Seattle Mariners 2004 Season Preview
By Robert Nishihara
To his credit, his formula worked well enough to bring a pair of World Series crowns to the Toronto Blue Jays in 1992-1993 and an AL-record tying 116 wins to the Mariners in 2001.
However, Gillick's steadfast formula, particularly his unwillingness to alter his team's roster at the trade deadline, has not worked out quite so well in the past two seasons. Seattle, despite great promise in the first half of each of those seasons, has finished out of the money in both 2002 and 2003. The fallout for such shortcomings has been considerable. Pat Gillick resigned, and former Anaheim GM Bill Bavasi was hired as his replacement.
So, what did Bill Bavasi inherit?
An aging but still dangerous club only a few seasons removed from 116 wins. Despite that seemingly optimistic outlook, change has happened quickly under Bavasi's watch.
Gone from the club are several significant names from the team's 2003 roster. Rangy centerfielder Mike Cameron took off for Shea Stadium, shortstop Carlos Guillen was traded to baseball purgatory, closer (and franchise saves leader) Kaz Sasaki left for Japan, longtime set-up man Arthur Rhodes left for division rival Oakland, and third baseman Jeff Cirillo was dealt to San Diego for whatever the team could get for him.
Thus, the 2004 Seattle Mariners will definitely have a different look.
New faces include former San Francisco shortstop Rich Aurilia, one-time World Series hero Scott Speizio, former Kansas City 1B/OF Raul Ibanez, and former Minnesota closer Eddie Guadardo.
Predictably, the biggest question this off-season in the Great Northwest is whether or not the Mariners will be better in 2004.
And the answer to that question is, surprisingly, "yes".
Perennial prospect Ben Davis is expected to assume full-time duties behind the plate. Davis, who was once considered the bluest chip in San Diego's farm system, has never really developed into the star catcher that he was long projected to be. In fact, 2003 represented one of his poorest offensive seasons to date. His .284 OBP and .384 SLG were very poor numbers, indeed. However, Seattle's 2003 starting catcher, Dan Wilson, fared even worse. Wilson slugged only .339 to go along with an equally unimpressive .272 OBP. Given that each catcher is adequate, if unspectacular, defensively, turning to Davis for full-time duty in 2004 is likely a better option than what the team had behind the dish in 2003. Also, Davis just turned 27 (Wilson is 35) and there is still some hope that it's not too late for him to reach some of his enormous early potential.
There was a time when you could pencil in a .300 average, 20-30 homers, and 90-100 RBI for John Olerud before the season started and know that his numbers were practically guaranteed to fall within that range by season's end. In 2003, however, the now-35-year old Olerud slipped, his offensive production taking a nosedive. He hit just 10 homers, slugged only .390, and drove in only 83 runs (his lowest total in 7 seasons). His .269 average was 28 points below his career mark and, likewise, his .372 OBP was 30 points off from his impressive career OBP of .402. Was 2003 merely an aberration on an otherwise remarkably consistent career or did it represent the end of John Olerud's reign as an effective hitter and run producer? Given his nearly identical (and far superior) numbers from 2001 and 2002, I'm inclined believe the former rather than the latter. While Olerud's numbers may well continue to decline from those he produced just a few seasons ago, there's every reason to believe that his numbers in 2004 will look a lot more like those from 2001 and 2002 than the ones he fell to last year.
Second baseman Bret Boone has established himself as one of the premier 2B in the AL. He has driven in over 100 runs in each of his three seasons in Seattle. In addition, he's averaged 32 homers and 106 runs scored a year over that same stretch. He's become a reliable middle of the order bat for the Mariners and should continue to do so for the next few seasons. And, defensively, he's won a Gold Glove in each of the last two seasons. Though some have noted that his range has shortened, his ability to make plays on the balls he does get to has never been better.
Shortstop Rich Aurilia joins the team in 2004 as a free agent. His predecessor, Carlos Guillen, was shipped off to the Tigers in offseason. Guillen was merely adequate defensively and produced modest numbers at the plate. In contrast, Aurilia is a proven threat on offense, averaging over 20 homers and 70+ RBI per season in his five years as the starting shortstop for San Francisco. Though he experienced career-lows in homers (13) and RBI (58) in 2003, his likely return to career averages bodes for Seattle's offense. Defensively, he's been criticized for a lack of range. However, it is only the last two seasons that that has really been accurate and much of his 2002 season was spent playing through a myriad of nagging injuries. He's still sure-handed and far from a defensive liability. However, with Aurilia and Boone manning the middle infield for the Mariners, there is some reason for concern defensively (particularly, concerning range-related factors).
Third base has been a disaster for Seattle in recent years. Jeff Cirillo was brought in to anchor the position in 2002. Unfortunately, Cirillo failed. In fact, he failed spectacularly. Coming off a string of five of six seasons hitting .300 or better and steady (and occasionally, stellar) glove work, Cirillo seemed a perfect fit for the hot corner at Safeco Field. However, Cirillo simply failed to hit for the Mariners. His .249 average and awful .328 SLG in 2002 were disappointments, but were to pale in comparison to his 2003 numbers. Cirillo hit only .205 and slugged .271 before being benched. In the offseason, he was dealt to San Diego for pitcher Kevin Jarvis and catcher Wiki Gonzalez.
