Moves will only make Mariners better in 2004

How quickly we forget the days where 9,000 weirdos went to the Kindgome to watch Mariners games. How soon we become spoiled and aren't satisfied with $95 million payrolls. How crazy it is that everyone has become a Monday Morning Quarterback. It's time to relax, settle down and brace yourself for an exciting 2004 Mariners season, says's Joe Kaiser.

The temperatures have started to dip below freezing in the greater Seattle area and Christmas is already in the rear view mirror. Could it be possible? Less than two months before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training in Peoria. I may be 23-years-old, but those four words – pitchers and catchers report – just give me an extra gear this time of year. Heading into the cold, damp, dark months of January and February, it's this time every year that I begin the countdown in my head.

Get me to March! Get me to Spring! Get me to baseball!

I tend to sway away from the average Mariner onlooker these days in that I see a lot to be excited about in 2004. All it takes is a quick glance at any of the many Mariner message boards on the internet today to see just how small of an island I am on.

Many folks are already deeming Bill Bavasi, the team's new general manager, a gigantic failure. Somewhere just yesterday I read someone comparing Bavasi to former M's manager Bill Plummer, saying he will last only one season in Seattle. Everywhere you look, fans are worried and, if not worried, at the very least concerned.

Judging on the Mariners' inability to make the playoffs over the last two seasons, I can understand the concern across the board. What I can't relate to is the sentiment many fans share in that the M's will be worse in 2004. That, in my opinion, is ridiculous. In the absolute worst-case scenario, the M's will be better next season than they were last year.

Let's take a quick look at the changes the team has made from 2003. Gone are Arthur Rhodes and Armando Benitez (was he really a Mariner or was that just a bad dream?). Gone is Mike Cameron, the team's defensive wizard in centerfield for the last four seasons. Gone are John Mabry and Greg Colbrunn, two bench players who never amounted to anything in Seattle – Mabry had two chances. Gone is utility-man Mark McLemore after four solid seasons with the team, and veteran late-season pickup Rey Sanchez. And gone, almost surely, will be Jeff Cirillo, the biggest cancer to the Seattle sports scene since Ken Behring.

Meanwhile, Bavasi took care of business by resigning Edgar Martinez, Freddy Garcia, Ben Davis, Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche and Carlos Guillen. He also wrapped up multi-year deals with Ichiro Suzuki, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Randy Winn and Ryan Franklin.

Looking outward to improve the team, he also managed to sign free agent Raul Ibanez to play in left field, Scott Spiezio to replace Cirillo at third, and Eddie Guardado to replace Rhodes as the team's go-to lefty out of the pen. Bavasi also acquired reserve outfielder Quinton McCracken for Colbrunn, and had a deal on the table to trade Cirillo to the Mets for Roger Cedeno before Cirillo exercised his right to nix the deal. Talks have also surfaced lately of the team signing Rich Aurilia to play shortstop.

While these moves were somewhat small and fell under the radar compared to those that other teams made, splurging on overpriced veterans – see; Miguel Tejada and Javy Lopez – the M's stayed to their gameplan. And while the improvements might not be huge, they were certainly upgrades. All the while, time remains for more upgrades to be made before the start of Spring Training.

Barring any unforeseen injuries or fall offs in production, the M's will be more balanced and well-rounded in 2004.

The starting rotation remains intact, with Freddy Garcia likely slipping down to a the team's No. 3 pitcher. Jamie Moyer, Pineiro, Meche, and Franklin round out the five. How many teams can hold claim to bringing back the same rotation from a year ago? With the ageless Moyer as much as a certainty as there is in baseball and the youngsters all a year older, the M's will be as solid there as ever.

In the bullpen Rafael Soriano returns for what will be a much larger role in 2004. The M's took it slow with Soriano, but his jaw-dropping numbers (1.53 ERA, 68 K, 12 BB in 53 IP) in his first season of extended big league innings makes him one of the best middle-relievers in baseball at the tender age of 24. He says he'll pitch wherever the team wants him, and could excel in any role. Guardado, 33, is a year younger than Rhodes, and is coming off a much better season (2.89 ERA, 60 K, 14 BB, 41 S in 65.1 IP) all while pitching in the homer dome in Minneapolis. Julio Mateo returns for his second full season after a stellar 2003 campaign, and Kazuhiro Sasaki, the team's all-time saves leader in four years with the club, will return after missing most of last season with injuries. Manager Bob Melvin has stated that he'll return to the closer role. Hasegawa, who had a 1.48 ERA in 73 IP last season, returns to a middle-reliever role after spending much of 2003 as the team's closer.

The M's are still searching for a second lefty in the pen, and will either go with someone from their farm system like Matt Thornton, George Sherrill, or Bobby Madritsch or sign a cheap veteran.

Spiezio, signed to a three-year deal with $9 million, is the only change to the starting infield positions. Olerud is on the down side of his career, but will likely post similar numbers in 2004 that he did in 2003. Boone remains the team's top run-producer at second, and Guillen, if he isn't traded before Opening Day, is penciled in as the team's starting shortstop. Like it or not, the switch-hitting Spiezio improves this unit more offensively than he hurts it defensively. Spiezio, a fun, free-spirited clubhouse guy, is the anti-Cirillo. He batted .265 with the Angels last season with 16 HR and 83 RBI, and doesn't strikeout much. Willie Bloomquist, in his second full season, has had a fine off-season in winter ball and will be the team's primary reserve infielder.

The outfield will look different without Cameron patrolling the cavernous centerfield, and while Winn's instincts and arm don't compare to Cameron's, Winn will be adequate and won't hurt the team. Ibanez is the left-handed bat the team has lacked in the middle of the lineup, coming off a season where he batted .294 with 18 HR and 90 RBI. His arm is an upgrade over Winn in left field. Ichiro remains in right, still one of the top players in the game at the age of 30. McCracken can play all three outfield positions, is a switch-hitter, and simply can't be as bad as Mabry was in that role last year.

Two roster spots remain unfilled, as the team will need to decide on one more reserve infielder and reserve outfielder. Unless the M's sign a veteran like Damian Jackson who can play a utility role, they will likely stay in house and promote a pair of youngsters. Those who could stick with the club out of spring are outfielders Chris Snelling and Jamal Strong, and infielders Luis Ugueto and Justin Leone.

Dan Wilson and Ben Davis return behind the plate, and Melvin says Davis will be given the opportunity this spring to win the starting job.

Factor in some added life from a new hitting-coach in Paul Molitor, who will likely be inducted into the Hall of Fame this season after 3319 career hits, and there's no reason to think this Mariners team won't improve in 2004.

With Spring Training only two months away, now is no time to be one of those "half-glass empty" people. Now is the time to look towards the positives, thank God that you aren't a Brewers fan, and join me in the countdown as we wait for those four special words that always hit home.

Pitchers… And… Catchers… Report!

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