How many players from this season’s team will return to M’s?
Inside the Clubhouse
SEATTLE — The Seattle Mariners enter an offseason when they stand to lose more than Alex Rodriguez and Lou Piniella.
Those two, Rodriguez the free-agent shortstop and Piniella the manager whose contract is done, are the highest-profile uncertainties on a team that much different look next season than people might expect.
Almost everywhere you turn, there’s no assurance that the starters in 2000 will return in 2001.
Besides first baseman John Olerud, signed through 2002, and center fielder Mike Cameron, a star on the rise who would be one of the team’s offseason contract priorities, questions surround much of the lineup.
With a priority on beefing up the offense, will the Mariners bring back light-hitting infielders David Bell and Mark McLemore, whose contracts are up? What about aging outfielders Rickey Henderson, Jay Buhner, Stan Javier, who also are unsigned for 2001?
And what will they do behind the plate, where fan favorite Dan Wilson handles pitchers so well but struggles to hit?
Here’s a position-by-position examination of what worked, what didn’t and who could be on the hot seat. It might not reveal answers, but it could shed light on how general manager Pat Gillick may proceed in the coming weeks.
What worked: Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele, Jamie Moyer, John Halama and Paul Abbott combined for a 62-41 record in the regular season and got the Mariners to the playoffs. Those five gained valuable experience in the pressure of the postseason and form a solid core for next year.
Garcia, especially, seemed to mature in his final two postseason starts when he beat the Yankees. Look for him to be the opening-day starter next year.
With Gil Meche expected to recover from the shoulder problem that shut him down for the stretch drive, Brett Tomko hoping to make a run at the rotation and Ryan Anderson needing only a dose of maturity to reach the majors, there’s a lot of promise among the starters.
What didn’t work: Meche’s mysterious shoulder ailment was a big blow late in the season, when Piniella likes to throw power against hitters whose swings tend to slow down. Because of that, the rotation essentially consisted of Garcia and four finesse pitchers.
On the hot seat: The Mariners are so full of solid pitching, you’ve got to wonder if Gillick won’t turn loose of at least one of them to beef up other weaknesses on the team. Tomko, as well as he pitched in middle relief, is a starter at heart and could become trade material. His name certainly was kicked around before the trade deadline.
What worked: There wasn’t a better overall middle-setup-closer combination in baseball than Tomko, left-hander Arthur Rhodes, right-hander Jose Paniagua and right-hander Kazuhiro Sasaki. Even Jose Mesa bounced back to prove he’s a valuable piece of the bullpen when used in the right situations.
What didn’t work: David Justice’s three-run homer for the Yankees off Rhodes in Game 6 of the ALCS painfully drove home a weakness that the Mariners were able to mask most of the season: Rhodes can’t be the only go-to left-hander in the pen.
Yes, Rob Ramsay was there, but Piniella seemed reluctant to use him in dire situations. As a consequence, Rhodes appeared in 72 regular-season games, 19 more than ever before in his career. When he needed to reach back for a dominating fastball against Justice, it was nowhere near the 97 mph bullet he had thrown earlier in the season.
Look for the Mariners to pursue a veteran left-hander this offseason to shore up their middle relief.
On the hot seat: The Mariners can pick up an option for 2001 on Mesa, who made $3.95 million this year. Before they do it, though, it would be nice to know that Mesa will be effective every time he takes the mound and not just when there’s the incentive of a tight game.
What worked: Everything. The Mariners fielded one of baseball’s best defenses with John Olerud at first, Mark McLemore at second, Rodriguez at short and David Bell at third. Carlos Guillen, playing a full season without injury, also proved himself.
What didn’t work: The Mariners became vulnerable when Bell or McLemore needed a rest. It meant Guillen would play third and, while he improved with playing time, he often was caught on his heels. His 21 errors led the team.
On the hot seat: McLemore, a pleasant surprise at second with only eight errors and a ton of spectacular stops, has his age and his soft bat working against him. He’s not signed for next year, when he’ll be 37, and his .245 average this season isn’t a ringing endorsement for his return, especially on a team that must improve its hitting. McLemore drew 81 walks and stole 30 bases, two valuable elements the Mariners must consider.
What worked: Mike Cameron’s charisma with the fans and his spectacular play in center field made life after Ken Griffey Jr. a breeze. Jay Buhner returned from two injury-filled seasons to supply 26 home runs and 82 RBI in only 112 games, and Rickey Henderson and Stan Javier gave the M’s a couple of savvy veterans who weren’t intimidated by a tight division race.
What didn’t work: Age and injuries kept Piniella constantly rotating his outfield, especially on the corners. Buhner, Henderson and Javier each missed time with injuries, and Raul Ibanez saw little time as a starter because of his .229 batting average. Al Martin, brought here in a deadline-day trade, came with little in the way of a defensive reputation and he proved it with a weak arm and a shaky glove in left field.
On the hot seat: Everyone but Cameron. Buhner wants to come back, but the Mariners must decide if they’ll pick up his option. Henderson also has an option that the M’s may not renew and Javier’s contract is up.
Martin has another year left and his salary will balloon to $5 million in 2001. Unless the M’s find a trade partner willing to take on that money, Martin may be the starting left fielder with the hope that his poor hitting this year (.241) can be attributed to his unfamiliarity with American League pitching.
What worked: Joe Oliver became a saving grace after injuries to Tom Lampkin and Dan Wilson, and he supplied key hits late in the season and a veteran’s influence behind the plate.
What didn’t work: Wilson failed to hit (.235, 27 RBI), Lampkin’s elbow surgery wiped out a vital backup and Oliver, despite a heroic performance down the stretch as a 36-year-old, wore down in the postseason.
On the hot seat: All three of these guys. Lampkin is a free agent who will have to prove he’s healthy before the M’s will chance re-signing him. Wilson’s playing time diminished considerably as Piniella often turned to Oliver down the stretch.
What worked: The Mariners knew they needed to play small ball — with bunts, steals and hit-and-runs — to generate an offense without Griffey. It was a struggle, but they executed those elements well with a league-high 63 sacrifice bunts and three players (Cameron, Henderson and McLemore) who stole more than 20 bases each.
What didn’t work: Piniella ruffled their pine tar by saying he was doing it with mirrors, but he was right. Without Griffey and a powerful left-handed hitter to replace him, the Mariners were vulnerable. When Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez and Olerud didn’t hit — or when opposing teams simply pitched around them — the rest of the lineup wasn’t strong enough to take up the slack on a consistent basis.
The season-ending elbow surgery to Lampkin was one of the biggest blows of the season. He gave Piniella a legitimate left-handed power threat that the team never replaced after he went down.
On the hot seat: Some longtime fan favorites could be gone by next year. Wilson is signed through 2002 at $4 million per year, but the Mariners may be willing to eat that salary if they can work a deal that brings a better-hitting catcher. Buhner’s status also is uncertain, especially if the Mariners go after a heavy-hitting outfielder like Manny Ramirez in the free-agent sweepstakes.
Henderson, average in the outfield and at the plate, would seem to have played his last for the Mariners.
Although his contract is up, Javier would give the Mariners a versatile player worth re-signing. He can play all three outfield positions is a switch-hitter who can spray the ball to all fields.
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