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M's future rides on successful final month

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September 2

Just a month ago we were thinking about an Octoberfest of Dungenness Crab, a boat ride to the Islands and playoffs in Safeco Field, which traditionalist Lou Piniella calls "the greatest and most beautiful ballpark ever built."

But now, the Mariners are worried -- very worried -- about their playoff prospects, though they can take some solace in the fact that their entire division is in a free-fall.

As they began a tough trip on Friday to play wild-card contenders in Boston and Toronto, Alex Rodriguez distributed "We're on a Mission" T-shirts and took the optimistic road.

Alex Rodriguez
The Mariners need to get a big September from Alex Rodriguez.

"I'd rather be where we are than three games back," said Rodriguez. "I really believe we're going to turn things around here. It's different when you get to September. The fatigue of the dog days and the heat are behind us. We're ready to get it back together and win. When we get close, our fans have really taken to us. There's a great atmosphere in Safeco, and Seattle's now a baseball town."

One of the reasons the Northwest so badly wants the M's to win is that will help keep A-Rod in town. But A-Rod's offensive stats haven't been as good at home compared to on the road: through Friday he has 11 home runs, 40 RBI and a .941 OPS at Safeco while having 21 homers, 69 RBI and a 1.156 OPS away from home.

His future beyond this season won't be determined until around Thanksgiving, at the earliest. "Right now, my only concern is our getting going," Rodriguez says.

There are serious problems in Seattle as they have lost 15 of their last 18 games through Friday and since Aug. 1 are just 11-18. "We have to get our starters straight," says Piniella.

In the first four months, the staff ERA stayed under 4.50. But since the first of August, it is 6.12. Veteran Jamie Moyer, for one, has lost his confidence. Promising rookie Gil Meche, meanwhile, has been shut down for the season while Aaron Sele has been in a woeful slump (0-4 in his last four starts).

"We are not a power staff," says Piniella. "We have almost all finesse pitchers, and they are the ones that wear down and struggle in the hot weather in August. That's always been true. It's the power pitchers who survive in the August heat. Russ Ortiz (who was 6-0 in August) is a great example. But we don't have arms like that."

Piniella, like most managers, would like to have a couple of power starters to mix in with his finesse guys, but he just doesn't, pure and simple.

"Finesse pitchers depend heavily on their defense," says Piniella, "and when guys get worn down, they have trouble making plays. So the more the pitchers struggle, the more defense struggles. They go hand-in-hand."

But even if and when Moyer and the starting pitchers turn it around, there are serious concerns about this team's offense. Rodriguez is as good as any player in the game while John Olerud and Edgar Martinez are terrific hitters. They now even have Jay Buhner back. But Piniella's biggest concerns have been that he has had to bat Stan Javier or Carlos Guillen in the fifth spot behind Martinez on numerous occasions. In August, the M's on-base percentage as a team was only .344. Ouch.

"Look at the best offensive teams in our league, like the Indians, White Sox and A's," says Piniella. "and you'll see one of the reasons they're so good is that their lineups are so deep. When you're deep at 7-8-9, it wears opposing pitchers down and gets better pitches for the big boys in the middle."

If you're looking for proof take a look at this chart, which is the best and worst bottom thirds of the batting orders for seven AL playoff contenders:

Team    HR   RBI
Oak.    65   234
Cle.     53   215
Tor.     48   159
Chi.     43   207             
N.Y.    47   196                
Sea.    36   175
Bos.    35   177

Rickey Henderson also hasn't contributed much while Al Martin, who the Mariners acquired from the Padres just prior to the trading deadline, has really struggled, striking out 25 times in 96 at-bats and not knocking in runs.

The Mariners know this is a very important season because if Rodriguez leaves via free agency he will leave behind a very old club with very few young players that excite anyone.

Piniella's contract is also up at the end of the season, and he too, may move on. He is a big reason that Seattle has become such a baseball town, but he has been there for eight years, which even he admits "is a long time in one place." If he doesn't return, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay and several other clubs could be interested in bringing him in.

So, as you can see, September is a very important month to this franchise. If they do not make the playoffs and lose A-Rod, a season after trading away Ken Griffey Jr., it could soon be a return to the days of Funny Nose and Glasses Night, even with the Dungenness Crab and Safeco's beauty in place.

Sox make push to win now
For the present, Red Sox GM Dan Duquette isn't worrying about the future. "We need to get back into the playoffs, and we're doing whatever it takes to get there," he says.

