Reversing the Trend: M's will be Young in '06

Lou Piniella was loved by baseball fans in the Northwest over his decade-long tenure as the Mariners manager. If there was a knock on the charismatic skipper, though, it was his preference for playing veterans, or more specifically, his hesitancy to use young players. Since Piniella left following the 2002 season, a shift in that philosophy has taken place for the Mariners.

It was easy to be comfortable as a Mariners fan for many years there during Piniella's reign, knowing each season a solid core group of veterans like Dan Wilson, John Olerud, Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez, Ichiro Suzuki, Mark McLemore, Mike Cameron, Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer would be taking the field for the Hometown Nine.

At the same time, there was reason to be optimistic for the future with young pitchers Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche already on the 25-man roster and a cast of others – Clint Nageotte, Travis Blackley, Rafael Soriano and Rett Johnson – seemingly on the horizon. If there was a concern, it was the organization's lack of talented position players in the minor leagues. Even still, there was little reason to believe the Mariners couldn't be very competitive in the post-Piniella era.

Sweet Lou's replacement, Bob Melvin, took over in 2003, inheriting a veteran roster only two years removed from a 116-win season. The Melvin-led M's won 93 games that season, but faded badly down the stretch and failed to make the playoffs. The fear was that the roster was too old, that many of the aging veterans had worn down after the all-star break, that "the end" was near.

Little did Melvin and the rest of the M's brass know just how real that phenomenon was; sadly, it wasn't an aberration.

If the M's had a little more foresight, they probably wouldn't have went into the 2004 season with the roster they did. Coming out of spring training, the starting lineup included catcher Dan Wilson, 35, first baseman John Olerud, 35, second baseman Bret Boone, 35, third baseman and free agent acquisition Scott Spiezio, 31, newly acquired shortstop Rich Aurilia, 32, left fielder Raul Ibanez, 32, centerfielder Randy Winn, 30, right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, 30 and designated hitter Edgar Martinez, 41.

To say the least, it wasn't a group of promising youngsters. As it turned out – oh how did it ever – the M's were a worn down group of veterans whose best years were collectively behind them. Making matters worse, Pineiro and Meche failed to pull their weight and become the top-of-the-rotation pitchers that the M's expected.

So, rather than play through the losses, general manager Bill Bavasi, realizing just how bleak the outlook was, moved quickly to start the rebuilding process.

Aurilia was designated for assignment. Then Olerud, a fan favorite. Garcia was traded for three young players. Edgar retired at season's end.

When Mike Hargrove replaced Melvin as manager in 2005, and marquee free agents Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre were added to the roster, the hope was that the rebuilding process was complete. Unfortunately for the Mariners, it only took until May to figure out that wasn't the case.

So Bavasi continued to go to work.

Boone was designated for assignment. Spiezio got the axe. Winn was traded for two young players. As was Ron Villone. Miguel Olivo, who figured to be the catcher of the future when he came over from Chicago in the Garcia deal, was shipped off. Wilson announced his retirement.

By season's end, Bavasi had changed the entire face of the organization. Suddenly, the familiar names from years past were distantly in the rearview mirror.

Now, after two forgettable seasons of over 90 losses, the Mariners finally have a core group of young players to build around for the first time in over a decade.

For M's fans looking for reason to be excited after two miserable seasons in a row, look no further.

Ichiro, 32, Beltre, 27, Ibanez, 33, and Sexson, 31 (all ages as of Opening Day 2006), are all signed for 2006 and will be the veterans on offense heading into next season.

Joining them will be the promising middle infield combination of 24-year-old Cuban shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and 22-year-old Venezuelan second baseman Jose Lopez.

Betancourt, often compared to a young Omar Vizquel for his tremendous range and instincts on defense, is the kind of player who could end up being a fixture in Seattle for the next 5-10 years. His bat will likely never scare opposing pitchers, but he does have plus speed (as was evidenced by his five triples and 11 doubles in 211 at-bats in '05) and figures to only improve on his .256 batting average as a rookie.

