What if a team were forced to trade its best, most marketable player under conditions akin to extortion, lost both its catchers to significant injuries, found itself within baseball's highest-percentage division and faced the likelihood of its franchise shortstop leaving via free agency at season's end? What kind of cataclysmic season could be expected?
Well, the Seattle Mariners are doing just fine, thank you.
The Mariners won seven games in a row before losing, 3-2, Wednesday to Anaheim. They also had won their past seven series and fell just one short of tying the franchise record of 20 wins in June.
They are doing so after general manager Pat Gillick was forced to trade center fielder Ken Griffey to the Cincinnati Reds for a package consisting of pitcher Brett Tomko, outfielder Mike Cameron and two minor-leaguers.
Not only did the Mariners enter last night 45-32, a half-game ahead of Oakland in the American League West, but they also were 5 1/2 games ahead in the AL wild-card race while their former trading partners performed a dead man's float in the NL Central. With Griffey, the Reds were 38-40, 8 1/2 games off the division and 7 1/2 off the wild-card lead. The publications who made sport of Gillick's predicament in December now scrutinize the supposedly can't-miss Reds. Shortstop Barry Larkin has suggested the clubhouse has become a viper's nest.
Gillick's credibility within the industry made him the perfect executive to jettison Griffey, who was not a clubhouse beacon. His accumulation of castoffs has left the team with one superstar, pending free-agent shortstop Alex Rodriguez, but the pickup of right-hander Aaron Sele (9-3) has been pivotal. Gillick called the Washington native's acquisition for $14 million over two years "like a star falling from the sky" after the Orioles had backed away from their four-year, $29 million offer at the behest of majority owner Peter Angelos. Manager Lou Piniella is campaigning for him as an All-Star. Sele's performance has compensated for the absence of injured Freddy Garcia. And as the Mariners soon return arms from the disabled list, a bullpen glut could make them a potential partner for the Orioles. (Gillick and Syd Thrift, his one-time director of minor-league operations, spoke extensively for two days last weekend.)
Now the Mariners face a crisis as catchers Dan Wilson (rib cage) and Tom Lampkin (elbow ligaments) are both on the disabled list, leaving Gillick to rethink his earlier position that the club can do without additional help. During the Orioles' four-game series at Safeco Field last weekend, Gillick insisted the club could get by. But then Lampkin's injury was diagnosed Wednesday as severe ligament damage requiring reconstructive surgery, leaving the ageless Joe Oliver as Iron Man.
Wilson is a favorite of Piniella, his manager with the Reds as well, and is expected back shortly after the All-Star break. Acquiring a talent such as the Pittsburgh Pirates' Jason Kendall or the Orioles' Charles Johnson creates a jam when Wilson returns. It's a problem Gillick and Piniella welcome. And if recent history provides any clue, a problem they can overcome.
Small market, big talent
As general manager Billy Beane crafts a blueprint for extended small-market success, the Oakland Athletics are taking a pro-active stance toward signing their younger players to multi-year deals that will allow them to sidestep arbitration.
The latest was third baseman Eric Chavez, who agreed to an $11.75 million, four-year deal Monday, one day after he helped bury the Orioles by hitting for the cycle. By signing Chavez, 22, the A's extended a trend of locking up their youthful core.
In 1998, they signed Jason Giambi to a three-year extension and during the Orioles' first visit to Network Associates Coliseum this season announced the signing of shortstop Miguel Tejada to a three-year deal. Assistant general manager Paul DePodesta called the signings "a harbinger of things to come."
Right-hander Tim Hudson looks to be the next in line after winning 20 of his first 24 major-league decisions. Center fielder and Rookie of the Year front-runner Terrence Long may not be far behind. Long terrorized the Orioles in their recent series and carried a 16-game hitting streak through Tuesday. He leads AL rookies in average, home runs and RBIs.
Of course, to sign young players to long-term deals, an organization must first produce from within.
