Randy Winn (Getty Images)
The Mariners outfield could very well take on a much different look come April, 2004 as the team must decide what to do with two starters from a year ago, LF Randy Winn and CF Mike Cameron. Winn is arbitration eligible and Cameron is a free agent. InsidethePark.com columnist Jamie Cobb weighs in with his thoughts.
Few Mariner fans will forget the catch. Climbing high over the wall in left-center where the Seattle twenty-something’s socialize, pulling back a would-be Derek Jeter homerun. Safeco fans, eagerly ready for a reason to forget Ken Griffey Jr., roared with approval.
He left the field to a standing ovation, came to bat to a standing ovation, and then promptly struck out but yet to another standing ovation. And just four games into the 2000 season, with one catch, Mike Cameron was embraced by the Mariner faithful.
Oh how far this team and player have come.
When Mike Cameron arrived in 2000, little was known about the player from Cincinnati. He was coming off a 1999 campaign where he posted career-highs in virtually every offensive category.
Cameron picked up where he left off during his first year as a Mariner, hitting .267, belting 19 homeruns and driving in 78. Immediately, a love affair began with the new guy in center and the Mariner faithful.
In 2001, the centerfielder broke out, showcasing talent that his hometown faithful from LaGrange, Georgia knew he possessed. His average stayed a consistent .267 but his power number rose considerably; he hit 25 homers and drove in 110. His midseason accomplishments earned him his first - and only - all-star berth.
However, since that career season, things have been less than memorable for the centerfielder.
Outside of one spectacular April night in Chicago, Cameron’s 2002 season was a disappointment. He hit a meager .239, his RBI production fell from 110 to 80 and he led the American league in strikeouts with 176, 74 more than the closest Mariner, Bret Boone.
The 2003 season proved no better. Cammy only picked up 14 points on his batting average, ranking him last among Mariners that played in at least 100 games. Cameron again led the team in strikeouts with 137, all of this from a player who earned $7.4 million.
Enter Randy Winn.
Lou Piniella said it best when the Mariners acquired Winn as compensation for the long-time M’s manager who ended up taking over the Devil Ray’s managerial post.
“When I was in Seattle, I wanted (the Mariners) to get a left-fielder for me. Well;,they finally got a left fielder for me,” chuckled Piniella..
All jokes aside, Randy Winn provided Seattle with hope in left field; something this team hadn’t experienced since they traded it away through the means of Jose Cruz Jr. on July 31, 1997.
Winn finished second only to Ichiro in team batting average with a .295 mark and his .349 average with runners in scoring position was second only to Edgar Martinez. His glove made Mariner faithful forget the dreadful days of Al Martin and Butch Huskey in left.
New general manager Bill Bavasi is now faced with the same situation that his predecessor, Pat Gillick, was in when he first arrived in Seattle.
What to do with the team’s center-fielder?
Cameron, who always has struggled offensively at the cavernous confines Safeco Fields, was rumored to want to test the free agent market for a more hitter-friendly ballpark. But in recent days, it appears that Cameron’s stance has shifted
But even if he did want to come back, could the M’s afford to pay him?
Cameron is expected to sign for $6 to $8 million per year and Bavasi must determine if that is reasonable for a player that hit .235 at home last year and struck out 28 percent of the time with runners in scoring position. Compare that to Randy Winn, who hit .284 at Safeco and only whiffed 17 percent of the time with RISP.
2003 made it apparent that this M’s lineup can’t afford strikeout totals like those that Cameron put up. The team simply didn’t hit enough homeruns to counter the ill-effects of going down on strikes. In 2003, the Mariners struck out a glaring 7.12 times for every homerun they hit. Out of all American League teams, only Detroit and Tampa Bay were worse.
Of the eight playoff teams, only three had a ratio greater than 6:1 and none had one greater than 7:1.
This team can succeed without hitting homeruns - which it has shown in the recent past - because of the pitcher friendly park they play in. However, to be a successful team that doesn’t hit homeruns, they have to get on base and reduce their strikeouts. To do this, they can’t bring back Mike Cameron. At least not at the price tag he’s commanding.
Where to go without Cameron?
The M’s need offense, and it seems the best way to generate it at Safeco is through the left side of the plate. There are several attractive free agents this year, but the M’s decisions on their current free agents and arbitration eligible players will ultimately determine what they can or cannot spend on an outfielder.
They don’t necessarily need a center-fielder to replace Cameron. Ichiro said he would play there, while Winn was a centerfielder in Tampa Bay.
Interestingly enough, two of the most attractive free-agent targets are former Mariners; Raul Ibanez and Jose Cruz, Jr. Ibanez seem to be the best fit, coming off a career year in KC, he drove in 90 runs and struck out 56 times less than Cameron in 74 more plate appearances.
Ibanez production has been discounted because he played in hitter-friendly Kauffman Stadium over the last three years. He has, however, hit .381,and had an OPS of 1.316 at Safeco field while posting marks of .299 and .850 respectively over the same period in Kansas City.
There are two moves during this off-season that the Mariners cannot afford to make: resigning Mike Cameron and not signing Randy Winn.
As the season progressed, it became clear, Randy Winn was the left-fielder this team had been searching for. Now, ironically enough, the M’s find themselves in search of someone to play next to him in center.
Jamie Cobb is a graduate of the University of Washington that loves a good, solid pitchers' duel when he sees one. And no, his middle name isn't Moyer. Jamie welcomes your feedback, good or bad, firstname.lastname@example.org.