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Monday, May 24, 2004 - Page updated at 05:29 P.M.

Mariners
Analysis: Rebuilding looms as season slips away

By Bob Finnigan
Seattle Times staff reporter

MARK HARRISON / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Dan Wilson, chasing down a bunt pop-up yesterday, has no viable successor in the organization. The Mariners are thought to be looking for a ready-to-play replacement for the 35-year-old.
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For only the second time since the Mariners morphed into a competitive club in 1995, they are faced with the task of rebuilding.

In 1999, in the middle of a second straight losing season, they moved veterans David Segui and Butch Huskey in an effort to acquire young pitching the organization lacked.

The overhaul this time could be — and perhaps should be — more extensive.

In recent weeks, according to sources, club officials had been hesitant to make drastic moves — which could include trades, call-ups and even releases — because the American League West is hardly a powerhouse division.

But after the 2-4 homestand, sources say the Mariners — whose officials met two or three times last week behind the closed door of manager Bob Melvin's office — are headed toward several moves.

While nothing reportedly is imminent, Seattle is closest to a call-up from the minor leagues — possibly infielder Jose Lopez, catcher Wiki Gonzalez or pitchers George Sherrill or Bobby Madritsch.

It will not be infielder Justin Leone, who was hit by a pitch on the wrist Saturday and could be out a week or more.

Seattle scouts have watched a number of major-league clubs, but no deal is near.

In trading, one source said Ichiro is the only player considered untouchable, while longtime Mariners Edgar Martinez and Jamie Moyer would have to give their permission as 10-5 veterans (at least 10 years in the major leagues and five years with their current team).

Another source said that, sooner or later, Seattle can be expected to trade pitcher Freddy Garcia.

While performances like yesterday (Garcia allowed one run in seven innings in a 3-1 win over Detroit) make Seattle reluctant to make such a splashy move, reality is the 6-foot-4 right-hander is the Mariner who best fits two criteria:

• Not being in the Mariners' future (he'll be a free agent at the end of the season), inexplicable as that seems after solid starts such as the win over the Tigers;

• Having significant value to teams off to good starts yet still seeking pitching — teams that might deal Seattle one or more of the major-league-ready position prospects it sorely needs.

Justin Leone
"That list of clubs needing a quality guy like Freddy is comprised of about every team with a winning record," one scout said, "with maybe the exception of the (Florida) Marlins."

In fact, second baseman Bret Boone, the Mariners' clubhouse leader, also fits those general qualifiers, to a team seeking a Gold Glove infielder and power bat.

Boone has been playing the past week while dealing with health issues that sidelined him previously and the knowledge that Ray Boone, his grandfather and patriarch of the Baseball Boones, is gravely ill in a San Diego hospital.

Asked what he thought of the situation, Boone said, "This is bad. Anything can happen."

It is believed that, in recent days, CEO Howard Lincoln has given the go-ahead for his baseball officials to rework the team, which is on pace to win 56 games.

General manager Bill Bavasi declined to comment yesterday, saying, "It wouldn't be fair."

That, in itself, is an indication that the situation has changed for Seattle.

A dozen days ago in Minnesota, Bavasi said he expected that teams that had been reluctant to make moves because it would be seen as giving up on the season might start to make trades around the beginning of June.

Jose Lopez
The expectation, expressed before the Mariners were swept by the Twins and lost all three series since, was that the Mariners would improve and be a competing buyer instead of a rebuilding seller. That seemingly is no longer the case.

Lincoln previously had been steadfastly holding out for the Mariners to climb out of the cellar, looking to keep his commitment of spending the $5 million to $7 million left from the Kazu Sasaki walkout.

Now, the prevailing thought could be to save that money and spend it — and a lot more — on the best available bat next winter.

In making moves, the club might not rush Tacoma infielders Justin Leone and/or Jose Lopez. Both are considered raw, with only two months of Class AAA experience.

Leone, who features power to go with a good glove, has holes in his swing. Lopez and Adam Jones, an 18-year-old Class A infielder, are the best position prospects in the organization, but Lopez is only 20.

Along with the baseball considerations, there is the delicate dance of the 40-man roster. Leone and Madritsch are already on it, but promoting Lopez or Sherrill, a left-handed reliever said to be nearly ready for the big leagues, would necessitate making room on the major-league roster.

Adam Jones
It is also a fact of baseball-business life that, when teams promote the likes of Leone or Lopez, the clock starts ticking on major-league service time. While it is unlikely to prevent a promotion, especially with the club on a lee shore in a gale of losing, the strong preference is to have kids do their developing in the minors.

So, little-used outfielder Quinton McCracken could be vulnerable to a move, and so could first baseman John Olerud or shortstop Rich Aurilia.

Young infielders would be called up to play and learn; thus Aurilia or Olerud could be moved, with Scott Spiezio being moved to first base.

With their catching a wasteland between Dan Wilson, 35, and Rene Rivera, 20 and still developing at Class A Wisconsin, the Mariners are thought to have made a major-league-ready receiver a highly desirable element of any trade.

It is believed the Mariners are primarily seeking position players — mainly an athletic outfielder who is both young and experienced — to rekindle the hope for 2004 while improving the outlook for the next few years.

Ironically, the 2001 season, the pinnacle of a decade of quality play, may have been the team's undoing.

Having lost Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez, and with Jay Buhner injured and all but out of it, they won 116 games with a situational offense that hit only 169 home runs but led the league with a .288 average and 927 runs.

They have followed that principle since, staying within payroll budgets by going after free agents who fit the finances as well as the offensive style. But run production has fallen, and this year the plan has failed.

"Seattle has an offense without an identity," one scout said. "They don't have any power to speak of, yet they don't have enough speed to run or enough guys who can really execute to manufacture runs."

What has happened to some veterans has the Mariners in a quandary. Experienced players usually perform to their career levels; but, two months in, a number of Mariners regulars have not shown this yet.

In their current tricky situation, Seattle officials are trying to find the right balance: maintaining a backbone of veteran presence, yet getting help for the offense and upgrading the defense to help what still is regarded as a good pitching staff, especially the rotation.

Also, on rare occasions, if teams go young early enough, the kids develop fast enough to make a competent team — competitive if not contending — by the late stages of the year the changes are made.

The next two months, possibly starting with the next two days, could be one of the most crucial periods in club history. It could set the direction of the Mariners for years to come.

Bob Finnigan: 206-464-8276 or bfinnigan@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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