For the Mariners, it was a season of both achievement and disappointment. After three straight last-place finishes, they finished second in the AL West at 88-74, a 10-game improvement. But after reaching their high-water mark of 20 games over .500 on Aug. 25, and pulling within a game of the Angels, they lost nine straight, and 15 out of 17, to plummet out of contention.
The season was disrupted on July 1 by the shocking resignation of manager Mike Hargrove, who said he had lost his passion for managing. That decision was followed closely by the re-signing of Ichiro to a five-year, $90 million extension. In the final week of the season, after much speculation about their futures, CEO Howard Lincoln announced that both GM Bill Bavasi and manager John McLaren (the former bench coach elevated after Hargrove's resignation) would be back in 2008.
1. The Mariners will need to address two spots in their starting rotation. Jeff Weaver, whose 0-6 record and 14.32 ERA after six starts marked the worst opening stretch in baseball history, won't be retained after going 7-13 with a 6.20 ERA. Lefty Horacio Ramirez (7.16 ERA in 20 starts), acquired from Atlanta in an ill-fated trade for Rafael Soriano, is a likely nontender.
2. The Mariners must figure out what they are going to do with slumping Richie Sexson, who hit .205 last year and stands to make $14 million in the final year of the four-year contract he signed before the 2005 season. If Seattle can trade Sexson, it could lead to a chain reaction of moves that includes Raul Ibanez moving to first base, and Adam Jones becoming the everyday left or right fielder.
3. The Mariners need to beef up their set-up relief in front of dominant closer J.J. Putz, filling a void that was left when Soriano was traded to the Braves. Chris Reitsma had a 7.26 ERA in 26 games before undergoing season-ending (and career-threatening) elbow surgery. Seattle hopes the solution includes Mark Lowe, who throws a heater in the high 90s but appeared in just four games last year following elbow surgery at the end of the 2006 season.
Guillen had a strong year for the Mariners, driving in 99 runs, but he is said to be seeking a long-term deal in the range of Arizona's Eric Byrnes, who signed for three years, $30 million. It's looking unlikely that Guillen will be re-signed. The Mariners will comb the free-agent list for possible starting pitching help (Bartolo Colon is a possibility), but in a weak year for starting pitching, they may decide to fill the rotation vacancies via trades and their existing roster (including a switch of former No. 1 draft pick Brandon Morrow from the bullpen to starting rotation). If Japanese right-hander Hiroki Kuroda decides to leave the Hiroshima Carp, the Mariners figure to be in the running. But they won't be in the running for Barry Bonds, despite reports linking the slugger to Seattle.
The Mariners' top option is unloading Sexson, which might require them to swallow a portion of his $14 million salary in 2008. Adrian Beltre, who has two more years left on his five-year deal, figures to be in demand -- the Yankees, minus Alex Rodriguez, could make a play -- but the Mariners are reluctant to trade him after a strong year. Ben Broussard, frustrated by his lack of playing time, is likely to be dealt. If the Twins make Johan Santana available, the Mariners would no doubt be one of many teams putting together a package of prospects, which could include outfielders Adam Jones and Wladimir Balentien, and/or catcher Jeff Clement.
Jones, who hit .314 with 25 homers and 84 RBIs at Triple-A, will likely be given a starting job in either left or right. He hit .246 in 65 at-bats for the Mariners while playing intermittently after being called up in July. If Guillen isn't brought back, Seattle could take a look at another rookie outfielder, Balentien, who hit .291-24-84 at Triple-A Tacoma. Clement showed some pop in September (two homers in 16 at-bats), but the catching position is filled with Kenji Johjima. Hard-throwing Kameron Mickolio (28 K's in 24 innings at Triple-A) is a possibility for the bullpen.
Seattle ownership has vowed to keep the payroll close to last year's franchise record of $109 million, which gives the Mariners the ability to be aggressive in free agency and trades. But GM Bill Bavasi has a checkered record of success in both venues. His main task this offseason will be to beef up a rotation that finished 12th in the American League with a 5.16 ERA. McLaren, beginning his first full year as a major league manager, revamped his coaching staff and brought in veterans Jim Riggleman (bench) and Mel Stottlemyre (pitching), among others. The Mariners hope that under Stottlemyre's tutelage, ace-in-waiting Felix Hernandez, still just 21, will show more consistency.
Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.