Walking the plank
This was supposed to be the season the Pirates emerged from the mediocrity within the NL Central and crashed the Reds-Houston Astros-St. Louis Cardinals party. Well, the Astros are a shell of their pennant-winning selves, and the Reds are the NL's biggest disappointment, but the Pirates have shown themselves a long way removed from contender status.
After playing around .500 for most of last season, the Pirates found themselves 10 games below break-even entering last night. Outfielder Brian Giles ripped the clubhouse after the Pirates were swept three games (by a combined 31-10) by the New York Mets, and general manager Cam Bonifay is promising imminent trades.
Giles, the Pirates' highest-paid player, said, "Maybe some people here are getting used to [losing]. ... There's something wrong - something that needs to be addressed."(The Mets are to the Pirates what the Toronto Blue Jays represent to the Orioles -- at least before the curent series. The sweep left the Pirates 4-21 in their last 25 games at Shea Stadium and without a series win there since the opening week of the '96 season.)
When a well-funded team struggles, management talks about acquiring fresh blood. When a small-market team such as the Pirates disappoint, players often cite minimal resources. "This team has been rebuilding since, when, 1996 or 1997?" Giles said. "When you get a [losing] attitude, it's tough to shake. When you're used to losing, it's frustrating."
Giles added internal problems to the mix, insisting, 'The biggest thing we lack is chemistry. We're not as one."
Bonifay classified any reference to a lost season as "asinine."
There was a fleeting moment this spring when some within the Orioles' front office advocated putting prize prospect Matt Riley at the center of a package for Minnesota Twins ace Brad Radke, a pending free agent. The window on that idea closed after Riley made more headlines with his off-field antics than with his arm and Twins general manager Terry Ryan said Radke wasn't available.
Maybe Ryan wasn't bluffing.
Yesterday, Radke's agent, Ron Simon, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that only minor details needed to be resolved on a four-year extension worth $36 million.
The deal would put Radke under contract through 2004 and its annual average of $9 million would be more than Kirby Puckett's highest salary of $7 million from 1996, possibly signaling the end of the cost-slashing that reduced the club's payroll to a major league-low $16.5 million this year.
Radke ($3.5 million) is the Twins' highest-paid player but their least supported pitcher, receiving a Mike Mussina-like 2.57 runs a game through 14 starts. Radke has received 22 runs in his past three starts, however, one more than his last eight combined.
Run support isn't all that's backward in the Little Apple. The Twins entered last night with roughly the same record (36-45) as the Orioles (33-44). But the Twins were 9-10 against the three division leaders (3-3 vs. Chicago White Sox, 2-1 vs. Toronto, 4-6 vs. Oakland) and 13-6 against the 1999 division champions (2-1 vs. New York Yankees, 6-3 vs. Texas, 3-1 vs. Cleveland and 2-1 vs. Houston.) Alas, they were only 14-29 against the rest of baseball.
What could possibly be better than a Florida Marlins-Chicago Cubs weekender in June? Before you answer, "Bowling beer frames during midnight madness at Fair Lanes," consider last Sunday's ending to Florida's three-game sweep.
Marlins left fielder Cliff Floyd hit a walk-off homer in the bottom of the 10th to beat the Cubs. His trip around the bases was somewhat elaborate as he pumped his fists before being mobbed. Apparently, some Cubs, who can't get enough of Sammy Sosa's heart-tapping, kiss-blowing celebrations, didn't appreciate Floyd's spontaneity.
"I think for a young team they have an arrogance about them. It's bad," said miffed Cubs catcher Joe Girardi, who has gone from a two-time world champion to playing for a perennial afterthought. "I think they showed people up. I think when they hit home runs, they show a lot of emotion. I've always been taught to play hard, pat yourself on the back, don't do a dance."
Said Marlins manager John Boles: "We've lost 206 games over the last two years. I'm not going to apologize for us having a six-second celebration."
Marlins center fielder Preston Wilson said: "It's just because he won a couple of World Series rings [with the Yankees]. It just sounds like he's a little bitter because we swept them. Celebrating a walk-off home run? Nobody in baseball doesn't celebrate a walk-off home run."
Could anyone ever imagine it being disappointing that these two teams don't play again this year?