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Retooled Mariners building a winner


NEW YORK - This can't really be happening, can it?

The Seattle Mariners were supposed to be Exhibit A in Major League Baseball's next argument for cost control - the team that was so ravaged by free agency (and the prospect of it) that its fans could be forgiven for wondering why they kicked in all that public money to build Safeco Field.

Future Hall of Fame pitcher Randy Johnson was traded to the Houston Astros during the 1998 season because of the huge contract he would soon command as a free agent.

Superstar Ken Griffey was dealt to the Cincinnati Reds before the 2000 season because he was planning to jump ship at the next opportunity.

And shortstop Alex Rodriguez was lured out of town in December by that record $252 million contract from the Texas Rangers.

The Mariners lost three franchise players in 3 1/2 years, and with it - everybody thought - the opportunity to build on the organizational development that had turned the long-suffering franchise into a contender in the 1990s.

How many teams could lose one franchise player and expect to stay near the top of the standings? This should have been a prescription for middle-market disaster.

Of course, the opposite has happened. The Mariners were so deflated by the departure of Griffey last year that they came within a half-game of winning the AL West and ended up in the American League Championship Series.

The loss of Rodriguez figured to be even more devastating, but the Mariners are at it again. They own the best record in the majors (18-4) and just made believers of the defending world champion New York Yankees in a three-game series at Yankee Stadium.

General manager Pat Gillick retooled the club to take advantage of the new ballpark, gambled that Japanese star Ichiro Suzuki could translate into a great major-league leadoff man and - abracadabra - once again enhanced his reputation as baseball's resident front-office magician.

Suzuki has been the catalyst for an offense that has been resourceful enough to support the solid pitching staff, even as everyone concedes that the new lineup does not have the firepower to match the Griffey/Rodriguez years.

The addition of veteran second baseman Bret Boone and solid setup reliever Jeff Nelson also has helped to balance the club and dilute the impact of Rodriguez's departure.

The result is a team that is solid almost everywhere, but spectacular almost nowhere. The rest is just chemistry and execution.

"I think that just reflects on the organization," said former Orioles pitcher Jamie Moyer, who improved to 4-0 with last night's victory over the Yankees. "Not to knock any other organizations, but they have gone out and found good people.

"Obviously, the management's good. The scouting is good. The other part is attracting the right free agents and making the right trades. It's not just one thing. It's everything together. That's what makes this such a special thing."

The media focus has been largely on Suzuki, and why not? He was a huge star in Japan before choosing the Mariners from a group of eager major-league suitors, and he apparently is having no trouble adjusting to his new surroundings.

He arrived in New York this week ranked among the league leaders in base hits and batting average. Then he proceeded to show Yankees fans just what all the commotion has been about with key hits in the first two games to help the Mariners win a series that further enhanced their early-season credibility.

"Ichiro has come here and done a great job for us in the leadoff role," said manager Lou Piniella. "We had a little advantage [signing] Ichiro. We had him in our camp for two weeks a few years ago. We realized then that he was a good athlete and that he would compete very well at the big-league level."

The Mariners already had caught Japanese lightning in a bottle with reliever Kazuhiro Sasaki a year ago, so it didn't take any stretch of the imagination to envision Suzuki as an impact player. Sasaki saved 37 games last year and was voted American League Rookie of the Year at the tender age of 32.

Suzuki is such a sensation in his native land that - get this - a Japanese publication has offered $2 million for a picture of him naked.

The Mariners will settle for a picture of him scoring the run that puts them back in the postseason, and they just might get it. They already hold an 8-game lead over the second-place Texas Rangers and have a double-digit advantage over the defending division champion Oakland Athletics.

Though Suzuki has taken the focus off the absence of Rodriguez, no one expects him to replace the production that A-Rod took with him to Texas. Gillick and Piniella instead went with an incremental approach to filling that void, using promising Carlos Guillen at short and picking up some run-production potential with the acquisition of Boone.

Piniella moved 2000 American League RBI champion Edgar Martinez up to third in the lineup and has used John Olerud and Boone in the run-production slots behind him.

"We needed good shortstop play from Guillen, and he's done a really nice job with the glove," Piniella said. "That was something that was absolutely needed.

"We also had a concern about how we were going to hit in the middle of the lineup. We decided to hit Edgar in front of Olerud and Boone. It has worked out for us."

In short, the Mariners have concentrated on who they are rather than on who just left.

"You have to give Lou credit for the job he's done," Moyer said. "I've never heard anybody say, 'We're not going to be good because we lost Randy, Ken and Alex.' Yeah, we lost them, but that's part of the game. We also brought some pretty decent people in here, too."

The Mariners certainly don't have the firepower of their division rival Texas, but they still rank among the top five teams in the American League in batting average and runs. With the starting rotation a combined 12-2, the bullpen among the best in baseball and the defense on top of the league rankings, the outstanding won-lost record no longer seems so surprising.

"What we're talking about here is, we need consistency," Piniella said. "We need everybody - one through nine - to contribute. Despite losing a few guys, we play good games. I don't really look at the won-lost record. I look at what kind of games we're playing. How we play.

"If those things are positive on a consistent basis, winning takes care of itself."

If nothing else, the Mariners are proving that there is more than one way to play winning baseball.

"Everybody's doing the little things," said former Orioles reliever Arthur Rhodes. "We don't need to hit home runs to score runs. Everybody's moving guys over. Everybody's throwing the ball great. Everybody's having fun."

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