M’s hand the keys to the kids

  • By Kirby Arnold / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, July 13, 2006 9:00pm
  • Sports

SEATTLE – The Adam Jones era begins today. When do playoff tickets go on sale?

OK, so Jones isn’t the answer to what it will take for the Mariners to make a second-half surge to win a very winnable American League West Division. But he could become a part of the solution, in an almost six-degrees-of-separation sort of way.

Jones, who was deemed not ready for the major leagues 11 days ago when the Mariners called up Shin-Soo Choo to play center field, became a needed commodity after Choo looked anything but comfortable last week at Safeco Field.

Today, when the Mariners begin a brutal stretch of games in what could become the most important part of their schedule, Jones will be in center field at Toronto and Choo back at Class AAA Tacoma.

The Mariners will add Jones, 20, and left-handed-hitting infielder/outfielder Greg Dobbs to the roster today, replacing Choo and catcher Luis Oliveros, who were shipped out Thursday.

The Mariners must drop one player off the 40-man roster today, and they’re expected to release a minor-league pitcher, possibly right-hander Jeff Harris.

Jones, a converted shortstop who only began playing center field in the Arizona Fall League last year, may take a while to settle in center, especially on the vast green grass of Safeco Field. However, he’s a gifted athlete who scouts say will adapt quickly.

The latest moves make the Mariners an even younger team going into the final 2 months of the season. Youth was their blessing with the stellar play of Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt, but also their curse in an inconsistent first half. The Mariners go into today’s game at Toronto last in the AL West, but only 2-games behind first-place Oakland and Texas.

“Overall it has been a positive experience for us all,” manager Mike Hargrove said. “We’ve been able to get some young kids at-bats and experience, and we had one of them (Lopez) become an All-Star.”

Then Hargrove issued a warning.

“This is still a developing club,” he said. “We’ve got some young kids we’re trying to bring along and develop. And in the same breath we’re trying to win baseball games and stay in the pennant race.

“The thing that probably bothers me more than anything is that we’ve been a little streaky. You would hope that as the ballclub gains experience and learns how to win, that we’ll become a little less streaky.”

The addition of both Jones and Dobbs puts Hargrove in a much better position to use the entire roster.

With Jones as an everyday center fielder (they wouldn’t bring him up to sit the bench) until injured Jeremy Reed returns around Sept. 1, it allows Willie Bloomquist to slide back to the utility role that he plays so well.

Dobbs can play first base, third base and left field, and his left-handed bat makes him useful not only off the bench but in a DH role if the Mariners ever grow completely tired of Carl Everett.

The key, of course, is for Hargrove to use his bench.

That hardly happened with Roberto Petagine and Eduardo Perez after the Mariners acquired him from the Indians on June 30. In Hargrove’s defense, the lack of flexibility on the bench kept him from making too many late-inning moves.

Petagine, who got only 27 at-bats, is considered a three-move player whose lack of defensive skill kept Hargrove from using him in the field after he’d pinch-hit.

Hargrove had opportunities to use Perez in late-inning at-bats against left-handed pitching, but with Bloomquist in center field and nobody else on the bench versatile enough to play multiple positions, Perez didn’t lift a bat.

So the Mariners are better off now, which guarantees a division title?

Not without the staples of their game – pitching, defense and hitting – achieving a consistency that was missing before the All-Star break.

The 4.45 team ERA was mid-pack in the American League, but the .988 team fielding percentage was second only to Boston’s .991.

Offensively, the Mariners have hardly changed despite efforts the past two offseasons to increase run production. They’re 10th in the league with 394 RBI, 11th with 91 home runs and 10th with a .267 team average.

Raul Ibanez has been the only impact hitter in the middle of the order, hitting .285 and on his way to career highs with 20 home runs and 70 RBI. Jose Lopez, having altered his swing for his first full season, has nine homers and an impressive 58 RBI. And Ichiro Suzuki has been a sparkplug at the top of the order with a .343 average, .398 on-base percentage and 27 steals.

The disappointments?

Start with Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, simply because the Mariners are paying them far too much money to have such little impact on the offense.

Sexson has 16 homers and 59 RBI, but with 92 strikeouts he’s on pace for a career-high.

Anyone who believed Beltre could approach his monster numbers of two years ago with the Dodgers (48 homers, 121 RBI) has readjusted that thinking. Where a .280 average and 30 homers would be acceptable, Beltre will have to press hard to reach even those. He’s hitting .253 with seven homers and 35 RBI, and that happened only because of a recent surge after Hargrove moved him to No. 2 in the batting order.

Today’s game at Toronto begins a stretch of 12 straight against the American League East, including six on the road against the Blue Jays and Yankees.

If the Mariners can get through that and remain within 2 of the AL West lead, they just might make a run at the thing.

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