What is to Become of Thee?

The Seattle Mariners, one of baseball's most stable and consistent franchises in recent years, have found themselves in the midst of an off-season full of huge questions. Question number one was answered this week with the announcement that Mike Hargrove is the team's new skipper. Question number two will take weeks to answer, as Bill Bavasi signs free agents and makes trades to plug the considerable holes in both the lineup and pitching staff.



2004, however, was a year of underachieving for virtually everyone in the organization not named Ichiro, and there is another question that has been largely overlooked The answer to this question will go a long way in determining how quickly the Mariner's rebound from their sudden plunge into mediocrity.

What role changes are in store for the holdovers from this past season?
Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Ryan Franklin, Scott Spiezio, and Dan Wilson headline the list of players who were once key performers but whose stars have dimmed considerably over the last six months. The lineup, bench, starting rotation, and bullpen will all be affected by how Hargrove and Bavasi choose to handle the roster's declining but still serviceable older players. Each of these players face different changes, and how they handle them will be an interesting subplot to the upcoming season. Let's look at the possibilities facing each of these guys.

Shigetoshi Hasegawa: Shiggy was thrust into the closer spot when Kazuhiro Sasaki's suitcase infamously got the best of him in 2003, and the second-year Mariner responded with a career year, posting an ERA of 1.48. The signing of Eddie Guardado meant Hasegawa could return to his customary setup role in '04, but Hasegawa's dominance didn't come back with him. A closer look at his 2003 numbers showed that he allowed an incredibly low Batting Average on Balls In Play (BAPIP), a sure sign that he was getting a lot of help from his defense and plenty of luck. With the M's defense not up to par this past season and that luck nowhere to be found, 2004 was the polar opposite of 2003. A 7.20 April ERA correctly forecast a miserable season for the soft-tossing right-hander, and his season-ending ERA of 5.16 was his career worst.

Which Shiggy will we see in 2005? Chances are it will be somewhere in the middle, but I tend to believe 2003 was an aberration, and it will be closer to the 2004 version. It might be wise for the M's to try to convince a team that 2004 was a fluke year and trade Hasegawa, but don't expect that to happen. The 36-year-old just doesn't have the stuff to dominate major league hitters, and he is probably best suited for a middle relief role, which is where Hargrove is most likely to use him. Expect enough of a bounce back from Shiggy to make him useful, but counting on an ERA under 4.00 might be asking too much. He certainly should not be counted on as the primary right-handed setup man.

Ryan Franklin: Franklin finally pitched the way most who observed him in the minors anticipated. No, he wasn't as bad as the 4-16 record would lead you to believe, but an ERA of 4.90 reveals a pitcher who just isn't very good. You can't strike out less than five batters per nine innings and expect to be effective forever, and Franklin's lack of an out pitch finally caught up with him. Having Randy Winn in center field didn't help either.

Hypothetically, he could still serve as a #5 starter for a team with an incredible defense, but the 2005 M's don't figure to fit into that category. The emergence of Bobby Madritsch dealt the final blow to Franklin's chances of being in the rotation, and the M's will surely acquire another starter to go with Pineiro, Meche, Madritsch and Moyer. Franklin will either be traded or bumped back into the long relief and spot starter role he handled so well when he was first brought up. Expect demand for him to be pretty low, so it will probably be the latter, and he could be moderately successful as a long reliever. Think 75-100 innings, with an ERA of around 4.25.

Dan Wilson: The 35-year-old class act has been the club's primary catcher for eleven years since coming over from the Reds with Bobby Ayala in the Erik Hanson trade. He still has some value behind the dish, but his traditionally poor bat has sunk to tragic levels over the past two seasons. Simply put, an OPS of .615 just doesn't get regular at-bats on a contending team, no matter how well-liked the player is. Dan's contract is up, and there is some speculation he could hang up the Tools of Ignorance.

Don't count on it. Wilson's a competitor, and Miguel Olivo's well-publicized struggles both at the plate and behind it will likely lead Bavasi to invite Wilson back for at least one more season to mentor Olivo. Chances are, Wilson will accept Bavasi's overtures, and make a couple of starts a week as the number two backstop. Given Danny's strong character, he should be comfortable in the new role and the increased rest could even help his slugging percentage bounce back up a bit. Wilson will still be too easy of an out, but his familiarity with the staff and the chance that he can help Olivo harness his considerable skills make the longest tenured Mariner worthy of a roster spot for about $1 million.

Scott Spiezio: Most of the mistakes of the disastrous 03-04 off-season can not be blamed on Bill Bavasi, but giving three years to Spiezio clearly can. The corner infielder inexplicably lost 140 points of his OPS by moving up I-5 from Anaheim. How bad was he? The switch-hitter nearly did the impossible and proved the M's wouldn't necessarily upgrade trading the infamous Jeff Cirillo.

Shudder.

Spiezio's primary two positions are two of the main spots the club figures to upgrade this off-season, but no matter what happens the chances of Spiezio starting at third or at first are miniscule. Fortunately, there's nothing in Spiezio's career numbers that suggests he's really this bad of a hitter, and he seems like a very solid candidate for a bounce-back year. He has experience as a frequently used reserve, and should be fine with a reserve role where he bounces between the corners to rest whoever the M's acquire to start at first and third. A .750 OPS in about 250 at-bats sounds about right for the SandFrog lead man.

Of course, many things about the Mariner's 2005 roster are up in the air, and unforeseen moves could change the roles or even the area codes of these guys and others like Randy Winn, Raul Ibanez, and perhaps even Bret Boone. It is clear that this team has to improve in virtually every area, and even Howard Lincoln seems to be aware that it's time for some drastic changes. Trying to forecast every move the club will make would be an exercise in futility.

Thankfully, this off-season promises to be exhilarating, with plenty of new faces donning the Nautical Compass Rose by next April. In the excitement to hype the new guys, don't forget the old vets who are still around. Their roles may be diminished, but the part they play will still have a lot to with the M's return to respectability. Here's hoping it's a fast one.

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