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Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Goat Boy And Gump Stink, But We're Not In THAT Bad Of Shape 

Misery breeds company, or so the saying goes, and Sox-1918 has had plenty of company (read just about any of the links at the side of the page) when we blast the Mariners' current attempts to improve for the upcoming season. And so far, we're absolutely correct in our analysis. The 2004 Seattle Mariners are worse than the second-place 2003 version in a lot of important ways of which any reader paying attention the last few weeks is all too aware. This impressive string of talent- and youth-sucking transactions is leaving me looking through the local papers and ESPN.com each and every day, anticipating yet another example of Mariner management shooting the team in the foot. This trend is leaving a grim residue on the fans' outlook in Marinerland.

Is it time to throw in the towel? Are drastic measures in order, like massive season ticket boycotts or angry protests outside the gates of our hallowed ballpark? For a while I considered the possibility. Then, on a whim, I went through the Sox-1918 December archives and remembered my 2004 sources of optimism post. Everything about which I was hopeful then I'm hopeful still. All is not lost.

2004 is Edgar's swan song. There shouldn't be anyone in baseball, let alone on the Mariners, that doesn't want to see Edgar retire without ever appearing in the World Series. Imagine the excitement of a late-inning tie game in the NL champions' ballpark. The M's have two outs with two men on base with Scott Spiezio due up. But wait! Edgar Martinez is putting on his helmet and grabbing a bat; it looks like he's going to pinch-hit for Spiezio!

No one on the M's wants to be the one that makes the last out or crucial mistake that ends Edgar's career, and veteran leadership, starting with Boone and Aurilia, is going to make sure the entire team feels that way. The 2004 M's should be a motivated bunch.

Ichiro is signed to a contract extension. Bavasi did the right thing this time, taking care of Ichiro. Popular opinion has shifted, from Ichiro being one of the top outfielders in the game, to Ichiro being one of the more overrated players in baseball. The little guy's got a lot of people to prove wrong, and I expect he will likely do just that. Don't be surprised if he puts up a line close to .340 AVG, 20 HR, 75 RBI, .410 OBP, .900 OPS. Throw in about 40 steals and another Gold Glove, and he could be looking at another MVP award with those numbers.

Many of you might not buy into the Player With A Chip On His Shoulder rationale, and you could probably find examples of players that try too hard and subsequently experience a dip in production to back your skepticism. John Mabry definitely tried too hard when he was with the M's, for one. To counter, I'll cite two examples of players stepping up their performances with the mindset of disproving their nay-sayers: Mike Cameron and Jay Buhner. From 2001 to 2003, Cameron posted a .309 AVG, .444 OBP, .649 SLG, and 1.093 OPS against the White Sox, the team that gave him up to Cincinnati for next to nothing. Cameron himself has said on many occasions that he always looks forward to the ChiSox on the schedule, just so he can prove them wrong. A similar pattern can be found (unfortunately, ESPN does not provide splits for retired players) for Buhner's performance against the Yankees.

I sincerely believe Ichiro will be in the Cameron/Buhner category rather than the Mabry category. Remember Ichiro's great 2001 season, when he was American League MVP? He seemed excited to be playing every day, given the chance to prove that Japanese position players could make an impact in the Major Leagues. In 2002 and 2003, those moments of joy and excitement were few and far between, and Ichiro's -- and the Mariners' -- fortunes likewise diminished. I understand that this correlation does not imply causation -- Ichiro's state of mind may have had nothing to do with his performance late in the 2002 and 2003 seasons -- but the correlation at least should provoke thought.

Rafael Soriano is straight nasty. Other blogs have referenced this already, but it bears repeating: Robocop had a 0.21 ERA in winter ball!

Soriano is one of FIVE Mariner starting pitchers who could conceivably be All-Stars in 2004, along with Moyer, Piniero, Meche, and Garcia. Could be the best rotation in the AL if things fall into place.

By repeatedly acquiring and re-signing marginal veteran starting pitchers, Bill's father, "Buzzie" Bavasi, effectively kept Sandy Koufax out of the Dodgers' rotation for years. It seems like Bill Bavasi is trying to repeat the same mistake with Soriano. Don't blow this one, please, Bill. No one in the game is too valuable as a middle reliever to be moved into the rotation.

For the above reasons, Mariners fans should hold on to their hopes for the 2004 season. Add in the contributions expected of the bullpen, with Mateo, Guardado, and Hasegawa setting up Sasaki, and the continued excellence of Bret Boone, and we should be downright excited. The M's aren't the favorites, by any measure, but they're certainly contenders. And as long as they're in contention, they may just go all the way.

Think back to the 2001 season. Who would have thought the Arizona Diamondbacks could have won the World Series? The players overcame the mistakes made by their management (in their case, by Bob Brenley, their rookie manager) and took home the trophy. Baseball's a funny game. Anything can and does happen.

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