MARINERS MOVING IN RIGHT DIRECTION

By Murray Chass

January 3, 2010

The Seattle Mariners have spent a busy and productive off-season gearing up for a run at the American League West championship, but to get it they will have to overcome not only the Angels of Anaheim but also recent history.Mariners Win 225

Last season, according to Bob Waterman of Elias Sports Bureau, the Mariners became the 16th team in the last decade to improve their record by 20 or more wins. Of the first 15, only two teams, the 2005 Cardinals and Padres, went on the following season and won a division title; one other team, the 2001 Cardinals, won the wild card.

Fourteen of the 15 teams won fewer games the following season. The lone team that increased its victory total, the 2004 Cubs, won only one game more than the previous season. Four teams, including the 2002 Mariners, suffered at least 20 more losses the season after. (See chart below.) 

The 2008 Mariners improved their record by 24 wins. What happened the following season to the six teams that won at least that many more games? All won fewer games, and three finished with losing records.

This recent history doesn’t mean the Mariners are doomed to repeat it, but precedent isn’t on their side. On other hand, Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins are, and they could have more to say about the Mariners’ season than history.    

“Anaheim is still the team to beat,” Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners’ general manager, said. “People look at us and are taking notice, but we still have to do it on the field.”

The Angels are the team to beat because they have won the division title the last three years and five of the last six. It’s very possible that they can be beaten next season because they have lost John Lackey, their No. 1 pitcher with a 102-71 record in his eight seasons with them; Figgins, their switch-hitting catalyst, who last season scored a career high 114 runs, and Vladimir Guerrero, their major offensive threat, even though injuries have recently undermined his production.

Lackey has moved to Boston as a free agent, Guerrero remains unsigned and Figgins has moved north to Seattle, where he will replace Adrian Beltre at third base and team with Ichiro Suzuki as a potent 1-2 combination at the top of the lineup.

It is one of two combos that make the Mariners a serious threat to the Angels. The other has Cliff Lee joining Felix Hernandez at the top of the pitching rotation. Many people believe Roy Halladay, who has moved from Toronto to Philadelphia, was the No. 1 pitcher in the American League. To me, Hernandez was and is No. 1.

Cliff Lee Phillies3 225The Phillies had a chance to have Halladay and Lee in their starting rotation, but general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. opted to trade Lee to the Mariners to replenish their supply of good minor league prospects – he said – a decision they may regret if they fail to get to the World Series for the third consecutive year.

Lee can be a free agent after the coming season, but Zduriencik was willing to take that chance to have the potent 1-2 pitching punch of Hernandez and Lee.

“When you have a chance to acquire a pitcher of Lee’s ability,” he said, “you do it even if the cost is three pretty good young players. When a general manager is in a position to acquire someone like Lee you have to do it. You don’t get these opportunities very often.”

Zduriencik said he had tried to get Halladay before the trading deadline last season, but “he had a no-trade and it didn’t go anywhere. I talked to them again around the winter meetings. When Ruben and I talked, we began talks pending his being able to acquire Halladay. When Ruben asked if we would have interest if they could get Halladay, I said absolutely.”

Zduriencik has made one other major move this off-season, and it is his most controversial. He obtained Milton Bradley in a trade with the Chicago Cubs to play left field. Bradley, a 31-year-old veteran of 10 seasons and 6 teams, has been a troubled and troublesome player. The Cubs suspended him for the final 15 games last season.

After hitting better than .300 in each of the previous two seasons and reaching career highs of 77 runs batted in and 22 home runs in 2008, Bradley had one of his worst seasons last year, hitting .257 with 12 homers and 49 r.b.i.

Considering all of Bradley’s problems with other teams, I asked Zduriencik, was this a case of a team thinking it could succeed where other teams had not.Milton Bradley 225

“I don’t know if I look at it like that,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any magic potion as much as maybe it was a chance to acquire a middle of the lineup bat. You look at his career when he’s had good spurts. We’re going to give every player his due respect. We’ll see what a talented player he can be. We had a  nice talk. He said he’s looking at this as a good opportunity. He thought Seattle would be a real nice chance for him. We told him we think you’re a player with ability and you can make a place there.”

The Mariners look for their elder statesman, 40-year-old Ken Griffey Jr., to exert a positive influence on Bradley. The Mariners signed Griffey as a free agent last February, and his record doesn’t look like he had a very good season: .214 batting average, 19 homers, 57 r.b.i.

But Zduriencik said, “We brought Griffey back and that’s big. He had a big influence in the clubhouse last year and in the second half of the season he swung a big bat.”

In winning 24 more games last year than the year before, the Mariners had a big performances from Suzuki (.352 batting average), Jose Lopez (25 homers, 96 r.b.i.), Franklin Gutierrez (.283 batting average), Russell Branyan (31 homers, .520 slugging).

“It was a nice little story for us last year,” said Zduriencik, a rookie general manager last year. “I didn’t feel overwhelmed. Our manager and the coaching staff did a terrific job.”

But as Zduriencik pointed out, the Mariners finished third. Their 85-77 record, compared with 61-101 in 2008, still left them 2 games behind the Rangers and 12 behind the Angels.

If they hope to avoid the experience of other teams that made huge one-season strides, they will need to have more of those 2009 performances and then some.

Branyan is not a member of the Mariners at the moment. A free agent, he ended last season with a herniated disk and the Mariners aren’t certain they will sign him. Mike Carp, who came from the Mets in the J.J. Putz trade, could be the first baseman after hitting .315 in 21 games with Seattle last season.

