestrating Sexson's release produced a fair bit of grumbling among players. It grew louder when Jose Lopez was pulled out of a game against Tampa Bay for failing to hold on to a throw from catcher Jeff Clement during a stolen-base attempt.

Just hours earlier, in a loss the previous night, Riggleman had lectured the team about not letting up. That came a day after Silva had publicly questioned whether some teammates were more preoccupied with padding stats than doing what the team needed from them.

But the benching of Lopez did not go over well. Some players saw Lopez as a guy who had been going all-out for much of the year and then been benched for a single physical mistake.

They wondered aloud why Ichiro continued to play every day despite making his own fielding mistakes.

Another move by Riggleman, which might have cost him some clubhouse credibility, came when he dressed down reliever Sean Green in full view of television cameras during a mid-inning pitching change. Riggleman felt that Green had shown clearly his displeasure at being taken out and proceeded to tell him that he had to pitch better if he wanted to stay in.

But Green is not exactly known as a complainer.

Riggleman admitted later that he had likely erred in giving Green too much rest after the All-Star break. But his dressing down of Green was already done and not perceived well.

One player, watching it on a television replay in the clubhouse afterward, rolled his eyes and walked away shaking his head.

It was always going to be difficult for Riggleman to completely win over his clubhouse. After all, he was carrying an interim title with little chance of being kept on. After the Sexson dismissal, he began to lean more heavily on veterans such as Ibanez and Beltre for help.

The payback for that help became apparent once the team's September call-ups were announced, when Riggleman insisted he would not take playing time away from veterans who had been performing all season.

The actual reviews of Riggleman's performance have tended to be favorable. One former general manager, who continues to work in baseball, said Riggleman was exactly what these Mariners needed.

"If anyone can right that ship, he's the guy," he said. "He knows how to run a clubhouse."

Indeed, the next manager just might have to carry the same no-nonsense credentials. While rumors persist that former Mariner Joey Cora is management's choice, some say tough-talking Bobby Valentine makes far more sense.

Armstrong won't say which way they'd prefer to go from a discipline standpoint. He and Lincoln also won't tip their hands as to payroll, though they say that the ownership group will continue to fund operations as required. Still, payroll could drop from this year's $117.6 million because of contracts already shed.

Lincoln would rather wait until the new GM is hired before getting too specific.

"I don't want to tie the new general manager's hands and say, 'We've already told the media this or we've already told them that,' " Lincoln said. "I'd kind of like to hear first what the new general manager has to say."

So would Riggleman.

His experience at running a playoff-bound Chicago Cubs team in the late 1990s and the San Diego Padres before that has helped him. Like McLaren before him, he has had to navigate a minefield of clubhouse personalities and manage a team in turmoil.

But he arguably had far less to lose than McLaren.

"The problem with McLaren wasn't that he was too soft," said one Mariners player who preferred not to be named. "There just wasn't anything more he can do. The general can only do so much when he doesn't have the soldiers."

And those who support Riggleman would also argue that the lack of wins is more the fault of the soldiers than the general. It will be up to the incoming GM to make the needed moves right away to ensure the next manager — whether it's Riggleman or someone else — won't have to go through all that again.

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

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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