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A Shot in TheDark
In a soft division anything is possible, but the smart money says: Startrebuilding

THEY WERE bothPac-10 stars blessed with golden arms, and in the 2006 draft the Mariners hadtheir choice of either. One was more of a risk, a scrawny righthander who grewup near Seattle in Bellevue and went to the University of Washington; the otherwas a 6'3", 185-pound flamethrower from Cal. With the No. 5 pick, theMariners—to the dismay of legions of their fans—made the safe choice: theflamethrower, Brandon Morrow. The local kid they passed up: Tim Lincecum, whotwo years later would become the National League Cy Young winner with theGiants.

For two seasonsMorrow has been living in Lincecum's shadow, but the Mariners think that'sabout to change. Last year, in his rookie season, Morrow was impressive workingout of the bullpen, putting up a 1.47 ERA in 36 2/3 innings while earning 10saves in 12 opportunities while filling in for injured (and now departed)closer J.J. Putz for a month and a half. Morrow also made five Septemberstarts—one-hitting the Yankees for 7 2/3 innings in his debut before fouruneven performances—as Seattle completed its first 100-loss season in 25 years.Now the Mariners are returning him to the bullpen, where he could become one ofthe game's elite power closers.

Last season Morrowrelied mostly on a 98-mph fastball and a killer slider; to expand hisrepertoire, he was at work this spring on a new curveball and reintroducing thesplitter that was his signature pitch in college. The Mariners had slotted himin the third spot in the rotation during spring training, but forearm sorenessand a bout with the flu prevented him from building up arm strength. (Onesuspects the prospect of Miguel Batista in the ninth-inning role had somethingto do with the move too.) Morrow has no quibbles. "Once you get a taste ofclosing," he says, "I don't think many people would want to go back toanything else."

How well the24-year-old anchors a thin bullpen will go a long way toward determining if newgeneral manager Jack Zduriencik's decision not to shake up a stagnant rosterthis off-season was a wise one. "On paper we're probably the fourth-bestteam in the division, but the club wasn't nearly as bad as the recordindicated," says Zduriencik of a team that was the first in history to lose100 games with a payroll of more than $100 million. "I didn't want torebuild, because we have the pieces to be competitive."

Playing in thesoft AL West will help, as will a rotation fronted by two arms that will missplenty of bats. Seattle can contend this year if Felix Hernandez continues onthe path of becoming an elite starter (his ERA has fallen in each of the pastthree seasons) and Erik Bedard stays healthy (the lefty is fully recovered fromshoulder surgery). A year after being outscored by 140 runs, the Marinersshould close that gap thanks to a vastly improved defense bolstered by theaddition of outfielders Endy Chavez and Franklin Gutierrez, both of whom areGold Glove--caliber.

Optimism would begreater if not for an offense that was second to last in the AL in runs scored,slugging and on-base percentage and projects to be even worse with thedeparture of leftfielder Raul Iba√±ez, who led the team in OPS and total bases.Yes, the return of Ken Griffey Jr. energizes the fan base—Seattle's steadilyshrinking attendance ranked 20th in the majors last year—but Zduriencik isbeing overly optimistic about what the 39-year-old can give them in runproduction when he says, "Ken will really help us [at Safeco Field], wherelefthanded power plays well." In 131 at bats after being traded to theWhite Sox (and hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field) in July, Griffey had just13 extra-base hits.

If the lossesstart piling up early and often, a raft of players could leave town at thetrade deadline, with Bedard, Carlos Silva, Kenji Johjima, Jarrod Washburn,Adrian Beltre and Miguel Batista all candidates to go. (Former G.M. Bill Bavasicommitted $97 million to Silva, Batista and Johjima alone.) At that point,Zduriencik will be forced to do what he didn't this winter: tear down andrebuild.

CONSIDER THIS AModest Proposal ...

The Marinerssigned masher Russell Branyan (left) in the off-season to be a low-cost source(one year, $1.4 million) of lefthanded power at first base. It's a nice move bya new front office that has embraced traditional (scouting) and modern(statistical analysis) approaches to player evaluation. A peek at Branyan'snumbers, however, shows him to have significant difficulty with southpaws: acareer .284 OBP. Fortunately, there's an inexpensive solution in camp. ChrisShelton is available to share the job. Shelton, 28, has a career .346 OBP and a.461 slugging percentage, he crushed Triple A pitching in half a season lastyear (.340 batting average), and he's beaten up minor league lefties to thetune of a .413 OBP and a .574 SLG the last four years. A Branyan-Sheltonplatoon would be one of the five best first base situations in the league.


LIE 10.3

At bats per homerun for Ken Griffey Jr. in 45 career games at Safeco Field. Fourteen of his 16Safeco homers came in 1999—when the stadium opened, on July 15, and Griffey, inhis last season with the Mariners, hit 48 homers. Last year, despite thebenefit of two slugger-friendly home fields in Cincinnati and Chicago, Griffeyhit one homer every 27.2 at bats and slugged .424, his worst power output sincehis rookie year in '89.

The Lineup

Manager DonWakamatsu

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

B-T: Bats-throws
WHIP: Walks plus hits per inning pitched
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 69)


May 7, 1990

You want to fast-forward the calendar so you can seeKen Griffey Jr. in his prime. You want to find out just how great a player hewill someday be when he actually gets serious about baseball. Not serious likeWill Clark—serious, walking around with an I'm-looking-for-the-cure-for-cancerexpression wrinkling his brow. Just, you know, serious. Like, paying attentionto who's pitching. Learning the names of some of the opposing players. Littlethings. Unless, of course, that's the whole secret to the 20-year-old Griffey'ssuccess: that he doesn't unnecessarily complicate the fundamentally simpleconcept of hitting the ball with the bat and catching it with the glove.

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HAPPY RETURNS? Griffey might put fans in the seats again, but can he still send balls over the wall the way he used to?