How they're going to be competitive next year with all the contracts he has collected, from Dante Bichette's $7 million, Sang Lee's $1.95M, Mike Lansing's $7.2M to Pedro Martinez's $13M, may be turned over to the same accountants who are going to try to finance a new ballpark.

Duquette has 12 contracts for more than $70 million for next year, and that's before dealing with Ramon Martinez's $8 million option and salary arbitration cases with Jason Varitek, Scott Hatteberg, Rolando Arrojo and Rich Garces.

So, in trying to patch the Red Sox back into the race, Duquette has traded for Ed Sprague, Midre Cummings, Rico Brogna, Bichette and Arrojo. The latter has been a huge addition, going 4-1 and giving the Sox a solid starter behind Pedro and in front of Tomo Ohka. Sprague, meanwhile, didn't work out and for some inexplicable reason, Brogna hasn't been given an opportunity.

Bichette should help. "He's an RBI producer, and that's something we need," says Duquette, who admits that he traded a top prospect in right-handed pitcher Chris Reitsma. "I had a no-trade, but I had said all along that I would waive it for one place -- Boston," says Bichette. "I like to hit in this park, and I think it's geared for me. To have Nomar (Garciaparra) and (Carl) Everett hitting in front of me is a big thing."

Bichette has a soft spot for Boston as it was at the Gold's Gym across the street from The Green Monster where he met his wife. Ted Williams was his idol. Hey, the Red Sox are third to last in the league in runs scored and they needed someone. How they pay for all these salaries in the future is another matter. "They have to go over $90 million next year if they want to remain competitive," says a rival GM. "But they have so many of these $6-7 million contracts tied up in Jose Offerman, John Valentin, Lansing and Ramon that they won't be able to afford to go after a Mike Mussina or a premier free agent."

Duquette cares not to think about that, or what young right-hander Dennis Tankersley, who he suggested to the Padres as a throw-in for Sprague is doing. Tankersley, by the way, went 5-2 with a 2.42 ERA in 63.1 innings at Class A Fort Wayne. Or even what Reitsma may do. Duquette is trying to win now, get that ballpark financing to pay for the rest along with a night job at Tedeschi's.

Reds in good hands with Bowden
People can criticize Jim Bowden for his ambition, his energy and his wheeling and dealing because it's much easier to do that when the Reds are struggling. But in all honesty their present situation keeps them, at worst, competitive with St. Louis. And they will move into the offseason with just one potential free agent and their two big guns -- Junior Griffey and Barry Larkin -- already signed up.

In an era when some small-market teams complain about competing with big-spenders like the Yankees, Braves and Dodgers, look at all the talent Bowden has brought into his organization. After the Denny Neagle deal, which brought potential star right fielder Jackson Melian, third baseman Drew Henson, right-handed pitcher Brian Reith and lefty Ed Yarnall, the Reds now have seven of Baseball America's preseason top 70 prospects. Included on that list are shortstop Gookie Dawkins and outfielders Ben Broussard, Adam Dunn and Austin Kearns. And with Reitsma, Reds scouts say they got the best Boston pitching prospect.

A day after getting Reitsma and left-hander John Curtice, a former No. 1 pick, Bowden shocked baseball by signing two of Scott Boras' "unsignable" draftees. Bowden was criticized for taking Miami high school shortstop/outfielder David Espinosa late in the first round and Pepperdine catcher Dane Sardinha in the second round, but Friday he signed them both with creative deals that included major-league contracts. Espinosa's deal is worth $2.75 million for seven years while Sardinha's is for five years and $1.75 million. And as one GM said, "What's all that in present-day value?"

Another GM said, "Give Jim credit, he was persistent and creative, and he got two great prospects, including probably the best catch-and-throw receiver in the draft."

It now appears likely that the last two remaining unsigned No. 1's, high school right-hander Matt Harrington (Rockies) and Auburn righty Chris Bootcheck (Angels), can now get done. The Rockies had been offering Harrington a similar long-term deal with a big-league contract. The Padres, meanwhile, hope to soon ink another one of Boras' clients, former Cal third baseman Xavier Nady.

