What if Seattle Strikes Out This Winter?

Heading into last offseason, fresh off a pitiful 99-loss season, the Mariners had a seemingly endless supply of holes to fill on their 25-man roster. Luckily, they also had the financial backing to pursue answers to those holes via free agency.

As veterans such as Edgar Martinez, John Olerud and Rich Aurilia saw their days in Seattle come to an end, Mariners general manager Bill Bavasi understood the club's primary needs.

1) Adding power and pop to an offense that ranked among the league's worst in every offensive category

2) Address the starting rotation, where Jamie Moyer was heading into the season yet another year older and the rest – Joel Pineiro, Gil Meche and Ryan Franklin – were coming off terrible '04 campaigns. Only Bobby Madritsch finished that season strong.

The rest of the winter, as we now know, went largely in the Mariners' favor. While Bavasi failed to woo the top pitchers on the market – Carl Pavano and Jaret Wright – the M's GM managed to address the team's lack of offense in a major way. Not once, but twice.

First, he convinced Richie Sexson to sign with Seattle over an offer from the New York Mets. Then, shortly thereafter, he did what many believed was unthinkable and added a second slugger, Adrian Beltre to the fold, fresh off a career season with Los Angeles.

Mucho power. Mucho money. Mucho upgrade.

There were reasons for optimism aside from the additions of Beltre and Sexson. Bavasi also inked Pokey Reese to a one-year deal hoping to shore up the shortstop position and improve the club's defense up the middle while the kids were groomed in the minors. Jeremy Reed, coming off a hot September in '04, was pegged as the Mariners' center fielder of the future and Opening Day starter. Scott Spiezio had lost a ton of weight and spoken openly about his renewed passion for the game and meticulous offseason workouts.

But would it be enough? Could the M's compete with the likes of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim? Could their pitching staff hold up?

In short, no. To expound, the M's were unable to compete with the Los Angeles Angels of anywhere - or the two clubs below them.

Fast-forward to the end of the 2005 regular season, and the Mariners are only days removed from another dreadful year, a 93-loss campaign.

What happened? The starting pitching was awful all season long, the only bright spot being the late-season promotion of phenom Felix Hernandez. Reese injured his shoulder during spring training, and never played in a single game all season. Reed struggled at the plate, but did showcase gold glove-caliber defense. Spiezio couldn't hit his way out of a wet, brown paper bag, and subsequently was released. Bret Boone's offense got so bad, the Mariners designated him for assignment and ate his salary for breakfast.

Now, Bavasi finds himself at the most critical point in his tenure in Seattle. He enters his third offseason with the Mariners having lost at least 90 games in back-to-back seasons, his job riding on every further move he makes.

No longer can he afford to make the glaring mistakes he did in previous seasons with the signings of over-the-hill veterans like Aurilia, Speizio and Reese. Another 90-loss season would almost surely mean the end of Bavasi in Seattle, and set the organization back to where it was in the 1980s.

Overlooked, however, are the things that Bavasi has done well since taking over in Seattle – namely his signings of Raul Ibanez and Yuniesky Betancourt and his added emphasis on improving the farm system.

But even Bavasi apologists realize that this isn't a game where failure at the big league level is tolerated.

This offseason, there are no doubt fewer holes in the Mariners' 25-man roster. Bavasi won't have to go out and be willing to overpay power hitters to come the Pacific Northwest, for instance. But, that doesn't mean he won't be busy shopping for solutions to other areas of need.

Tops on that list this winter will undoubtedly be starting pitching, but there aren't a lot of big names out there on the market that Seattle has a chance at signing.

A.J. Burnett is available, but his attitude and consistency are two major concerns, as are his long-term health after Tommy John surgery two summers ago. Still, it figures that the Marlins righty will be the top pitcher on the market. That means there will be plenty of competition for his services.

The best bet for Seattle might be Kevin Millwood, who earned $7 million with Cleveland in '05 and will be 31 next season. Millwood posted an impressive 2.86 ERA and 1.22 WHIP. Other answers could lie in the form of Matt Morris, Jason Johnson, Paul Byrd, Jeff Weaver, Jarrod Washburn, Kenny Rogers and Esteban Loaiza.

From an offensive standpoint, the main concern is adding a bat – preferably left-handed – to left field. That would allow the M's to keep Reed in center. A few names that pop out, and fit into the M's future plans as well, are Hideki Matsui, Jacque Jones and Preston Wilson. None of them are older than 31, though Matsui may never make it to the open market.

With another season to grow and get playing time at the major league level, it's likely that many young Mariners will develop and improve upon the forgettable 2005 season. Talents such as Reed, Betancourt, Jose Lopez and Yorvit Torrealba are just a couple of the M's current young crop that is capable of making huge strides next season. Beltre should improve upon his numbers, as well - at least one would believe.

For these reasons, it appears likely that the M's offense will improve naturally, even without further changes.

It's the starting pitching rotation that needs to be addressed most of all, a fact that figures to either make or break the Mariners' offseason. The M's made a habit of winning 90 games or more earlier in the decade with pitching and defense leading the way. Since then, both areas have struggled mightily, and Seattle's front office knows that'll have to change in order for the club to return to its winning ways.

That won't happen without the addition of a minimum of one, but more likely two mid-level starting pitchers over the winter.

Unfortunately for Bavasi and his staff, he has little leeway left. Signing the wrong player this time around would likely lead to an early exit out of Seattle, and further damage to the Mariners hopes of returning to the near-glory days anytime in the forseeable future.

Safeco Field saw nearly a 10 percent decline in attendance this season from '04, and another disappointing season next year would only cause that trend to worsen. With seemingly every other sports team in town on the rise, the Mariners must find a way to compete in 2006 or suffer the consequences of an apathetic fan base that would rather find other ways to spend its money.

The Mariner must improve on 2005, and not just five or six more games. Another 90-loss season will likely end the Mariner careers of not only Bavasi, but manager Mike Hargrove, all of his coaches, and perhaps another major front office shakeup beyond the general manager.

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