The Mariners, losers for six months this summer and seemingly the same through the frustrating weeks of autumn, in the past four days became winners.
The Mariners, losers for six months this summer and seemingly the same through the frustrating weeks of autumn, in the past four days became winners. Big winners.
How did December 2004 become their most exciting month since September 1995?
How did Seattle, in two fell swoops, become better, younger, stronger on offense, slicker on defense, tougher in the clubhouse?
How in the world did they land Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre?
“We were talking about that,” said Howard Lincoln, the CEO who saw the flip side of 116 wins last season, heard from frustrated fans on all sides, including focus groups of season-ticket holders, and ordered his baseball people to do something about it.
“In all honesty, we just feel fortunate.”
It took creativity and work by general manager Bill Bavasi and his staff. And guts.
“You might say Seattle went out on a limb,” an American League scout said. “Sexson is coming off a serious injury, Beltre has had only the one big year. But, you know what? For me, it’s a strong limb. I don’t think they have to worry. …
“They’re both great kids who’ll play their hearts out for you, play hurt, pick teammates up, play great defense. Wait until you see Beltre come in on a topped ball or a bunt. And assuming they’re right (healthy), they’ll hit a ton of homers. A ton, even in Safeco. You know the Budweiser beer wagon? Well, Seattle just got two of their Clydesdales.”
It took money, of course. Oodles.
It cost $114 million, about half of what Alex Rodriguez got four years before. They hope to get about twice the production, less the running game, though admittedly for about half as long as A-Rod’s megacontract.
It took timing.
“Timing can be a make-or-break thing,” said Scott Boras, the agent who brought Beltre to the Mariners as if making up for taking Rodriguez away. “What for one guy is not a good situation is perfect for another. For Adrian, who puts family first, Seattle was the place, with its community, its proximity to L.A. (wife Sandra’s home), and a great organization. That is what you mean when you talk about timing, fit.”
From the Seattle perspective, timing was less temporal and more fortune.
Bavasi’s original plan, developed in October with assistants Pat Gillick, Lee Pelekoudas, Bob Engle and Ken Compton, was to make improvements in run production and pitching.
While Carlos Delgado, with a booming left-handed bat, was still the top target, Seattle entered intense discussions with Nomar Garciaparra on a multiyear contract.
Like Seattle’s initial interest in Omar Vizquel, that went nowhere. So with Delgado apparently not budging, the Mariners tried to bring in pitching Jaret Wright, Jon Lieber, Odalis Perez.
“We worked on both areas and thought we had some things set up,” Bavasi said of the efforts to beef up the offense and pitching. “Then, as the winter meetings started, the market blew through the roof.”
Before the meetings in the second week in December, there were widespread whispers of a salary-slotting scheme set up by Major League Baseball. But that eroded when the Mets gave $7 million a year to pitcher Kris Benson, about $2 million more than anyone expected. Then Arizona single-handedly blew it away by giving $11 million per year to infielder Troy Glaus, coming off an injury to his throwing shoulder, and $8.25 million per year to pitcher Russ Ortiz.
Suddenly, if Seattle had a beer wagon, its wheels had fallen off.
“We made a decision: We would focus on offense,” Bavasi said. “We felt we had more pitching possibilities to draw from on our club, in our organization, than we had run producers. So that’s where we were going.”
Around Thanksgiving, The Seattle Times revealed that not only were Delgado and Sexson being wooed, but the Mariners were trying to sign both, with Sexson reluctantly agreeing to go back to left field for his old manager, Mike Hargrove.
Seattle went after starting pitcher Carl Pavano, too, and nearly got him for about $8 million to $10 million per year.
“They told us that if we could move Seattle east of the Mississippi, it would have been perfect for them,” Bavasi said of Pavano and Delgado.
So, with the ball falling through one slot after another, Delgado an enigma and others signing elsewhere, the Mariners intensified their bids for Sexson and Beltre.
Fortune came in the form of the players’ strong desire to stay west, far west, and the fact that few of the game’s richest teams needed a first baseman or third baseman.
Sexson, who tried to play through a shoulder injury last year, never hid his dream to play at home in the Northwest.
And Beltre, who once tried to play through peritonitis and played with bone chips in his ankle last year, wanted some place livable for his family.
Raul Ibanez saw it as sunrise in Seattle.
“Last year was like a dark cloud for all of us, the team, the fans, the city,” he said from Florida. “I see a change in the weather.”
To Eddie Guardado, it was the character of the additions that matter most.
“You know they have talent, lots of it,” said the reliever, who feels strong rehabilitating his shoulder three times a week at home in California. “But even though you don’t know them well, you get a feel from them, from guys you know who know them, from just chatting with them on the field before games. It all starts in the clubhouse, with the chemistry, and these guys are going to help us there as well as on the field.”
Jamie Moyer’s immediate reaction was more muted.
“I’m like everyone else, excited,” he said. “You have to be when you go out and get guys like this who can help you in lots of ways. But to me it’s a great start. I hate to be the one to look at the glass half empty, but what about shortstop, what about pitching?”
Seattle apparently is committed to a season with Jose Lopez at shortstop, but pitching is still on the wish list.
While some Mariners executives believe there is no more to spend, Bavasi’s take is that money is limited.
The deals for Sexson and Beltre were back-loaded to fit into the $95 million payroll budget. Thus, it is debatable how much is left for pitching beyond left-hander Ron Villone, who is expected to stay in Seattle by agreeing to salary arbitration today.
Boras said of Villone, “We’re working hard to get something done, and I expect we’ll get it done. We worked hard to get Ron to Seattle last year, so it’s not likely we’re going to have him leave where he really wants to play.”
It is unlikely that Boras will make the Mariners a deal on Kevin Millwood, one of the top starters still available along with Perez and lefty Eric Milton.
Most likely, Seattle will try to get lucky again, starting tomorrow when it sees which pitchers have become nontendered free agents after not being offered contracts by their current clubs.
“We’ll check the nontenders,” Bavasi said. “I’d like to do something, we’ll just have to wait and see who’s out there.”
If the Mariners pick up another starter, one plan could be to have Ryan Franklin shift to the bullpen. Franklin’s contract is written with that possibility in mind.
“Seattle needs pitching,” a scout said. “But they needed a ton of stuff and they’ve done a good job of getting a lot done. Even if they don’t get all the pitching they need, they may have some.”
Despite concerns about the rotation and bullpen, Seattle officials can relieve stress by writing down lineup permutations, as if Sexson and Beltre are two new bishops on the chessboard.
“We did spend some time at the meetings, putting down what it might look like,” Bavasi said.
There seem to be only two locks Ichiro leading off and Sexson hitting cleanup. Bret Boone and Beltre will be third and fifth or fifth and third. The second slot will be Randy Winn, unless he is traded for pitching.
“Anything can happen, and we’ve been talking right along about deals,” Bavasi said. “But we have Randy Winn in left, Raul Ibanez as DH.”
Having three right-handed hitters in a row isn’t as risky as it appears because Beltre hit right-handed pitching for a .347 average last year, with 42 of his 48 homers and 104 of his 121 RBI.
“You know, the way it shapes up, it almost doesn’t matter,” Boone said. “We went out and got us some thunder. We’re going to have some fun this summer.”
Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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