SEATTLE – Now that it’s certain Edgar Martinez will anchor the Seattle Mariners’ batting order for another year, a big question now envelops a team that has its hitting issues.
Are there still too many anchors in a lineup that depends on speed to score runs?
Martinez’s return to the Mariners eliminates the uncertainty over the designated hitter position, but it also does nothing to bring speed to a lineup that often bogged down last season.
“Now we know where to go,” manager Bob Melvin said. “There aren’t wholesale things we’d like to do, but this was definitely a big first step.”
Baseball’s shopping season begins Monday, when teams can begin signing any free agent, and Mariners assistant general manager Lee Pelekoudas said the obvious priority is to improve the offense.
“In what areas remains to be seen,” Pelekoudas said.
Before the Mariners can address their lineup, of course, they must hire a replacement for outgoing general manager Pat Gillick. That process is in its final days.
Whoever gets the job will have plenty of work even after this week’s signing of Martinez.
With a third of the lineup occupied by below-average runners – Martinez, first baseman John Olerud and catcher Dan Wilson or Ben Davis – Pelekoudas acknowledged that speed and athleticism are important ingredients to consider along with power.
“It doesn’t have to be one guy, though,” he said. “It can come in different areas. I don’t know how many guys are out there who can run and hit for power all in one package.”
Expos free agent outfielder Vladimir Guerrero is one, but he’s expected to be a hot and well-paid commodity in the offseason.
It seems obvious the Mariners need to become more athletic and guard against the late-season offensive falloff that has cost them the division title the last two years. The Mariners finished seventh this year in the American League in runs and RBI, but in September they ranked 11th in runs and 12th in RBI.
Melvin has a stock answer for those who question the Mariners’ speed deficiency.
“We were fourth in the league in stolen bases last year,” he said.
The Mariners did it mostly with Ichiro Suzuki, Mike Cameron and Randy Winn, who combined for 74 of the team’s 108 steals.
Cameron may leave via free agency, increasing the need for a swift replacement, preferably one with power who can play left field. That would allow the Mariners to move Winn to center field.
Another speed option is Japanese free agent shortstop Kazuo Matsui, who Ichiro Suzuki once said is faster than he is. Acquiring Matsui, who hit 33 homers last year, probably would compel the Mariners to deal troubled third baseman Jeff Cirillo and move shortstop Carlos Guillen to third.
Often last season, especially in the final two months when Suzuki struggled to reach base and Cameron battled strikeout problems, the Mariners were limited to a station-to-station approach when running the bases. There were times after Martinez or Olerud reached first base when it would take three singles to get them home.
“There are teams that have average runners, plus runners and below-average runners,” Melvin said. “It is what it is. We’ll run when there’s the opportunity. (Martinez and Olerud) are not our best runners, but they put the ball in play and they hit behind runners.”
The Mariners also must be careful to maintain the defensive excellence that allowed them to remain competitive amid their offensive problems.
“If I played on the best defensive team I’ve ever seen this year, there’s a good chance it’s not going to be as good next year,” said second baseman Bret Boone, one of four Mariners to win a Gold Glove in 2003. “But is it worth giving up a little bit of defense if we add X? It depends on who X is.”
Boone says losing Cameron to free agency would be a big blow defensively.
“I don’t think the evidence is overwhelming that he’s going to be back,” Boone said. “You’re pretty spoiled with Mike roaming center field with the job that he does. You’re going to see a little bit of a dropoff no matter who you put there.”
The bottom line is that the Mariners will soon enter the season of wheeling and dealing. Free agents can be signed Monday, which is the first day of baseball’s general manager meetings in Phoenix.
“I think the Mariners are going to go out and make a deal, and make a deal for someone who’s going to make a huge impact to our lineup,” Boone said. “Right now, we’ve got the first guy in. We got Edgar signed, and that’s very important.”