Guillen finally living up to potential

Carlos Guillen quickly phoned Freddy Garcia after the Seattle Mariners swapped the pitcher to the Chicago White Sox June 27. Guillen wanted to congratulate Garcia, a longtime friend and teammate, and to commiserate. He was glad to see Garcia out of Seattle, believing that Mariners' executives had lost faith in Garcia in the same way they stopped believing in Guillen.

It is so much better being out of Seattle, Guillen said this week, a few days after Detroit manager Alan Trammell and general manager Dave Dombrowski pulled Guillen aside to tell him he'd been named to the American League All-Star team. "I know they were not happy with me over there (with the Mariners)," Guillen said. "I was happy when they traded me, because I did not want to be there. When they treat you like that, I do not want to be there.

"They never treated Freddy like a No. 1 starter. That's why he's pretty happy right now."

Guillen has drawn motivation from his departure out of Seattle, and is energized by the feeling that the Tigers are fully invested in him; Guillen recently signed a three-year, $14 million extension that runs through the 2007 season. He has been just as responsible for Detroit's remarkable improvement this season as fellow All-Star Ivan Rodriguez.

Guillen "had been a good, solid player, but I think he's stepped it up this year," said Trammell. "He's just coming into his prime. It's just a matter of him maturing and coming into his own."

Guillen is 28 years old and blossoming: He is hitting .329 with 12 homers and 62 RBI halfway into the season. The switch-hitter is batting .359 against right-handers, with a .432 on-base percentage and .599 slugging average. Guillen already has achieved career-highs in homers and triples (7) and needs only two doubles to surpass his career-high in that category (24, in 2002).

Last week, Trammell phoned Joe Torre, the manager of the American League All-Stars, and began passionately making his case for Guillen to be in Houston. But the cell phone service kept breaking up -- Can you hear me now? -- and Torre struggled to tell Trammell that he needn't bother with his pleas, because Guillen had already been chosen for the team.

He had been a top prospect when the Houston Astros traded him in the summer of 1998, along with fellow Venezuelan Garcia, for Randy Johnson. Guillen did not flourish immediately, limited by injuries, and by 2003, he often played third base -- a sure sign, Guillen thought, that the Mariners did not think he could ever be good enough to play shortstop.

There were signs, however, that Guillen -- already a productive player -- was getting better, particularly against right-handed pitchers. His on-base percentage vs. righties had climbed, from season to season, beginning in 2000: .333, .351, .337 and then .373 in 2003. But Guillen hadn't played in more than 140 games in any season, and the Mariners looked to trade him after last year. They came close to making a deal for Cleveland's Omar Vizquel, then eventually swapped Guillen to Detroit for infielder Ramon Santiago and minor-league shortstop Juan Gonzalez; with Guillen out of the way, the Mariners signed free agent Rich Aurilia to a one-year, $3.15 million contract to play shortstop.

It's a choice that may long haunt the Mariners. Aurilia, 32, has had a terrible season. He's currently batting .241, with four homers and 28 RBI, and has struggled playing defense on the Safeco Field infield surface; Guillen and Aurilia talked earlier this season about how the infield dirt there seems to be chopped up for good by the first spike marks in each game.

Guillen had a respectable on-base percentage with the Mariners, and he would generally give Seattle tough, prolonged at-bats. But coming into this season, Guillen determined that he wanted to be more patient, put himself into more and more pitch counts when he could attack the ball. "I thought that would give me a better chance of recognizing pitches," he said. To that end, Guillen is hitting .545 when the count is 2 balls and 0 strikes against him -- 6-for-11, with two homers -- and .375 after the count is 2-0, with seven homers.

Guillen thought he had exceptional teammates in Seattle, Bret Boone and Edgar Martinez and John Olerud and others. But he felt the same frustration as other Mariners in recent seasons, after Seattle did not make midseason trades to augment its roster. "They never made good trades in July," said Guillen. "The last three or four years, they never did something. You feel like you're going out there, putting your heart into it, making plays, getting the fans excited -- and then they don't make changes. Everybody made deals, and they didn't."

Trammell believes Guillen benefited greatly from being surrounded by the strong cast of players in Seattle -- veterans who played the game the right way and executed. "They taught him the right way, and he's a learner and an observer," said Trammell. "I think the change of scenery has given him a little bit more freedom, not being surrounded by a lot of guys who may have overshadowed him a little bit. But he learned from them."

It may be that Guillen needed to leave Seattle to gain a full measure of confidence, says an executive who has watched Guillen play since he was a minor-leaguer with the Astros. Since the Johnson deal, there was always great focus on the young infielder's performance. "He's in a situation now in Detroit where expectations aren't quite as high for him," said the executive. "To be a young player breaking in on contending team, like he was -- that's tough."

"I always thought he was a good player, consistent. But there was probably too much pressure put on him in Seattle, and he was never good enough. Now the real player is starting to come out."

Buster Olney is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book, "The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty," will be released later this summer and can be pre-ordered through HarperCollins.com.