The Pirates are also close to signing one of the most interesting players in the draft, 6-10 right-hander Chris Young, who played at Princeton. This summer Young, whose over-the-top delivery is a very difficult angle for hitters to pick up the ball from, saw his velocity creep up to the 92-93 mph range. Several baseball people think he is a mid-first round talent. The problem was that he is going into his junior year at Princeton and is projected as a possible late first-round pick in the NBA in two years, but the Ivy League does not allow athletes to be a professional in one sport and participate on the collegiate level in another. But Pirates scouting director Mickey White gambled by taking Young in the third round and should get it done for $1.5M.

News and notes
  • The biggest surprise among players not traded on Aug. 31 was Colorado's Masato Yoshii. Toronto and Seattle were interested, but wouldn't trade Chris Carpenter and Brett Tomko, respectively. Carpenter, incidentally, continues to struggle despite what Blue Jays pitching coach Dave Stewart insists is good stuff. In his last start, Carpenter threw only 59 strikes in 100 pitches. "He looks as if he's afraid to have the ball hit," says one scout who saw this week's start. "Maybe it relates to his getting hit by a line drive on the elbow."

  • One GM said "I was surprised that Boston didn't claim Albert Belle, or try to work something out where Baltimore paid half of Belle's salary. I know Cleveland thought about it, and Duquette has always liked Belle."

  • One offseason trade rumor that's already sprouted is the Padres sending catcher Ben Davis to the Royals for outfield prospect Dee Brown, then making a pitch for Jason Kendall. The Padres do not want to give up Phil Nevin, if possible, as he has become one of the game's most productive third baseman, and despite Sean Burroughs on the horizon they know Nevin's contract -- even his 2002 option is only for $2.5M -- is so good that one official says "it gives him more trade value than Sammy Sosa."

  • A scout watching the White Sox in Oakland expressed concern about James Baldwin. "It's a testament to his heart that he could throw five shutout innings," says the scout. "But he was 83 to 85, and his arm slot looked funny. I hope he's OK. But, in the meanwhile, someone should give Mike Sirotka credit. He's a heck of a pitcher." Sirotka has won 13 games, and is 3-0 with a 1.35 ERA in his last four starts.

  • It seems remarkable that since the Curt Schilling trade the D-Backs went into the weekend 7-8 in games started by Schilling and Randy Johnson. Speaking of Johnson, two Braves veteran pitchers said the same thing about him. "It's a strain when you throw that extra month every year and those postseason games are more taxing than the regular season. The reason he's been a little tired (until his last start) is that he's feeling the affects of those October starts. It happens to all of us."

  • Here's a great line from Braves hitting coach Merv Rettenmund on Todd Helton: "He has the deadest head in baseball. It never moves. You see that little knob on the top of his cap much like you always see it on Tony Gwynn."

  • The Rockies are very happy about the Dante Bichette deal because it saves them $340,000, as they were paying part of his contract in Cincinnati. But with his trade to Boston, the Red Sox are liable for the entire contract.

  • Lou Piniella on the Yankees: "They're much better than they were a year ago. With (David) Justice, (Jose) Canseco, (Glenallen) Hill and all that thunder they have coming off the bench for situations, they are scary." One thing the Yankees have to wonder about now is if they'll ever have Chuck Knoblauch to play second base again this season.

  • Mark Wohlers returned to Atlanta for the first time this week and threw two strong innings for the Reds on Wednesday night. "He's not where he will be next year," says Cincinnati pitching coach Don Gullett, "but he's at 94 to 97, and his split and slider are close to getting all the way back."

    Wohlers downplayed the experience, although he had problems getting to the field from the visitors' clubhouse. "I'm proud to have gotten here," said Wohlers. "It's nice to remember some of the players who tried so hard to help me. In particular, Greg Maddux, John Smoltz, Jeff Blauser and Steve Avery gave me a lot of support. I also now know that a big part of my original loss of command was the fact that I was hurt. I'll never ignore my body again."

    Maddux expressed happiness for Wohlers. "He went through unchartered waters," said Maddux. "He came back from things none of us know whether we could recover from. I have great respect for him."

  • Congratulations to the Lowell (Mass.) Spinners of the New York-Penn League. If they sell out Tuesday and Wednesday's season finales, they will be the first minor-league team ever to sell out (5,000 seats) every game. Remarkable.

  • How big will it be for Twins rookie right-hander Matt Kinney to be matched up against Roger Clemens in Yankee Stadium on Sunday? Understand that Clemens was Kinney's boyhood idol and that Kinney even named his cat "Roger Clemens."

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