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Scribes check their Ms inklings

Character and chemistry still mean something in baseball. And the Seattle Mariners upgraded with the offseason additions of shortstop Rich Aurilia, third baseman Scott Spiezio and outfielder Raul Ibanez. Manager Bob Melvin calls them hungry players who could help prevent August slides, the curse of the M's the past two years.

And some veterans have things to prove.

Edgar Martinez, 41, seemingly wants to hit .300 with 25 HRs and 100 RBIs until the day he retires. John Olerud had an off year at .269, with 10 homers and 83 RBIs, and vows to be better. One would think Ichiro Suzuki would take notice of his post-All-Star-break fade the past two years and make adjustments Ñ like being more patient. Dan Wilson, having been pretty much relegated to backup duty behind Ben Davis, proved himself to be the better all-around catcher in the spring.

The durable five starters did not miss a start last year. Freddy Garcia needs to pitch like the 20-game winner people expect him to be. And the ageless Jamie Moyer, 41, a model of perseverance and competitiveness, wants to show he hasn't slowed down.

The Mariners, who open Tuesday at home against Anaheim, have pitching depth at Triple-A Tacoma for spot starts. Joel Pineiro (16 wins in 2003) and Gil Meche (15 wins) each could reach 18 to 20 wins. The bullpen could be exceptional with the addition of Eddie Guardado and the emergence of Rafael Soriano. Aurilia and Spiezio play capably on the left side of the infield, and Bret Boone still has two or three prime years left in him.

Call me crazy, but the Mariners are better all-around than Anaheim or Oakland.

THE PICK Ñ99-63, 1st in AL West

Four of a kind beats a full house. That's why Anaheim will edge the Seattle Mariners in the AL West.

Both teams are loaded with talent. Seattle is a veteran club that has added weapons to its arsenal in Scott Spiezio at third base, Rich Aurilia at shortstop and Raul Ibanez in left field.

If Ichiro Suzuki gets 200 hits from his leadoff spot, he will become the first player to do it in each of his first four seasons in the majors. Manager Bob Melvin is still tinkering with a lineup that will have Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez and Ibanez in the three through five holes Ñ a very solid heart of the order. All five starting pitchers return, though the rotation will be different, with Jamie Moyer in front and Freddy Garcia dropping back to No. 3. Closer Eddie Guardado should do better than Kaz Sasaki did a year ago.

But there are plenty of questions: Will the defense, with Randy Winn in center field in place of the departed Mike Cameron and Spiezio still adjusting to third base, be as good as it was in '03? Will Moyer, at 41, start to fade? Can veteran first baseman John Olerud come back from a subpar season? Can Martinez and Aurilia, the latter coming off two injury-plagued seasons, stay healthy?

Seattle, 93-69 and three games back of AL West champ Oakland last year, will contend but fall just short of a division title and a postseason berth.

THE PICK Ñ90-72, 2nd in AL West

Those who think the Mariners' immediate future is division-championship bright are living in the past.

That 116-win season? It might as well have been in 1901, not 2001. And by the end of this season, Seattle fans will be longing for the good ol' days of 2003, when Jamie Moyer was winning 21 games and Edgar Martinez was limping through a .294 campaign.

The M's tinkered with their roster a lot in the offseason, but it wasn't enough to cover up their glaring weakness Ña lack of power. Can anyone besides Bret Boone hit more than 20 homers?

Seattle needed another everyday star, but they got Raul Ibanez in left field instead of Vladimir Guerrero, who has joined rival Anaheim. At shortstop, the M's could have used Miguel Tejada, but they got Rich Aurilia. Ibanez and Aurilia are fairly good, words that might describe Seattle this year as they chase the Angels and maybe Oakland, too.

Veterans Moyer, Martinez and John Olerud aren't likely to have career years. The defense won't be as good as it was last year, and the five-man rotation will have a hard time duplicating its solid performance. The reconfigured bullpen, and especially lefty closer Eddie Guardado, had better be strong.

If the pitching staff falters, by Labor Day the Safeco Field chatter will turn to whether the graybeards such as Martinez and catcher Dan Wilson will be gone next season, and which young prospects from Tacoma can lift the Mariners in 2005.

THE PICK Ñ82-80, 3rd in AL West