Five Questions: Seattle Mariners

When a Pacific Northwest salmon dies, it doesn’t fool around. The magnificent beast struggles home to its natal stream, where it dramatically flails, expires and rots.

The resultant stench is among the worst things you’ll ever smell, something like rotten eggs baked in the sun. Worse, your dog will roll in it and stink gloriously for the whole summer.

Kind of like the Mariners did last year.

But the salmon’s effort is not fruitless. Before the fish die, they spawn, hopefully giving rise to the next generation of fish. Eventually, that generation will stink, too, but with luck, they’ll give it a good run before the inevitable curtain.

So, will the Mariners have enough luck to rebound in 2005?

In keeping with the “hardball” theme of this web site, I figured I would consult a different type of hard ball for the answers to five pivotal questions – a Magic 8 Ball. It was either that or invite Chris Matthews to speculate, and nobody wants that.

So, without further ado, let’s light a fast luck candle, shine up my spheroid prognostication device, and get the 8 Ball rollin’.

1. Can the team stay healthy?

The answer right now is flickering between “signs point to no” and a Steve Austin-esque “OH, HELL NO.” Which is funny, because I didn’t know you could get the latter answer from a Magic 8 Ball. But the mystic black plastic fortune teller speaks wisely.

There was an entire story in a local daily about when Richie Sexson checked his swing – and did not pop his shoulder out of joint. I am serious: that was the news. Also, new starting shortstop Pokey Reese is a defensive whiz, but gets hurt every year. Bret Boone has had back stiffness in spring training, and like most of the lineup, is getting no younger.

The news isn’t better for the pitchers. Every Fifth Day Eddie Guardado is coming off of knee surgery, a partially torn rotator cuff he rehabbed instead of getting surgically repaired (uh oh), and now has the Ken Griffey Jr. Memorial pulled hamstring. Joel Pineiro, a linchpin of the team’s hopes, can’t play long-toss without pain.

Considering the organization treats young pitchers like the orphans in Oliver Twist, it might get worse before it gets any better.

Verdict: “Signs point to no.”

2. Will the pitching rotation hold together?

Somebody call MacGyver. Leo Mazzone aside, old Richard Dean Anderson may be the only one who could jury-rig a solution, and he could do it with spit, toiler paper and the Mariner Moose’s pelt.

Pineiro, as mentioned previously, is an injury question. The case for Jamie Moyer rebounding mostly can be summed up as “sure, he’s 42, but can he really throw any slower?” And those are your top two starters.

The bottom three are a former independent league player, a guy with a history of arm surgery and Ryan Franklin – assuming Franklin can hold off challenges from recently-inked Jorge Campillo and young phenom Felix Hernandez.

That independent league ace is Bobby Madritsch, who was the M’s best starter down the stretch last year. When healthy, Gil Meche can be lights out, but that’s like saying Robert Downey Jr. is a good actor when he’s not wacky on the junk. Franklin is an innings eater, but not much more, and may get bumped by Campillo, an alum of the Mexican League with a great change-up.

The really exciting story would be if Hernandez, considered the top pitching prospect in baseball, forces the club’s hand out of spring training and takes the league by storm like Dwight Gooden minus the coke. But Mariner fans would settle simply for his arm not falling off, a la Ryan Anderson.

If Moyer puts together a year more like 2003 than 2004, and if Madritsch pitches close to how he did last summer, and if Pineiro makes 30 starts and Meche 25, and if Franklin or Campillo offer greater than replacement level performance, the rotation could be solid.

That’s a lot of ifs.

Verdict: “Don’t count on it.”

3. Will the major free agent acquisitions pay dividends?

The Magic 8 Ball is spinning wildly in confusion over a crazy offseason market where Orlando Cabrera was “worth” four years and $32 million. For a moment, I think it’s just going to froth up and not give me an answer. But then I realize it’s just excited about one of the two power hitters the M’s acquired in the offseason.

Quoth the 8 Ball: “Adrian Beltre is good.”

Acquiring a superior defensive player at a premium position who hits for average and power – and turns 26 next month – is always a good idea. When you consider his five year deal is less costly than eight years or Derek Lowe and Russ Ortiz, it seems even more like money well spent.

It’s not all sunshine and roses. Richie Sexson is an aging slugger who plays a non-premium position, is coming off of two major injuries and entering a pitcher’s park that is tough on right-handed batters. Paraphrasing George Lakoff, don’t think of an elephant: think of an albatross.

It should be noted, though, that Mariner first basemen treated the ball with a Gandhian attitude in 2004 – no violence. After subjecting Sexson’s shoulder to every test but the Rorschach, Mariner doctors are convinced that it is sound. If that’s true, he’ll boost the team’s power.

Beltre’s $64 million contract is expensive, but a bargain compared to what other players were going for. Sexson’s deal is bloated, risky and could turn into an anchor around the payroll’s neck, but he’ still likely to give the Mariners more production than they had last year.

Verdict: “Signs point to yes.”

4. Can young talent take the next step?

Felix Hernandez is the guy everyone is excited about, and if he stays healthy – please, everyone knock wood – won’t disappoint.

There are two other key young players that the M’s are counting on to play a critical role: Jeremy Reed, who is penciled in as the starting center fielder, and Miguel Olivo, who will get the bulk of the at-bats at catcher.

Reed is more of a low-risk, moderate reward player who promises to be productive, if not a star. After coming over from the White Sox in the Freddy Garcia trade, Reed tore Safeco Field up, while Olivo had a tough time making contact with the ball both at the plate and behind it.

Is Reed as good as his .397 batting average shows? No. Is Olivo as bad as he looked? Also so. Both players will be solid contributors, but, oh 8 Ball, will we see them reach their potential this year?

Verdict: “Better not tell you now.”

5. Can Ichiro! keep it up?

When the Mariners signed Ichiro!, Bobby Valentine called him one of the top five position players on the planet. Skeptics scoffed.

Years later, who was still laughing? Well, both sides. Valentine because he was right, the rest of us because he’ll be more remembered for his ridiculous dugout disguise than his evaluations of Japanese talent. Don’t worry, Bobby, they laughed at Dr. Frankenstein, too.

The incomparable Ichiro! broke George Sisler’s hits record last year, and some statheads clucked that hits were overrated. Maybe, but the M’s right fielder also placed second in the league in Baseball Prospectus’ Runs Above Replacement statistic, behind only Vlad Guerrero.

Ichiro! did it, like he does everything, in his own unique and inimitable fashion. He might hit ‘em where they ain’t, but he also hits ‘em with the regularity of a metronome. Is the modern Wee Willie Keeler? Sort of, but mostly he’s the first Ichiro!.

We’ll take him.

Verdict: “It is certain.”

So there you have it. A 100 percent scientific, 110 percent mystical foray into the fate of Seattle’s finest nine.

At the end of this experiment, I set the Magic 8 Ball down, and it came to rest upon a two dollar bill. The two numerals next to each other, I surmised, constituted its prediction for Mariner wins: 82. A great leap forward, but still not enough to make the playoffs.

Seal this prediction in a mayonnaise jar on Funk & Wagnall’s porch, and we’ll see how it smells next spring.

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