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Mariners look better and deeper this spring

Manager Lou Piniella says team's starting pitching is weakest link

SEATTLE Ñ Last spring, the Seattle Mariners were concerned about their hitting, and it proved to be a strength as they rolled to one of the most productive regular seasons in major league history.

About-face. With this year's spring training less than a month away, hitting is no longer a major concern for the defending AL West champions, who have added third baseman Jeff Cirillo and veteran outfielder Ruben Sierra to an already potent offense.

The bullpen also seems ready. Middle reliever Norm Charlton is lost for the season due to rotator cuff surgery, but free-agent signee Shigetoshi Hasegawa has joined a group that already was as good as any in baseball.

If there is a weakness in pitching, it would be the starters. Aaron Sele, a 17-game winner, departed to Anaheim, Calif.

'We are a little thin in starting pitching,' manager Lou Piniella says. 'We were hoping to sign a starter and give Joel Pineiro a relief role, but it hasn't happened. One more experienced starter, we would benefit from that a lot.'

The Mariners have Freddy Garcia and Jamie Moyer as solid 1-2 guys, though Moyer is 39 and will be hard-pressed to match his 20-win total of a year ago. Paul Abbott was 17-4 last season, and Piniella will audition returnees Pineiro, John Halama and Ryan Franklin for the other two starting jobs.

'Of all our young pitchers, Joel has been the most sought after by other organizations,' Piniella says. 'Everybody wants him included in a deal, but we are not going to do that. I am positive he could pitch out of the bullpen and be dominant. The question is if he can go 175 to 200 innings as a starter. The only way to find out is to throw him out there.'

General Manager Pat Gillick will continue to pursue trade options and might go the free-agent route. The Mariners went after free-agent Jason Schmidt, who wound up with San Francisco. The most likely possibility is James Baldwin, who finished with Los Angeles last season after going 21-12 the previous season and a half with the Chicago White Sox. The Mariners have been in negotiations with Baldwin's agent.

A couple of youngsters, Gil Meche, 23, and 6-10 left-hander Ryan Anderson, 22, are coming off seasons lost to rotator cuff surgery and will be brought along slowly but could figure in later.

'They could be ready by May or June and change the whole outlook of the pitching situation,' Piniella says.

Piniella envisions a batting order of Ichiro Suzuki at leadoff; Cirillo, Mike Cameron or Mark McLemore in the second spot; Bret Boone, Edgar Martinez and John Olerud at 3 through 5; Cirillo, Cameron or McLemore at No. 6; Carols Guillen at No. 7; and Dan Wilson or backup catcher Ben Davis, acquired from San Diego, at No. 8.

Cirillo, 32, hit .313 with 17 home runs and 83 RBIs last season for Colorado.

'He can swing the bat and is a great third baseman,' Piniella says.

Sierra, 36, had a comeback year with Texas in 2001, batting .291 with 23 homers and 67 RBIs in 344 at-bats.

'He will be used a lot like (Stan) Javier last year,' Piniella says. 'He will play against left-handed pitching and get 350 to 400 at-bats.

'I like our club,' Piniella says. 'We've improved our offense. We're a little deeper on the bench. We have a little more experience. We should get more offensive production at third base and left field. Our bullpen is in excellent shape.'

QUIPSTER: Hasegawa will prove a little different than Japanese teammates Ichiro and Kazuhiro Sasaki for Seattle fans and media. For one thing, he has good command of the English language. Ichiro and Sasaki do their interviews with interpreters Ñ when Ichiro does interviews at all.

And Hasegawa, 33, has wit and a sense of humor that should be a delightful addition to the Mariner clubhouse.

Asked about Ichiro, Hasegawa said he played against the reigning AL MVP in high school, knew him a little and hadn't talked to him since signing with the Mariners last month. Then Hasegawa smiled.

'Let's talk about me,' he said, drawing laughs from the crowd of reporters.

Hasegawa's first trip to the United States was to Washington, when he pitched for Japan in the Goodwill Games in Tacoma.

'I had always had a dream to have a big house some day,' the 5-11, 180-pound right-hander said. 'Houses in Japan are very small. I remember looking around (the Seattle area) and thinking, 'Big houses. Maybe I move here some day.'

'My home now (in Newport Beach, Calif.) is close to the beach but kind of small. I can buy a big house (in Seattle). It's just a little bit cold here. It was 65 (in Newport Beach) today; it's 40 here. A little rainy. That's OK.'

Piniella plans to use Hasegawa as he had ex-Seattle reliever Bobby Ayala, whose wildness spelled his doom in baseball. 'But hopefully with better results,' