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Originally published August 22, 2010 at 10:01 PM | Page modified August 23, 2010 at 6:41 AM

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M's struggle while in an uncomfortable spot of trying to contend and rebuild

They are again stuck with unproductive veterans, on pace to lose close to 100 games under their sixth manager since Lou Piniella left, and facing more rebuilding after another failed effort to contend.

Seattle Times staff reporter

What the future holds

General manager Jack Zduriencik will pin his hopes on Justin Smoak at first base, Dustin Ackley at second and other youngsters like Michael Pineda, Mauricio Robles, now in Class AAA and AA. With a little luck, the team could be taken seriously again by 2012.

Geoff Baker

5 factors that played a role

Success of the Angels

1. Until 2002, the Angels had been a minor irritant since their epic collapse in 1995. Then the Disney-owned Angels won the 2002 World Series and were sold the following year to deep-pocketed owner Arte Moreno. The Angels have become a perennial contender, and Seattle has finished as high as second just once since 2003.

Keeping Bavasi, McLaren

2. CEO Howard Lincoln's decision not to fire GM Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren in 2007 after the team's collapse in an 88-win season likely cost the Mariners at least a year of rebuilding. In a last-ditch bid to keep his job, Bavasi traded five prospects — including Adam Jones and Chris Tillman — for pitcher Erik Bedard. He also signed Carlos Silva for four years and $48 million. Bavasi and McLaren were fired in June 2008.

Ichiro's payday

3. Ichiro signed a five-year, $90 million extension in 2007. Seattle increased payroll to $118 million in 2008, but have taken it down yearly since. Ichiro now earns about a quarter of the on-field payroll in a lineup that lacks hitters to drive him in. Ichiro and Chone Figgins earn $27 million of the M's $93.5 million opening-day payroll in 2010.

Poor free-agent signings

4. The Mariners have spent tens of millions on free agents ill-suited to Safeco Field or the team around them. They brought in ground-ball pitcher Carlos Silva, who was backed by poor defense up the middle. Contact pitcher Jarrod Washburn was a disaster until the team put better fielders behind him. Seattle signed right-handed bats Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre while bypassing left-handed Carlos Delgado in 2004.

Keeping vets too long

5. An inability to recognize when veteran players are done despite warning signs has been crippling. Bringing back Ken Griffey Jr. in 2010 had dire consequences. In 2004, Edgar Martinez, John Olerud and Bret Boone saw their careers plummet. Richie Sexson, Jose Vidro and Brad Wilkerson were slotted to play key roles only to see their careers end. Kenji Johjima was given a three-year extension the same year his career bottomed out.

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The Mariners once again seem caught in no man's land between contending and rebuilding.

They are again stuck with unproductive veterans, on pace to lose close to 100 games under their sixth manager since Lou Piniella left, and facing more rebuilding after another failed effort to contend.

It's a familiar pattern, one that began in 2004. The Mariners, just three years after their record-setting 116-win season in 2001, tested Father Time once too often.

They entered 2004 with new general manager Bill Bavasi and second-year manager Bob Melvin, but the oldest roster in franchise history. Averaging 31.5 years of age, not one of the starting nine was under 30, four were 35 and older and the glue holding it together, designated hitter Edgar Martinez, was 41.

In the end, what could have been a rebuilding year, after two near playoff misses, collapsed in a heap.

The Mariners lost 99 games, hanging on too long to Bret Boone, John Olerud, Dan Wilson and even Martinez, whose numbers paled in comparison with previous seasons. Seattle also relied on 30-something free agents Scott Spiezio and Rich Aurilia, right-handed hitters ill-suited for Safeco Field.

The trend has repeated itself since, with the Mariners going with the wrong players each time.

"When I entered the season — I think all of you in this room will testify to this — I thought we had an awful lot of opportunity to be very competitive," Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik said following the firing of manager Don Wakamatsu. "There were a lot of high expectations. There were a lot of people that thought this was going to be a terrific club.

"I still had my doubts. I thought there were some things that needed to happen. Things needed to go our way, and unfortunately we've had a disappointing season."

Zduriencik insists the team is not back to "square zero" and that there are key players in place and a farm system he continues to restock. But there are common traits from the past seven seasons — managerial uncertainty, too much faith in declining players, bad investments, and trying to contend and rebuild simultaneously — that is book ended by well-hyped Mariners teams losing 99 games in 2004 to almost identical results in 2010.

Zduriencik traded former No. 1 draft pick Brandon Morrow in the offseason for a relief pitcher, Brandon League, with only two seasons of club control left. Such moves, where returns are short-term, usually aren't made by rebuilding teams.

The Mariners also appeared to be "going for it" when they traded three prospects to Philadelphia in December for Cliff Lee. The team acquired arguably better prospects in July — including first baseman Justin Smoak — by flipping Lee to Texas, but that seems more like a fallback plan than the goal all along.

Another season has dragged by while the Mariners used up one of the years in which they have franchise cornerstones Felix Hernandez and Franklin Gutierrez under control following contract extensions.

The Mariners continued their post-2003 trend of relying too heavily on veterans past their prime, or with red flags.

They made Ken Griffey Jr. their designated hitter at age 40, coming off a .214-hitting season, then added fading Eric Byrnes, 34, only to see both retire. Jack Wilson, 32, got a two-year, $10 million extension after injuries and batting woes — trends that plagued him again this year. A trade for Milton Bradley, 32, whose anger and emotional issues were well documented, blew up in May when he was placed on the restricted list to seek professional counseling. Numerous scouts had expressed concerns about Bradley's swing before he struggled to hit above .200.