In 2004, the team signed free agent Scott Spiezio to take over at third. Spiezio, whose lone claim to fame is hitting a dramatic three-run homer in Game 6 of the 2002 World Series to spark an Anaheim comeback and eventual World Series victory, doesn't inspire too much confidence at the hot corner. However, given how bad the play has been there for the last two seasons, it's hard to imagine Spiezio NOT being an improvement. Seattle can only hope that he builds on his 2003 numbers, which produced career-highs in homers (16) and RBI (83).
The outfield suffered a serious loss when CF Mike Cameron left via free agency for the Mets. Cameron is one of the premier defensive outfielders in the AL, and his 20+ homers and 75+ RBI will also be missed. Defensively, Seattle will turn to Randy Winn to take over in CF, and Winn's defensive history is a good one. In fact, by moving Winn from LF (where he played in 2003) to CF, the team will be better able to take advantage of his speed and defensive instincts.
Offensively, the team is hoping that free agent signee Raul Ibanez can match Cameron's offensive output. Ibanez, a former Mariner, truly blossomed as a hitter over the last three seasons in Kansas City. He's averaged 21 homers and 96 RBI over his last two seasons. Defensively, he'll be a liability, but as a LF some of those shortcomings will be minimized.
RF Ichiro Suzuki's numbers have slipped every season since his amazing breakthrough rookie year in 2001. His batting average has tumbled 38 points and his OBP has dipped 36 points from his career-highs. However, despite those drops, he's still a career .328 hitter with a .374 career OBP and averages 220 hits and 116 runs scored a season. Unless he suffers a precipitous decline in 2004, Ichiro is still a solid leadoff hitter with the potential to climb back to elite status. Defensively, he remains one of the best RF in the game.
Grand old man, DH Edgar Martinez, can still hit a baseball. The only problem is that he still has to navigate his way around the bases once he does. If the 40-year old Martinez can will his aching knees through another full season, there's no reason to doubt that he'll be as productive as he's always been. He's still capable of hitting .300 with an OBP of .400 and a SLG of .500. I suspect Edgar will still able to hit a baseball when he's 90. Like I said, it's that running of the bases business that will ultimately dictate how much and for how long he plays. If Edgar is unable to play very much, Seattle will still be able to cobble together some combination of Ibanez-Dave Hansen-Quinton McCracken to handle DH duties. However, having a quality hitter like Martinez available will make the offense significantly better.
Speaking of grand old men, SP Jamie Moyer has seemingly found the Fountain of Youth in Seattle. In 2003, Moyer had, perhaps, the best season of his 17-year Major League career. The now-42-year old Moyer went 21-7 with a 3.27 ERA. He returns in 2004 as the anchor to a pitching staff that used only five different starters all season long in 2003.
Freddy Garcia probably has the most overpowering stuff in the rotation but has been declining sharply since 2001 when he went 18-6 with a 3.05 ERA. In the last two seasons, Garcia's ERA has ballooned over a run and half and has given up twice as many homers. Whether or not Garcia can rebound from his 12-14 record in 2003 and lower his 4.51 ERA will go a long way in determining how Seattle's pitching will fare in 2004.
Joel Piniero is beginning to establish himself as a frontline starter. He followed up his impressive 2002 campaign (14-7, 3.24 ERA) with another successful season, going 16-11 with a 3.74 ERA in 2003.
After missing two full seasons to injury, Gil Meche made every one of his starts in 2003. His 15-13 record and 4.59 EAR were indicative of his rustiness and inconsistency. However, with a healthy season under his belt, Meche should be more consistent and a more solid contributor in 2004.
The bullpen lost closer Kaz Sasaki and set-up man Arthur Rhodes but returns enough talent to be effective again in 2004. In addition, free agent Eddie Guadardo will be a key new ingredient to the mix.
Sasaki opted out of his contract to return to Japan and be closer to his family. However, he also took his 129 career saves with him. Guardado, who spent the last two seasons as the closer for playoff-bound Minnesota teams, seems a capable replacement. In 2002-2003, Guardado has averaged 43 saves with a 2.89 ERA.
Rhodes, who signed with division rival Oakland in the offseason, will be replaced as set-up man by one of two players (or both) who were stellar in 2003. Both Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Rafael Soriano were spectacular last season. Hasegawa, the veteran, had a 1.48 ERA with 16 saves and allowed 67 baserunners in 73 innings of work. Soriano, the 23-year old in his second season, had a 1.53 ERA and struck out 68 hitters in 53 innings.
Rookie manager Bob Melvin presided over a team that went 93-69 in 2003 with calm and understated style. In 2004, that even-keeled approach may again pay dividends as the team should expect improvement in a number of areas.
Unfortunately, the rest of the AL West has improved as well. So while the Mariners will be better than they were in 2003, it is unclear that they have improved enough to keep up with the Joneses. It is also not clear whether or not the new GM in town will be willing to alter the team's roster at mid-season if the situation calls for it. And that may be what ultimately decides the team's fate yet again.
Leave feedback on our message board.