01/30/2003 1:15 pm ET
Mariners Spring Training preview
New manager Bob Melvin has troops focused on title
By Jim Street / MLB.com
Spring Training rundown
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PEORIA, Ariz. -- Aside from deciding on a fifth starter and the sixth reliever, the main focus during the Mariners' six-weeks-and-then-some Spring Training camp will be on a new managerial regime.
For the first time since 1993 -- when the Mariners had their first spring camp in Peoria after 17 years in Tempe -- Lou Piniella won't be in the clubhouse welcoming the players back.
The Good Ship Mariner is now under the command of Bob Melvin, a 42-year-old former big-league catcher with virtually no managerial experience.
But thanks to a strong foundation Piniella helped establish during his 10 successful seasons in Seattle, Melvin takes over an experienced team that is accustomed to winning and expects to return to the playoffs this season.
Anything less would be unacceptable.
A new era officially begins Feb. 10 on Field One at the Peoria Sports Complex.
Melvin takes over a team that won 93 games last season and led the American League West for most of the season. If not for a record 20-game winning streak by the Oakland Athletics and a coinciding 16-wins-in-17-games run by the Anaheim Angels, the Mariners surely would have been in the playoffs a year ago.
For the past two seasons, the Mariners used productive camps as springboards to terrific regular season starts. Seattle had a 20-5 record in April two years ago to ignite a 116-win season, and sprinted to an 18-8 start a year ago.
The unbalanced schedule (more games within the division) usually makes it even more important to start quickly, although the reigning World Series champion Angels are an exception, overcoming a 6-14 beginning last season to finish with 99 wins and secure the AL Wild Card playoff berth.
Once again, the Mariners open the season by playing 20 consecutive games against AL West opponents and the kind of camp Melvin and camp coordinator Jim Goff run could have a lot to do with any early-season success.
With the 25-man Opening Day roster virtually set going into camp, Melvin and his coaching staff -- which includes newcomers Rene Lachemann (bench), Orlando Gomez (bullpen) and Lamar Johnson (hitting), along with holdovers Bryan Price (pitching), John Moses (first base) and Dave Myers (third base) -- getting the players ready for the March 25 regular-season opener in Tokyo against the Athletics ranks at the top of the list of camp objectives.
There also could be a fear of the unknown.
Unlike any of their previous 25 Spring Training camps, this one will be fractured. During a 12-day stretch from March 18, the day before they leave for Japan, the Mariners play just six games. That makes it difficult for 11 pitchers to get enough work to stay sharp.
"It is imperative for us to prepare ourselves to get through that stretch," Price said. "By the time we go to Japan, all of our pitchers have to be game-ready for the season. My only concern is getting all of our pitchers the work they need during that stretch. I'm sure someone is going to be neglected."
To help make up for the week lost at the end of camp, Price said the Mariners will play two or three intrasquad games leading up to the Feb. 27 exhibition against the Padres.
The Mariners play two exhibition games in Japan prior to the regular season games against Oakland on March 25-26 and then return to the Bay Area for two more exhibition games (against the Rangers in Sacramento and Giants in San Francisco) before resuming the season-opening four-game series against Oakland.
It is something that never previously has been done. The Mets and Cubs played two regular season games in Tokyo to open the 2000 season, but resumed the regular season immediately after returning to the U.S.
"We are entering unchartered waters," Price said. "I don't know if there is an exact formula."
The majority of Mariner deckhands are back. Melvin needs to find a fifth starter to follow Freddy Garcia, Jamie Moyer, Joel Pineiro and Ryan Franklin. Right-hander Gil Meche has the inside track heading into camp, but has a history of arm problems.
The bullpen once again will be a strong suit because of closer Kazuhiro Sasaki, setup relievers Arthur Rhodes and Jeff Nelson, and all-purpose reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa.
There are a few remaining yet key questions: Can veteran Norm Charlton return to top form after missing the entire 2002 season (rotator cuff surgery); and, who will fill the role as right-handed long reliever? Ken Cloude? Rafael Soriano? Jamey Wright?
The Mariners have six weeks to make up those decisions.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com and can be reached at
firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.