Chone Figgins, 32, got a four-year, $36 million deal, but struggled adapting to Safeco Field, second base and at No. 2 in the batting order.

It seems eerily similar to moves by Bavasi.

In 2004, the big free-agent busts were Spiezio, 31, and Aurilia, 32, right-handed hitters who never felt comfortable at lefty-friendly Safeco Field. The Mariners then bypassed left-handed-hitting free agent Carlos Delgado in 2005 and signed right-handed hitters Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre.

Sexson had a big 2005, a so-so 2006 in which he piled on big stats late in the season, dropped off in 2007 and was out of baseball by 2008. Beltre never fully found his stroke in Seattle, but this season in Boston, has put up his biggest numbers since 2004.

Bavasi also signed contact-pitcher Jarrod Washburn after 2005 for four years, $37 million, despite lacking a defense to run balls down. Washburn struggled until his final contract year.

With each failure, the team compounded mistakes. There were young players in the system, but the Mariners dealt them away in what, in hindsight, were overly optimistic bids to contend.

Instead of rebuilding after 2004, the Mariners loaded up with Sexson, Beltre and Washburn and decided to go for it by 2006. Two games over .500 on July 1 and a game behind in a weak American League West, Bavasi dealt infield prospect Asdrubal Cabrera for veteran Eduardo Perez.

Then, on July 26, with Seattle four games under .500 but still only three games out of first, right fielder Shin-Soo Choo was traded for Ben Broussard.

Within weeks, the Mariners lost 11 straight. Perez retired, while Broussard was traded a year later. Choo became a star right fielder; Cabrera, an everyday shortstop.

Bavasi continued to make ill-fated deals in hopes of contending in 2007. He dealt prospects and took on big money to miscast Jose Vidro as a DH, then traded future closer Rafael Soriano for overmatched starting pitcher Horacio Ramirez.

The Mariners stayed in contention until early September, but many felt they had overachieved. They fell out of it by losing 15 of 17.

Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln had put Bavasi on his "hot seat" one year earlier and now had an opportunity to jettison the GM and manager John McLaren, who'd failed to rally the team.

But the club did win 88 games that year. In a pivotal decision for Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong, they didn't pull the trigger.

"Bill (Bavasi) has produced a winning season," Lincoln said at the time. "That was the first challenge. He didn't get us to the playoffs, but I think he deserves to continue on as the general manager. It's so disruptive to an organization to change general managers.

"I don't like to change horses in midstream ... I think the decision to remain with Bill and John (McLaren) will turn out to be the right decision."

Nine months later, Bavasi and McLaren were fired.

The consequences are still being felt, not only from the delay in rebuilding but Bavasi's moves following that stay of execution. He traded top prospects Adam Jones, Chris Tillman and three others to Baltimore for pitcher Erik Bedard, just after giving free-agent pitcher Carlos Silva a four-year deal worth $48 million.

Bavasi also brought in Brad Wilkerson to play right field, left a fading Sexson at first base and Vidro at DH. As the 2008 season began, the team gave an inexplicable three-year, $24 million extension to Kenji Johjima.

It all imploded in a 101-loss season.

Sexson, Wilkerson and Vidro saw their careers end. Bedard hurt his arm, Silva fell apart and Johjima had his worst season.

Silva became so unpopular with fans that Zduriencik, hired after the 2008 collapse, traded him to Chicago for Bradley. Bradley was a huge distraction early, didn't hit and finally had minor knee surgery that likely ended his season. He's under contract one more year at $12 million.

The addition of Zduriencik did see the Mariners adopt a more defensive-oriented team, focus on left-handed bats and switch-hitters where possible and bolster the farm system. Seattle won 85 games in 2009 under new manager Wakamatsu and began rebuilding with Gutierrez in center and closer David Aardsma in a lights-out bullpen.

But then came the offseason, when the Mariners, emboldened by success, made a flurry of December moves. The club also slashed opening-day payroll from $99 million to $93.5 million, and was unable to secure bigger bats for a power-deprived offense.

That offense triggered the 2010 collapse and could score the fewest runs in franchise history.

The budget cuts also mean Ichiro now earns nearly a fifth of team payroll through a contract paying $18 million annually through 2012.

In 2007, when Ichiro received his five-year extension, he took up 12 percent of a $106 million payroll. Now, with a lower payroll, Ichiro takes up 19 percent.

Alex Rodriguez accounts for 15 percent of the $213 million New York Yankees payroll. Ryan Howard takes up 14 percent of the $138 million Philadelphia Phillies budget. Matt Holliday eats up 18 percent of the $94 million St. Louis Cardinals payroll. The only big slugger taking up as much as Ichiro is Manny Ramirez, at nearly 20 percent of the Dodgers' reduced $102 million budget.

Ichiro, a speedy, singles-hitting leadoff hitter, is paid like one of baseball's biggest power hitters, and the Mariners lack bats to drive him in.

And with Figgins paid $9 million annually for similar leadoff skills, he and Ichiro earn a combined 29 percent of team payroll.

Twins sluggers Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau take up 27 percent of payroll. Phillies stars Howard and Chase Utley take up 24 percent. Yankees hitters A-Rod and Mark Teixeira account for 25 percent.

Zduriencik must figure out how his two, payroll-eating veterans will fit on a 2011 team likely destined for growing pains if it goes with Smoak at first base, Dustin Ackley at second, Adam Moore behind the plate and Michael Saunders in left field.

Those young players will save money and bring added payroll flexibility. But big raises are also due Hernandez and Gutierrez.

Balancing the future and present will again put the Mariners to the test. Zduriencik, Armstrong and Lincoln must prove to weary fans — a decade since the team's last playoff appearance — that recent history isn't about to repeat itself.

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

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