Ancient Mariners

Slow and steady still might win the A.L. West race.

BOB MELVIN CAN WALK—trot, actually—and talk baseball at the same time: That much we know about the Mariners skip, he of the perfect 0-0 record as a big-league manager.

Melvin had a crackling-bad cell phone connection going Friday prior to spring training's opening in Peoria, Ariz. He hustled through sports questions, which, he no doubt has figured out by now—since being tabbed last fall as field boss— will forever range from the obvious to the repetitive.

Primarily, there have been the inquiries about the, ahem, maturity of M's personnel. How can the M's win the American League West this year with one left-handed starter (40-year-old Jamie Moyer) and position players so slow that most of them would take half an hour to land if Galileo dropped them off the Leaning Tower of Pisa?

"Absolutely they can," said optimistic Bob, himself still young enough to make this team. "I mean, these guys know how to play. We had the same questions in Arizona about how these guys [Randy Johnson, et al.] were elderly," and, of course, the D-backs, Melvin's former employer, won the World Series in 2001.

But 40 is 40, and so is Edgar Martinez. March 25, when the season dawns versus Oakland in Japan (possibly because team officials could find no suitable baseball stadium in Uzbekistan), catcher Dan Wilson will be blowing out 34 candles, as will infielders Jeff Cirillo and Bret Boone later this season. First baseman John Olerud's 35; ditto reliever Kaz Sasaki. The bullpen promises Jeff Nelson, 36, Shigetoshi Hasegawa, 35, and Arthur Rhodes, 33. Is this the Bigs or an old-timers' game? Even the bench is mainly guys in their mid- to late 30s. Mark McLemore would turn 39 if the M's made it to the postseason.

Melvin countered with the fact that Randy Winn, the left fielder claimed from Tampa Bay as compensation for former manager Lou Piniella, "hasn't got a lot of years on him. And he's got some juice in him." Indeed, Winn's 27 stolen bases last year equaled the total swiped by Olerud, Wilson, Cirillo, Boone, Edgar, Carlos Guillen, and backup catcher Ben Davis combined.

Melvin has spent copious off-season hours contemplating lineup possibilities. Asked how this could be, given the very finite reality of a nine-man order, the boss said: "It's about getting everybody into the lineup, facing right-handers and left-handers." He confirmed that any Melvin lineup starts with Ichiro ("he's the best leadoff hitter in baseball, and the only way we'd change that would be if we talked with him about it"). Winn probably would bat second; after that, it's like a stampede of elephants.

So how would the M's win this year? Find me the guy who figured the Anaheim Angels for world champs last year. Identify the other one who said the M's would win 116 in 2001. The Mariners can win the A.L. West because they really have but one rival: Anaheim. Texas on paper looks marginally better, but Oakland looks worse. Unfortunately for us, the Angels believe in themselves with a zeal that Gene Autry himself never displayed. Moreover, while the aged M's are fighting trans- Pacific jet lag twice in one week, the rested Angels start the season at home beating up on Texas three times before running up to Oakland to see the also-travel-wasted A's. I guess it figures that the M's reward for logging the most flight time in big-league history would be to "get to" open in Japan. Here's hoping the situation a few hundred miles away in Korea is back to, say, Defcon 3 by then.

BUT BACK TO BASEBALL. The locals can win the division if, compared with the 2002 output, they get better years from more than half the 25-man roster. Here lies the key to the season and cause for optimism. Players bound to improve include Ichiro (as though there's anything wrong with 208 hits and a .321 average), Mike Cameron (who, after all, had 25 home runs to go with 176 strikeouts), and Jeff Cirillo (a lock to boost a .249 average). Freddie Garcia (though unsigned as I write this) should push for a 20-win year. Shortstop Carlos Guillen, suitably chastened after his nocturnal Mercedes test drive went awry in Clyde Hill last June, should emerge more focused. The bench, especially with slap-hitters Greg Colbrunn and John Mabry, certainly beats last year's late-inning "options" (Luis Uguetto, Jose Offerman, et al.). If Winn survives the M's decades-long left-fielder jinx, then you have to start liking the run potential of this club.

THE RAG ON THE M'S is that genius G.M. Pat Gillick built them in his image: slow and old. "Slow" I can't argue, knowing how many extra-base hits Edgar, Olerud, Wilson, and others will "stretch" into singles. But the age factor doesn't have to be any more of a problem than a starting rotation with four righties (only three of whom—Garcia, Joel Pineiro, and Ryan Franklin—have been identified). In 2002 it was the younger guys (Freddie, Ichiro, Oakland-bound John Halama) who let down toward the end of the season. Boone, Moyer, and other elders improved. Melvin, in any case, said he'd "rather have one lefty and four good righties" than another left-handed starter who's marginal.

The pre-Cactus League call? Melvin is going to be an effective good-cop field boss, and the M's will win 95. Then again, considering last year, anybody making it to Nevada the next two months might want to hedge with a 10-spot on Tampa Bay and you-know-Lou to win the '03 series.

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