Over the past few years Seattle baseball fans have grown accustomed to having their hometown team in first place entering the summer months. This season is no different. Through the first three months of the 2003 season, the Mariners find themselves with a comfortable lead in the American League West. They have a seven game lead on the Oakland Athletics and are12.5 games ahead of the World Champion Anaheim Angels. Yet, despite their early season success, the Mariners still have room on their team for improvement. And these improvements are going to be necessary if the Mariners wish to advance further into the season than they have in previous years.
While the Athletics sit a ways back from the M’s in the standings, they still remain a very dangerous team. As long as the A’s can roll out Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, and Mark Mulder every week, they are not going to be fading away anytime soon. Their offense looks to start hitting up in the summer months, as Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez remain too good of hitters to struggle for an entire season. And their general manager Billy Beane has gained a reputation of going out and acquiring any missing pieces for his team, this despite their limited budget.
On the other side of the country, both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees are looking like possible championship contenders. The Red Sox bring out a line-up stacked from top to bottom and are always deadly in a playoff series as long as Pedro Martinez can remain healthy. Meanwhile, the Yankees will always find a way to win as their bottomless checkbook gives them the ability to make any improvements that they so desire. Their owner, George Steinbrenner, won’t stand for anything less.
If the Mariners wish to remain ahead of the pack in the American League, they are going to have to make a few moves before the trading deadline passes at the end of this month.
The most glaring hole on the Mariners roster is at third base. While Jeff Cirillo has been solid defensively his offense has been greatly lacking since he joined the Mariners. He has provided absolutely no power or production and shows no signs of turning his fortunes around. The only catch is that the M’s have him signed for another two years at a cost of almost $7 million per. No team in baseball, especially in this fiscally conservative era, is going to absorb that large of a contract. And the Mariners are not going to allow a player making that much money to waste away on their bench.
Then, with the possibility of upgrading third base a long shot at best, left field becomes the next best place for the Mariners to improve themselves.
Randy Winn came over to the Mariners in the off-season as part of a package for former manager Lou Piniella. He was billed as the answer to the Mariners’ long-standing left field problem, the stabilizing presence that was going to have Mariner fans forget the years of Al Martin, Eric Anthony, Greg Briley along with many more unmentionable others. Instead, Winn has struggled so far in his first few months with the team. Despite having the third most at-bats on the team, the slap-hitting Winn has only two home runs and 27 RBI’s to show for it. While Winn has never been billed as a power-hitter, he did hit 13 homeruns and drive in 75 for the Devils Rays last season. It was that production that the Mariners thought that they were acquiring, but Safeco Field can be a tough place for any hitter to call home. Anybody doubting that has to look no further than the struggles of Jeff Cirillo and Mike Cameron at the friendly confines.
While Winn has been far from a complete bust, he just has not been able to provide the Mariners with the much production. Mariner left fielders are last in the American League in OPS (On-base plus slugging percentage) and Winn receives the majority of the time out there. And this season more than ever, the Mariners need some home run hitting production. The M’s have only received a total of six homeruns combined from their starting corner infielders, Cirillo and John Olerud. Without run production from those two usual power positions the Mariners have to look to get it from other places.
One possibility is Kansas City Royals centerfielder Carlos Beltran. Beltran is a complete player that would provide above average defense along with the power that the Mariners desperately need from the outfield. He would also provide insurance in center field for the M’s if Mike Cameron departs after this season. The athletic Beltran doesn’t become a free agent until after the 2004 season. Beltran could also bring balance to a M’s lineup that is right handed power dominated, with Cameron, Bret Boone and Edgar Martinez providing most of the pop.
Acquiring Beltran would also keep him out of the hands of the Oakland Athletics who are rumored to be interested in his services.
Another outfield possibility could be two-time Texas Ranger, nearly one-time Montreal Expo, Juan Gonzalez. Gonzalez is a player that M’s GM Pat Gillick tried to acquire a few seasons back and that would still make sense to acquire now. While Gonzalez just exercised his no-trade clause to turn down a trade to Montreal, his disposition could change in the following weeks as the Rangers’ focus on youth could cut into Gonzalez’s playing time. A two-time AL MVP such as Gonzalez could turn the Mariners line-up into a pretty fearsome bunch. His defense, however, isn’t nearly up to par with what Beltran would provide.
Randy Winn hasn’t been the biggest hole in the Mariners line-up – that honor goes to Mr. Cirillo - he is the player whom it makes the most financial sense to improve upon. The M’s are going to need more production out of left field, not just to stay ahead of their competitors, but also to insure themselves against injuries to any of their current players. The playoffs are when that extra-added offense is going to matter the most. In October, the likes of Mike Maroth and Ismael Valdes just don’t take the hill. It’s the Mike Mussinas and Roger Clemens of the world that will be standing in the Mariners way. It’s for that reason that Pat Gillick and company need to start looking to upgrade in left field, a position which could very well be the difference between another early postseason exit and a World Series Championship.
Scott Smiles is a life-long baseball fan and 2002 graduate of the University of Washington. He can be reached at email@example.com.