M's still need to address weak bench

While the Mariners have addressed several needs this offseason, one the team has neglected is its bench, says InsidethePark.com columnist Jared Poppel. Several options remain on the free agent market to fill the final roster spot.

The Seattle Mariners have given themselves a substantial face-lift this off-season, and have made strides to address their lack of power in the starting lineup with the additions of Raul Ibanez, Scott Spiezio and Rich Aurilia. The M's have added 20 HR and 80 RBI to their lineup over the players being replaced - Mike Cameron, Jeff Cirillo and Carlos Guillen.

That being the case, Dan Wilson, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Rich Aurilia, Scott Spiezio, Raul Ibanez, Randy Winn, Ichiro Suzuki, and Edgar Martinez will be the everyday players. As noted before, the starting lineup has been reinforced with some extra pop, but I think that the Mariners have still not addressed what may have been their biggest problem over the past 2 seasons: the bench.

When the Mariners signed Greg Colbrunn and John Mabry last year, it was thought they would be solid backups at the corner infield and outfield positions, plus provide power off the bench from both sides of the plate. They had hoped that Colbrunn, in particular, would be able to spell John Olerud and Edgar Martinez from time to time, allowing them to rest more for the stretch run. Unfortunately, Colbrunn got injured and Mabry never got the opportunity to get locked in at the plate, and so players like Luis Ugueto, Willie Bloomquist and Pat Borders became mainstays on the Seattle bench. While Bob Melvin would have liked to use his bench more last season, he just didn't have the firepower he needed. Needless to say, the M's didn't pinch-hit or rest their regulars very often, and this contributed heavily to their second consecutive late-season swoon. So, I would think that rebuilding the bench would have been one of the items on Bill Bavasi's checklist.

He concentrated on improving the starting lineup, however, and did a pretty good job of it, I must say. As of right now, the 2004 Mariners bench will feature Ben Davis, Willie Bloomquist, Dave Hansen, Ramon Santiago and Quinton McCracken. Bloomquist's versatility and McCracken's speed and ability to play all three outfield positions provide some depth, but the group is fairly anemic as far as power goes. In fact, these five players combined for 11 home runs in 2003, 6 of them coming from Ben Davis. This is a serious fault, since teams like Texas and Anaheim will have some heavy hitters both in their everyday lineups and on the bench, available for pinch-hitting late in games. In addition, with the exception of Davis, I don't think that the Mariners would be comfortable having to play any of their bench players for a prolonged period in the event of an injury to someone in the everyday lineup. This group somewhat resembles the bench from 2002, when the Mariners' pinch-hitters didn't get an extra base-hit until the last week of the season.

So I believe that at least one of the backups should be more of a power hitter. Ramon Santiago could (and in my opinion, should) be sent to the minors to make room for a better bat. Who should the M's look at to fill that spot?

To begin with, I don't feel that the Mariners should use any of their talented youngsters for that spot. Specifically, Jamal Strong, Chris Snelling, Justin Leone and Luis Ugueto would be better served playing everyday in AAA or AA than sitting on the bench at Safeco Field. While they would be learning a lot and gaining valuable experience, they would not get the opportunity to get on the field very often.

I think that Leone, who played for the U.S. National Team, is eventually going to be the starter at 3B for Seattle, maybe as early as 2005, but he hasn't played above AA yet, and could use more seasoning. Ugueto is a definite threat on the basepaths, but is just beginning to find his stroke at the plate. In addition, because of his Rule 5 status in 2002, the M's opted to keep Ugueto on the major league roster for the entire season. After spending time on the Seattle roster again in 2003, keeping him as a utility infielder in 2004 might provide him with enough service time so as to make him eligible for arbitration going into the 2005 season, something the Mariners would not want.

Strong and Snelling have each had brief cups of coffee with the M's, but both suffered major injuries last year, and need to play everyday at Tacoma in order to be effective contributors to the big league club in the future. No doubt, one of these players will be the first to be called up to the majors in the event of an injury, but I don't believe that any of them should be starting the season on the Mariners' active roster.

There are some attractive options on the free agent market who could be acquired without putting a strain on the payroll. The name that immediately jumps out is Russell Branyan. Cincinnati non-tendered him, not because of his performance, but because he was arbitration-eligible. He is a left-handed power threat who can play 1B, 3B, and the corner outfield positions if needed. He only hit 9 HR last season due to injury, but knocked 24 HR in 378 AB in 2002. There are several teams out there that need a starting 3B, but Branyan tends to play better off the bench. The one knock against him is that he does seem to get injured frequently, but I think he would be a solid bench player for the Mariners.

Another available power hitter who might fit into the M's budget is Jose Hernandez. Yes, THAT Jose Hernandez, the one who almost broke Bobby Bonds' single-season record for strikeouts. However, he is a proven power hitter and is versatile enough to play 3B, SS and even CF if necessary. His HR total dropped a bit to 13 last season, after hitting 24 in 2002 and 25 in 2001, but that could be written off to being traded twice during the season. Given that he was released by the Pirates, he should come without a huge price tag.

In a previous column, I gave my opinion that the Mariners should have pursued Rafael Palmeiro, who just signed with the Baltimore Orioles. There's another Palmeiro out there that would be an excellent candidate for the M's bench: Orlando Palmeiro. While not a power hitter, he has always hit for good average (lifetime .279) and can play all 3 outfield positions. He would be a good complement to Dave Hansen as a lefty off the bench.

And while not a guy who might put up huge power numbers, Greg Norton, formerly of Colorado, might also be a good fit for the bench. He would be a great backup at 1B and 3B, is a switch-hitter, and could provide some late-inning punch.

Other names the M's might want to consider: Orlando Merced, Shane Spencer, Matt Franco and John Vander Wal.

With spring training just over a month away, the Mariners need to start finalizing their roster, and part of that is establishing a strong cadre of bench players. As of now, I'm not sure that they have done that, and hopefully they are not done with their roster makeover.

Jared is available for feedback at marinersinsider@yahoo.com.

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