What's Really Possible This Winter?

Ordonez or Delgado Could Fit M's Plans (AP)

When a season such as this one is dropped upon the hometown nine, it's natural to spend dozens of September hours scouring the free agent lists for superstars that could turn the squad around in an Emerald City second.



The tendency is for fans to pick and choose the players with the gaudiest numbers and toss them into a fantasy lineup and simulate a championship season in their heads.

Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work that way.

Money always gets in the way of your Mariner dreams doesn't it? Just when you thought you'd put together a 25-man roster that would tame the Yankees and leave the rest American League in the dust, someone tells you that the team can't afford to sign the impact players you dreamed up.

Remember the winter of 2002? It's the one that took place after a disappointing second half that landed the M's in third place and off the postseason schedule. Yeah, that one.

Then General Manager Pat Gillick had a few holes to fill. The team clearly needed new life and was desperate for some youth to be added to the roster. But before Gillick could even make a phone call, he had one other job to do:

Trade Lou Piniella to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.

Lou wanted out. We all know that. But the reason he wanted out is the most interesting piece of the story.

He didn't want out of Seattle, where he'd managed the last 10 seasons, because he wanted to be "closer to home." That was a line and a load of farm residue if I have ever heard one. Lou wanted out because he wasn't getting any backing from the ownership group.

Piniella knew the team was a bat or two away for the previous three years and wasn't getting what he wanted from Howard Lincoln. Not once did the club go out and make the necessary move to put the team over the top. Lincoln, the team's CEO, stated on numerous occasions that Gillick had the freedom to put a deal together that would benefit the club and the ownership would take it into consideration, regardless of the financial repercussions.

Either Gillick really never came up with a solid deal, or Lincoln and his crew didn't like the financial ramifications of the idea. Which do you believe?

Gillick claimed he always preferred to build his team in the winter months rather than relying on a deadline trade to make the club a contender. Ok, Pat. We'll buy that.

Prior to the 2000 season Gillick worked wonders, adding three major cogs to the league's best bullpen and signing two players in Bret Boone and John Olerud, that would serve as two of the better hitters on very good teams over the next two seasons.

But the buck stopped there. That was the last off season where the M's went deep into the market and reached even further into their pockets to bring in the necessary talent to make the M's a real contender.

After 2002 the club hired a new manager but failed to revamp a stale ball club and the organization is paying the price for that mistake with a terrible 2004 season. Instead they re-signed a fading John Olerud, a 39-year-old Jamie Moyer and a 39-year-old Edgar Martinez without complimenting the veteran trio with the required youth and baseball personality to refresh the clubhouse as well as the result on the field.

Bob Melvin, while having many flaws of his own that should type up his own walking papers in October, was not dealt a hand to be successful.

Money always seems to be at the root of the reason. The reason why the club hasn't added an all-star to the team in the past two winters is far and away a financial issue. It's not the biggest reason. It's the only reason.

The Mariners' philosophy has always been to field a team that would stay competitive over a number of years. Within this strategy, the Mariner management fell into a hole. A hole filled with money, and they all liked where they were. So why climb out?

At some point, they money dries up and all that is left is a dirt-filled cave and a bellowing echo of a bad summer of baseball.

The question now is will they see the light and grab the outstretched hand of the fans?

Quite possibly, yes.

The Mariners' self-imposed salary cap of $95 million for the 2004 season will likely carry over into 2005 and could conceivably even take a bump to as high as $100 million.

But they have had high payrolls in the past. Why will this winter be any different?

I'll tell you why.

Howard Lincoln and the rest of the ownership group aren't as shortsighted as we thought. Translation: The owners won't continue to make money if the team loses 100 games a season, and they just couldn't bear to sit around and do nothing about the bank account not getting fatter anymore.

In other words, Lincoln does understand that the fans will not stand for bad baseball. Finally, he gets it. The motive might not be what we'd like it to be but the action required is very much the same.

New General Manager Bill Bavasi will have free reign to go out and turn over the Mariner roster and bring a winner back to Safeco Field. What's so different about that is the approach of the front office in general.

Heading into his second year as Mariners GM, Bavasi will be backed 100% by Lincoln and the checkbook.

Bavasi has stated on more than one occasion that he and Lincoln both realize that the only way to start the turnaround is to make smart but aggressive financial investments in the free agent market this winter.

Something Bavasi convinced the club to do for one player last year, he will have the leeway to do with any players he sees fit, beginning November 1.

Last winter the M's fell short in the Miguel Tejada sweepstakes, but did make a final offer of $55 million over five guaranteed years. That's the largest guaranteed contract the franchise has ever offered any free agent. It's more than they gave Ichiro, it's more than they gave Bret Boone, and it's even slightly more in the dollars area then they guaranteed Alex Rodriguez in 2001.

Bill Bavasi's influence seems to have opened a door for this franchise that may not have been open otherwise. The club made several moves over the past 12 months that they have never ever done prior to Bavasi's arrival.

Starting with the multi-year deals for Randy Winn, Ryan Franklin, and Joel Pineiro, and finishing with the eaten cash of veteran players such as Rich Aurilia, Kevin Jarvis and John Olerud, Bavasi has certainly began to put his philosophies and beliefs to good use and has convinced Mr. Lincoln of the same.

When the M's finish their season on October 3rd and say goodbye to 2004, the door to 2005 creeps open and the free agent market awaits.

The winter piñata boasts several prize free agents such as Carlos Beltran, Adrian Beltre, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Delgado, and Troy Glaus.

And at last, the Mariners have the ability from top to bottom, to truly be players this time.

Maybe in 10 years we will be able to look back and vaguely remember the times when the M's wouldn't commit financially to big time players.

With somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million to pour out into the open market, the Mainers don't have to rebuild.

Say it with me now; Reload?

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