Hargrove excited, optimistic for 2007

Offseason moves have Hargrove optimistic

SEATTLE -- Seattle manager Mike Hargrove has sat through plenty of Spring Training luncheons in a managerial career that has spanned 15 seasons with three different teams.

The routine is typically the same: You say some nice things about the upcoming season, field a few questions from reporters and move on to the lunch segment of the afternoon.

Only Hargrove didn't quite follow the typical script during the Mariners' recent luncheon at Safeco Field. Instead, he openly gushed about his excitement for the upcoming season.

And that, he said, isn't really like him.

"I don't say that lightly," Hargrove said. "I'm more excited going into this spring than I've ever been. In my heart I believe we have a chance to [win the division]."

Hargrove enters the third and final year of his contract with a 147-176 record in Seattle. Management showed faith in Hargrove by retaining him after the team enjoyed a nine-game improvement from the miserable 92-loss season in 2005.

Part of Hargrove's optimism has to do with the maturation of young players Jose Lopez, Felix Hernandez and Yuniesky Betancourt, three players who improved dramatically in 2006.

Lopez, the second baseman, made the All-Star team in his first full Major League season. Hernandez won 12 games in his first full season and, in the second half, looked like the staff ace Seattle thinks he'll become. Betancourt not only showed Gold Glove potential at shortstop but flirted with a .300 batting average.

All signs for optimism.

But what really had Hargrove energized were the moves the front office made during the offseason. No, the team didn't strike free-agent gold as two of their top targets -- pitchers Barry Zito and Jason Schmidt -- signed elsewhere, but Hargrove likes the improvements to the roster that Seattle did make.

"Very rarely do we get a chance to take something that hasn't been working and make it work," Hargrove said. "We have a chance to finally start seeing the end result of a lot of hard work here the last two or three years."

Seattle essentially revamped its roster with major changes to the starting rotation, bullpen and its lineup. There could be as many as seven new players on the Opening Day roster.

The Mariners signed free-agent outfielder Jose Guillen to a one-year contract. He could give the team yet another power bat as well as another power arm in the outfield to keep baserunners honest.

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Seattle also traded for switch-hitting veteran Jose Vidro to give it more production at designated hitter. Last season, the trio of Carl Everett, Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard couldn't provide enough offensive charge to help the lineup.

Seattle actually ranked last in the league among designated hitters in slugging percentage (.358), on-base percentage (.298) and runs (65), and next-to-last in average (.233), doubles (21) and RBIs (65).

Most of the major changes came with the pitching staff, as the Mariners added three new starting pitchers -- Miguel Batista, Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver -- to the rotation to take the place of departed starters Gil Meche and Joel Pineiro.

Hargrove has raved about how, specifically, Batista and Weaver give Seattle something it didn't have much of in 2006: innings eaters -- pitchers who can work deep into games and give the bullpen more of a breather than Meche and Pineiro ever could.

Seattle's signing of Weaver last week to a one-year contract worth $8.325 million was a move that ended the Jake Woods versus Cha Seung Baek debate as to who would be the fifth starter. Not a bad pickup for a guy who helped St. Louis to a World Series title with a sterling postseason performance.

"Being able to add one more guy, who could end up at the top of the rotation, makes it a thicker rotation and allows us to move those guys back a step and add some depth," said Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi. "This helps us in so many ways, it helps our bullpen. The upgrade in the rotation, I hope, is obvious. This is a huge upgrade for us at a time when we needed the huge upgrade."

Despite losing setup man Rafael Soriano to the Braves in the deal that landed Ramirez, the Mariners feel Chris Reitsma -- who opened 2006 as the Braves' closer -- can get J.J. Putz (36 saves in 2006) the ball and the lead in the ninth inning. Left-hander Arthur Rhodes, who enjoyed some of his best seasons with Seattle, is expected to make the team as a late-inning, left-handed specialist.

These are the reasons why Hargrove is hopeful for 2007 and so anxious to get started.

"You can say all you want that Hargrove is full of it," Hargrove said. "But in my heart, I don't believe that. I believe we have a chance to do some really good things this year and I'm excited. I'm really, honestly, excited to get to work. I don't know of a spring that I've felt this way in the 15 years that I've been in the big leagues."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.