By LARRY LaRUE
The News Tribune
The News Tribune
DALLAS – The loss of Alex Rodriguez to free agency and to a team in their own division was tough enough news for the Seattle Mariners on Monday, but it turned out to be more a lethal combination than a haymaker.
Not only did A-Rod’s decision to accept the Texas Rangers’ 10-year, $252 million contract leave the Mariners with a void in their infield and their lineup, it came 24 hours too late for Seattle to get the man they had hoped would be their ‘Plan B.’
“We were close to a deal with Alex Gonzalez (Sunday),” general manager Pat Gillick said. “The problem was we told him if we re-signed Alex, he’d have to change positions, and he knew if he went back to Toronto he’d stay at shortstop.
“If we knew then what we know now, it would have been a different situation. I think we’d have signed him.”
Instead, Gonzalez signed a four-year contract Sunday night with the Blue Jays – and on Monday morning agent Scott Boras telephoned Gillick to say the Mariners had lost the A-Rod Derby.
With free agent Gonzalez gone, the Mariners’ fallback position became a mad scramble in the front office as the 2000 winter meetings came to an end. The question now isn’t just who plays shortstop, but how the Mariners cope with the loss of Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Rodriguez in just three years.
“You need two bats in your lineup to replace the 40 home runs Alex gave us,” Gillick said. “And you might not get those home runs with two bats. We need power, we need production in our lineup.”
Which means none of the free agent shortstops still available hold much interest to the Mariners.
Not Mike Bordick.
Not Walt Weiss.
Not Kevin Stocker.
And not Royce Clayton, who until Monday was the Texas shortstop.
“Right now, our shortstop is Carlos Guillen,” assistant GM Lee Pelekoudas said. “If we can do better, we’ll try. If not, we’ll probably look for an experienced middle infielder who can back Carlos up.”
For manager Lou Piniella, whose 2001 team has a superb bullpen and a strong starting rotation, offense is suddenly a problem.
“You take A-Rod out of that lineup, it lets a team pitch around Edgar (Martinez) in any tough situation and go after (John) Olerud,” one American League West manager said. “Right now, you’ve got one .300 hitter in that lineup. One 30-home run guy in that lineup. And they’re both the same guy – Edgar.”
What the Mariners started looking for on Monday morning was one of the toughest commodities to find in baseball, an infielder or catcher capable of providing power and production.
And, oh yes, he has to be available.
Toward that end, the Mariners met with the Boston Red Sox and New York Mets, among others, but will leave Texas today without making any deal.
The most productive bats on the free agent market belonged to players like former MVP Juan Gonzalez and ex-Mariner David Segui, and both play positions the Mariners have filled.
Want to push a deal for Kansas City’s Johnny Damon? Where does he play? With Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Cameron, Jay Buhner, Al Martin and Stan Javier on the roster, Seattle has more outfielders than at-bats for them now, and has no team with interest in Martin.
“What we’re looking for are infield bats, productive infield bats,” Gillick said.
What’s out there?
Teams aren’t likely to part with young third basemen like Troy Glaus, and the Mariners aren’t too intrigued with aging vets like Matt Williams. And on the free agent market, only second baseman Bret Boone is remotely intriguing, and his all-or-nothing approach at the plate drove Piniella crazy in ‘93.
When the Mariners talked to the Red Sox, Boston wanted pitching – Brett Tomko and Jamie Moyer were mentioned – and Seattle asked about rookie third baseman Wilton Veras and all-purpose infielder Chris Stynes.
With the Mets, the conversation centered around infielders, too, including ex-Mariner Desi Relaford.
If Seattle can upgrade anywhere in the infield except first base, it will. If the season opened today, that infield would be Olerud at first, Mark McLemore at second, David Bell at third and Guillen at short.
Put those four in a lineup that would probably include catcher Dan Wilson, and there’s not much offense – only Olerud hit as high as .285 and three of the other four hit less than .250.
The Mariners don’t think that dog will hunt.
Any help the minor league system can supply appears years away, both at catcher (Ryan Christianson) and in the infield (Willie Bloomquist, Antonio Perez). For the moment, no Mariners minor league position player will come to spring training with the expectation of winning a job.
It is an odd situation for the Mariners, who came within two victories of going to the World Series in October. They have solid pitching, have added a potential leadoff hitter in Suzuki and improved their bullpen with Jeff Nelson.
Yet the loss of one player – A-Rod – has left the team vulnerable in the competitive AL West.
“We’ll get something done,” Gillick promised late Monday night. “It would have been easier if all this had happened one day earlier, but it didn’t. So we start working again.”
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