Mariners expect to climb the ladder

Mariners expect to climb the ladder

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Just a few short seasons ago, Seattle was one of baseball's most successful franchises, breaking the American League record for the most regular-season wins in 2001. The Mariners' current roster doesn't suggest another 116-victory season, but it does indicate that strides in the right direction are being taken.

After being one of the best April-through-September teams in baseball over the first four years of the new millennium, the Mariners more recently have produced three straight last-place finishes. The only plus that you can find among all those fourth-place finishes was that their 2006 record (78-84) was nine games better than the previous season. Although the Mariners were not soaring in the standings, some improvement was being made.

Now, with the Mariners' chairman and chief executive officer, Howard Lincoln, declaring that manager Mike Hargrove and general manager Bill Bavasi are on the "hot seat" this season, what are the chances that improvement will be both rapid and notable?

One popular view of the 2007 Mariners was voiced recently by Ozzie Guillen, manager of the Chicago White Sox.

"This Seattle team, offensively, they're pretty scary," Guillen said. "They have a great offense. I don't know how their pitching is going to last, but their offense is pretty interesting."

One of the pitchers who might last for quite some time is Felix Hernandez, 20, who was anointed by Hargrove on Friday as Seattle's Opening Day starter. Hernandez may have as much potential as any young pitcher in the game. He had some growing pains in 2006, but his promise remains undimmed. Hernandez is an ace in the making, and it appears with the Opening Day assignment that the Mariners believe he can pitch consistently to his considerable potential sooner, rather than later.

There are pitching questions here, but the part of Guillen's comment about Seattle's offense does not seem disputable. The Mariners have the incomparable Ichiro Suzuki leading off and playing center. Ichiro may have been surpassed in publicity by the arrival of other Japanese stars in this hemisphere, he remains one of the best all-around players in the game.

The Mariners have power at the corner infield spots with Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. They have a highly reliable run producer in left field in Raul Ibanez. If Jose Guillen plays to his pre-2006 form, right field will be another source of run production.

Catcher Kenji Johjima hit well in his rookie big-league season. So did second baseman Jose Lopez, an All-Star reserve in his first full season. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt was also capable with the bat. Now the Mariners have added another proven professional hitter, Jose Vidro, as the designated hitter. Stop me before these people turn into the 1927 Yankees, but the Mariners should score runs in reasonably large quantities.

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On the other side of the issue, the Mariners have reasons for genuine encouragement. They have identified five legitimate starting pitchers, an achievement which has been beyond the range of some of the competition, even at this late Spring Training date. And some of these starters have worked extremely well this spring.

Jarrod Washburn, a solid veteran lefty, has a 1.98 ERA this spring. Another left-hander, Horacio Ramirez, obtained from the Atlanta Braves in the offseason for Rafael Soriano, has a 2.92 ERA. Miguel Batista is a proven veteran. Jeff Weaver has been erratic this spring, but the Mariners can hope that his career revival during the 2006 postseason with the St. Louis Cardinals was not a temporary phenomenon.

That brings us back to Hernandez, just out of his teens, who gets the Opening Day assignment, an assignment that in both symbolism and reality makes him the would-be ace of the staff.

"It means a lot to throw Opening Day," Hernandez said on Friday. "You're like a leader for the team. It's one of the greatest things in my life."

Hernandez got the word on the Opening Day assignment immediately after he finished his work against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim on Friday. He was the winning pitcher in the game, going six innings, giving up four earned runs on seven hits, striking out four and walking none. His response to Hargrove was to say, "Thank you." You like to see a young guy remaining polite even as honor is bestowed upon him.

In pondering the Opening Day starter decision, Hargrove said: "There were some questions I had to be sure of."

The issue, Hargrove said, was not whether the immensely talented Hernandez was physically ready for this challenge, but whether he was mentally ready. Hargrove determined that, 20 years old or not, Hernandez was ready.

On talent alone, the decision was easier.

"He has great stuff," Hargrove said. "He has better stuff than anybody we have on the pitching staff. He has better stuff than anybody we have in the organization. The kid has all the characteristics of a big-time winner. I think he's ready to take the next step."

Beyond the rotation, in the bullpen, the Mariners lost a valuable setup man, Soriano, in the trade for Ramirez. The Mariners hope that Chris Reitsma, coming off an injury-plagued season with Atlanta, can help. Closer J.J. Putz, who had a breakthrough season in '06, has been troubled by a mild elbow strain that has limited his exhibition work to one inning this spring. But Putz threw a bullpen session on Friday that Hargrove characterized as a very positive step. The manager remains confident that Putz will be healthy and available for the opening of the season.

To climb in the American League West, the Mariners would have to overcome two clubs with more established pitching, the Angels and the Athletics, and/or a team with plenty of run-scoring potential of its own, the Rangers. To get from here to there, the Mariners will have to score runs the way that they are supposed to score runs. And the pitching, to answer Guillen's concern, would have to "last" for 162 games.

And yes, they are going to ask Hernandez to be a No. 1 starter at age 20. That is a sure sign, not only of Hernandez's potential, but of the Mariners' desire to get back on track in a hurry.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.