Told that he has spent the off-season looking serious about winning the division title, Zduriencik said, “Everyone enters it with great expectations. We’ve made moves we feel we’ve helped ourselves with, but you play the games on the field.”

 

WHITEY CLEANS UP

Whitey Herzog2 225The call came early, before 8 o’clock in the morning in St. Louis, and Whitey Herzog was in the shower.  “My wife answered the phone,” Herzog related. “She came in crying. ‘You’re in the Hall of Fame,’ she said.”

Mary Lou Herzog has been with Whitey for virtually his entire baseball career as player, coach, executive. They have been married for 56 years. Unlike a few teams, she never fired him.

Herzog, 78 years old, retired from baseball in January 1993 when he stepped down as  director of player personnel for the Angels. He last managed with the Cardinals in 1990, three years after he managed a team to a first-place finish for the seventh time.

He had bypass heart surgery six years ago. “I had no idea anything was wrong with me,” he said. “I was lucky. I worked out three days a week on my treadmill and a bike.”

Now he spends most of his time fishing and hunting. “I gave up skiing at 72,” he said. “I watch a lot of baseball on television. I don’t go to many Cardinals games, maybe 10 or 12 games a year.”

Herzog said one of his eight grandsons played in the Yankees’ system but was released and then signed with the Phillies.

He said he never thought about the Hall of Fame until he began getting some votes. “My vote count was getting closer,” he said. Last month it was enough for him to make reservations for Cooperstown in July.

 

ANAHEIM, NOT L.A., ON PARADE

With the presence of four of the team’s former All-Stars, the Angels of Anaheim participated in the Tournament of Roses parade on New Year’s Day in conjunction with the city’s hosting the 2010 All-Star game. That would be Anaheim hosting the game, not Los Angeles, a city to the north whose name has been hijacked by the Angels’ owner, Arte Moreno, for his personal use.Angels Rose Parade

Bobby Grich, Chuck Finley, Mark Langston and Troy Percival, all of whom played for the pre-Los Angeles Angels, rode on the city of Anaheim’s float, which was titled “All-Star Dreams.” A spokesman for the city of Anaheim said Moreno did not try to hijack the float.

This will be Anaheim’s third All-Star game. The first, in 1967, was my second. Tony Perez won it for the National League with a 15th-inning home run and afterward, in the N.L. clubhouse, photographers wanted Perez to pose for pictures with the N.L. manager, Walter Alston.

Working for the Associated Press, I was at the front of a group of reporters talking to Perez, and I wasn’t about to relinquish my spot for the photographers. That’s why the next day my picture appeared in newspapers all over the country standing between Perez and Alston.

 

AND THE BALLOT SAYS …

HOF LogoThe ballot almost didn’t make it. I was talking on the telephone to a friend, also a baseball writer, about three hours before midnight on New Year’s Eve when I realized that I hadn’t submitted my Hall of Fame ballot. The deadline was upon me.

I had already put an X next to Jack Morris’ name, but I still had to decide on five other players – two repeat candidates, Andre Dawson and Bert Blyleven, and three first-timers, Barry Larkin, Roberto Alomar and Edgar Martinez.

On Dawson, I came to the same conclusion as I had previously – outstanding player but a just-miss. I felt the same way about Blyleven, though with new ammunition for my decision. As good as Blyleven was in winning 287 games, he had some of his worst years when his team had good years.

The best example of that dichotomy came in 1988 when the Twins finished second with a 91-71 record while Blyleven had a 10-17 record and a 5.43 e.r.a.  

I found Martinez the most difficult to decide. I probably came closer to voting for him than I had for any player I had not voted for. As a result, if he is not elected to the Hall this week, he gets an automatic rehearing from me for the next election.

I voted for Larkin and Alomar, though not with the same enthusiasm as I voted or would have voted for some previous first-timers, such as Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount in 1999, had I been permitted to vote then.

 

MOVING UP AND DOWN

These are the teams that in the past decade have increased their victory total by 20 or more over the previous season and how they did the following season (courtesy of Elias Sports Bureau): 

  White Sox 2000:  95-67  (+20) 2001:  83-79  (-12)
  Cardinals 2000:  95-67  (+20) 2001:  93-69  (-2)*
  Cubs 2001:  88-74  (+23) 2002:  67-95  (-21)
  Astros 2001:  93-69  (+21) 2002:  84-78  (-9)
  Phillies 2001:  86-76  (+21) 2002:  80-81  (-6)
  Mariners 2001:  116-46  (+25) 2002:  93-69  (-23)
  Angels 2002:  99-63  (+24) 2003:  77-85  (-22)
  Cubs 2003:  88-74  (+21) 2004:  89-73  (+1)
  Royals 2003:  83-79  (+21) 2004:  58-104  (-25)
  Tigers 2004:  72-90  (+29) 2005:  71-91  (-1)
  Cardinals 2004:  105-57  (+20) 2005:  100-62  (-5)**
  Padres 2004:  87-75  (+23) 2005:  82-80  (-5)**
  D’backs 2005:  77-85  (+26) 2006:  76-86  (-1)
  Tigers 2006:  95-67  (+24) 2007:  88-74  (-7)
  Rays 2008:  97-65  (+31) 2009:  84-78  (-13)
  Mariners 2009:  85-77  (+24) 2010:  ???
       
  *     N.L. Wild Card    
  **   Division champion    
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