2005- We Hardly Knew Ye

Well, the offseason has come and gone and Mariners fans now find themselves trying to piece together the last 12 months.

All of the questions will of course answer themselves throughout the 2005 schedule, but one of the biggest questions Mariner fans are asking is, ‘what exactly are we trying to achieve in 2005?'

That question seemed pretty simple towards the end of last season.

In the lost season that we call 2004, the Mariners had a rare chance to sit back and evaluate all of the young talent playing at the big-league level and determine its major league readiness. By waiving several core members of last spring's roster the M's were able to plug-n-play prospects and see how many holes they could fill internally.

The Mariners also had some special opportunities in free agency with several franchise players available and with ownership willing to step up and spend some money.

These things pointed to competitive rebuilding for the 2005 season, followed by a run at the division in 2006. I think that's how most of us armchair quarterbacks saw it, and it seemed like a pretty logical plan.

Have those plans changed?

Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre were logical signings; both in the prime of their careers, one at the brink and one in the midst of, and each are now locked up long term. They both made sense, not only because they are impact players but because they generated excitement and a spike in ticket sales, but they didn't really provide us any real indication about the Mariners intentions in ‘05.

The 2006 Free Agent class was bad before free-agent-to-beTim Hudson signed an extension in Atlanta, and now it looks downright awful. So Bavasi had a pretty good idea that if he wanted to make a splash on the open market, it had to be now.

What it did do was effectively end the Mariner careers of several prospects hoping to come to the 2005 spring training and win a starting job. But I'm not complaining. I'll take Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson over Bucky Jacobsen, Justin Leone or Greg Dobbs any day of the week.

More telling, was the invitation of so many aged veterans as non-roster invitees. Players who should be able to jump straight into the fray and make a league average impact out of the gates. There is obviously no risk involved in bringing in NRI's to compete for spots on the 25-man roster, and certainly Mike Hargrove could be doing it simply to push the kids and foster some healthy competition.

Aaron Sele and Jeff Nelson, however, are ex-Mariner family and business or not, the organization isn't about jerking family members around. It's bad for business and bad for an image that has taken years of careful crafting. Clearly these guys have been brought in to compete for a spot on the team and not for show.

Pokey Reese is another solid if curious signing. It's no secret that he brings gold-glove caliber leather to a vastly upgraded defense bringing some additional support to a pitching staff that so desperately needs him.

Reese is certainly a defensive upgrade over the inexperienced Jose Lopez, but with a bat that seems destined for goodness, (not greatness, but close), letting Lopez play every day and grow into whichever position is best for him would seem a fair option for a team not quite ready to compete. Especially since Reese isn't a particularly durable player and the Mariners are left with a very mediocre Willie Bloomquist should Reese go down with injury.

I don't think any M's fan outside of Kitsap County fancies the idea of watching Bloomquist play on a daily basis.

The scouting reports are mixed on Jose Lopez's future at shortstop and a shift to second wouldn't be a surprise now that third base is no longer an option. But for a team that struggled as badly with the bat as the Mariners did last year, I would rather see Jose Lopez batting in front of Ichiro than anywhere near the auto-out that is Pokey Reese. The Red Sox's felt that Reese's offense was simply too weak to justify his existence in a playoff caliber line-up - and I agree, how could I not?

With Reese at short, the Mariners are exchanging one near-definite out every nine plate appearances for improved glove work, believing that Reese is worth a couple more wins through the course of the season, which could make the difference in a tight American League West. Sure, but how many scoring opportunities is he going to flush with his wiffle ball bat.

Lopez's bat has too much upside and I don't believe in starting a guy like Reese when you have a player with Lopez's offensive upside just waiting for his chance to break out. Lopez will only get better defensively though his range will never be much better than league average. His bat, however, justifies a spot in the bottom half of the lineup - now.

The million dollar question of course is where Felix Hernandez fits into the 2005 equation. The Mariners marketing machine is slowly starting to ramp up as it seems the franchise has begun to change its tune about Felix's chances of emerging from spring training with a starting job. Apparently Felix is now one of eight starters competing for five spots in the rotation, and frankly, he is the link that could completely change the way the Mariners approach for the 2005 season.

Remember when the Mariners lost out on Jaret Wright, Odalis Perez and Carl Pavano, forging a failure to land a top free agent pitcher in the offseason? The team wasn't about to overpay for any of them, not the way they had to go above and beyond for Sexson. In essence, the Mariners weren't nearly as hungry for a frontline starter as they originally stated. Why? Because they have him sitting in their minor league system.

The Mariners biggest question heading into this season surrounds whether or not Gil Meche and Joel Piniero can lead an otherwise unspectacular rotation. But if Felix is added to the mix , a potential weakness becomes a possible area of strength.

Hernandez is clearly ready for the big leagues – from a physical standpoint. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound right-hander has all the tools to be successfull at any level, and he just may already be the best pitcher on this team. Is he mentally ready to face the fact that the Mariners will be placing their entire 2005 season on his amazingly gifted arm?

Suddenly, Felix Hernandez on the mound in place of Ryan Franklin makes keeping Pokey Reese in the lineup a little bit more acceptable. Another sign that the Mariners are going for more than respectability in 2005 - Randy Winn is still here. I like Randy more than most and his clutch hitting skills are vastly underrated. But like most, I am a bit surprised he is still a Mariner.

Bucky Jacobsen's injury status makes the decision to retain Winn a wise one, and Bavasi may have had that in the back of his mind all offseason while fielding trade offers. Nonetheless, the Mariners are loaded with corner outfielders in the system, most with skills similar to that of Winn, making him expendable.

With Shin-soo Choo approaching a role in 2006, the Mariners could have chosen to trade Winn and gone with Ibanez in left field, gambling with Jacobsen at DH. The Mariners aren't leaving much to chance though and Winn couldn't be more unspectacularly solid.

In fact, that seems to be the trend early on in spring training. The upside of guys like Jeff Nelson, Pokey Reese and Aaron Sele, not to mention Ryan Franklin, and Jamie Moyer, are limited.

On the flip side, Hernandez, Lopez, Bobby Madritsch, Jacobsen along with a host of young talented bullpen guys like Julio Mateo, Scott Atchison, George Sherrill, Matt Thorton and JJ Putz can all be considered question marks, but they have a higher ceiling than the veterans who they may supplant, and I believe the answer to what the Mariners are trying to achieve in 2005 can be answered with youth. If several of them end up on the roster, the Mariners are staying the course, fielding a competitive team and eyeing a more seriously focused run in 2006.

If the bulk of these talented kids ends up in Tacoma, we may be in for a year where our best just isn't quite enough, and that would be a shame. It's a whole lot easier to watch a young, up and coming player make an occasional mistake while learning the game, than an old, almost-but-not-quite-washed-up veteran, who's best can't quite measure up to the competition to begin with.

Haven't we seen enough of this in Seattle?

I guess what I'm saying is, if there was ever a time to give the kids a chance to shine, this is it. Expectations are still at ground level. Time to take some risks while the risk-takin' is acceptable.

And that won't be the case next season.

Aaron Beach can be reached via e-mail at TrueMarinerBlue@hotmail.com

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