Lopez, who came up as a shortstop and dabbled at third base before finding a home at second, isn't nearly the defensive wizard of his double-play partner, but has the potential to become a 20-homer threat at a non-power position. Still only 22 next season, the focus will be on improving his ability to hit the ball the other way. His tendency to pull every pitch led to a .247 average in '05, but his 19 doubles in 190 at-bats are an indicator of the type of gap-power he possesses.

With Wilson having hung up the catcher's mask and Olivo been traded, there will also be a new face behind the plate for the M's next season. And luckily, it won't be Ben Davis (hold your laughter). Unless the M's sign a free agent, the catching duties will likely go to Yorvit Torrealba, a 27-year-old defensive-minded catcher who Seattle hopes can fill in until 2005 first-round pick Jeff Clement works his way to the majors.

It's hard to imagine Torrealba being anything more than major league average, but it's also nearly impossible for him to be any worse than Olivo was in his putrid 13-month stay in Seattle. Rene Rivera, a former second round pick in the same mold as Torrealba, will be 22 next season and will likely begin the year in Triple-A unless the M's fail to sign a bargain backup catcher or splurge on a starter and make Torrealba the backup.

In the outfield, Jeremy Reed, the big name in the Garcia trade, will be heading into his second season as an every-day player in center field. While Reed failed to live up to the lofty expectations that were placed on him in '05, hitting just .254 with three home runs as a rookie, his 33 doubles and 48 walks are signs that point to better times for the 24-year-old in '06.

Additionally, a player that is often forgotten about is Mike Morse. Another product of the Garcia trade, Morse enjoyed surprising success at the plate as a rookie this past season, finishing with a .278 average after a torrid start, but he also failed to leave a positive impression at shortstop and his future may be as a utility player. He'll be 24 next season.

Of all the youngsters, though, none come with the hype and fanfare of flame-throwing right-hander Felix Hernandez, who won't turn 20 until April, 8. Hernandez wasted little time making a name for himself late in '05, blowing away the American League in his 12 starts. The King finished with a 4-4 record, but struck out 77 batters in 84 1/3 innings and had an impressive 2.67 ERA. He could very well be the ace of the staff by early next season – if he isn't already – and lead the Mariners back to being one of the elite teams in baseball. Not next season, but eventually.

Behind Hernandez are a bunch of question marks. Moyer is a free agent who will be 43 next year, and will likely only be resigned if the M's can get him at a bargain. Pineiro and Meche, both still just 27 heading into next season, continue to be enigmas and either or both could be gone by April.

Bobby Livingston, 23, is a young Moyer-like southpaw who'll in all likelihood being next season in Tacoma. He's enjoyed tremendous success in the minors without a 90 mph fastball, getting by with a plus changeup and tremendous smarts on the mound.

Bobby Madritsch, who turns 30 on Feb. 28, is another player to keep an eye on. The left-hander appeared in just one start last season thanks to a rare shoulder injury after finishing '04 with an impressive 6-3 record and 3.27 ERA in 11 starts. It's uncertain whether he'll be ready for spring training.

It's the bullpen, not the rotation, where the crop of young pitchers looks more promising. Right-handers Rafael Soriano, 26, Clint Nageotte, 25, J.J. Putz, 29, Julio Mateo, 28, Scott Atchison, 30, Jeff Harris, 31, join lefty George Sherrill, 29, as bargain arms vying or spots on the staff.

In addition, 23-year-old Travis Blackley (left labrum surgery) and 27-year-old Jorge Campillo (Tommy John surgery) will be coming off of surgeries. Neither figure to make an impact until '07.

The Mariners won't likely be contenders in 2006, but for the first time in ages they'll head into a season with a talented core of players with an average age well under 30. With a little luck, the pieces that are now in place could be the right ones to reverse the fortunes organization.

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