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BILL SHAIKIN / SUNDAY REPORT

Guillen is key to Mariners' rise

August 26, 2007|Bill Shaikin

If we have a West Coast equivalent of Manny being Manny, it might be Jose being Jose.

Guillen, that is.

If you're playing for your seventh team in seven years, you might not impress your new employers by declaring war on one of your old teams. But when Guillen signed with the Seattle Mariners and returned to the American League West for the first time since the Angels kicked him off their team in the final days of a pennant race, he couldn't resist.

"Nineteen games against the Angels? Whoo! Fire!" he told reporters in spring training. "Oh my God, it's going to be crazy."

Who's crazy now? Must be us.

We had pegged this week's series between the Mariners and Angels as little more than a renewal of Guillen's grudge match, but these three games will be the biggest ones in Seattle in four years. After finishing last in the division for three years running, the Mariners are running neck and neck with the Angels.

"By the end of spring training, we all believed in ourselves," Seattle pitcher Jarrod Washburn said. "We knew everyone else was counting us out."

Said General Manager Bill Bavasi: "I don't think, to us, it's a surprise. But whenever you go through tough seasons, a turnaround is always welcome."

To the rest of the baseball world, the Mariners appear to be an overnight success. To Bavasi, they're an overnight success three years in the making.

Bavasi, a former general manager for the Angels and minor league director for the Dodgers, replaced Pat Gillick four years ago, in time to preside over the death of a pretty good run. The Mariners did not have a regular position player under 30. It was time for Edgar Martinez to go, for John Olerud to go, for Bret Boone and Dan Wilson to go.

"When we got here, we evaluated the minor league system. We felt it was very overrated," Bavasi said. "We didn't have any good young talent ready to step in."

So the Mariners spent $131 million on third baseman Adrian Beltre, first baseman Richie Sexson and catcher Kenji Johjima, not to widespread acclaim. Beltre struggled mightily for his first two years in Seattle, but then again so did the team.

"We knew we were going to have to sign some free agents to longer-term deals before we were ready to win," Bavasi said. "We wanted to make sure the fans had something to come and watch -- a team getting better, but still with some dynamic players."

Bavasi imported his old scouting director with the Angels, Bob Fontaine, to shore up the Mariners in the draft. He retained Bob Engle, the Mariners' chief of international scouting, who signed pitcher Felix Hernandez and second baseman Jose Lopez from Venezuela and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, a Cuban defector.

"Without them, we don't have a team," Bavasi said.

The minor league system did deliver an All-Star closer, J.J. Putz. The franchise icon, Ichiro Suzuki, agreed to move to center field, enabling Bavasi to sign Guillen to play alongside Suzuki and Raul Ibanez in the outfield and trade for Jose Vidro as the designated hitter.

Bavasi also acquired some complementary parts last winter for the pitching staff, in starters Miguel Batista, Horacio Ramirez and Jeff Weaver and relievers Chris Reitsma and Arthur Rhodes. By that time, the Seattle payroll had risen to $106 million, with the Angels at $109 million.

The Mariners lost Reitsma and Rhodes to surgery, and none of the three new starters has distinguished himself. The Mariners' starters have a 5.09 earned-run average, worse than any major league team except the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Texas Rangers.

One Seattle official compared the Mariners with the Angels this way: "If we had their rotation, we'd be so far ahead it wouldn't be funny."

Of course, the joke might be on the Mariners but for two factors: uncommonly good health and a bullpen that skipped its growing pains.

None -- repeat, none -- of the Seattle position players has been put on the disabled list this season.

And the bullpen -- with an ERA of 3.70, better than that of the Angels -- includes Putz, independent league refugee George Sherrill, minor league trade acquisition Sean Green, 2006 first-round draft pick Brandon Morrow and two pitchers who started last season at the Class-A level, Eric O'Flaherty and Ryan Rowland-Smith.

Putz leads all major league closers in innings pitched, with 11 saves that required more than three outs.

In the spring, the veterans decided they had seen enough learning on the job, that it was time to win. Washburn said he, Putz, Beltre and Sexson spread the word.

"We brought an urgency to the park every day," Washburn said. "The laid-back style that was around last year wasn't going to cut it this year."

So, when manager Mike Hargrove abruptly quit in July, the Mariners turned over the reins to bench coach John McLaren without anyone missing a beat. Not even Guillen, who tends to march to his own drummer.

"Jose has been awesome this year," said Washburn, who criticized him publicly when the two teamed in Anaheim. "He's playing very smart baseball. He's gotten a lot of big hits for us. He's doing all the little things. He's been a great teammate. When we were with the Angels, 90% of the time he was a great guy too. He had a few flare-ups. Everybody grows up as they get older."

Bavasi called McLaren the other day, to compliment him after a game in which the Mariners fell behind, 8-0, and lost, 8-4. Way to keep the team playing hard, Bavasi said.

"Wasn't me," McLaren said. "It was all Guillen. He kept screaming on the bench, 'Keep playing the game!' "

Whoo! Fire! Three games against the Angels, with first place at stake? Oh my God, it's going to be crazy.

--

bill.shaikin@latimes.com

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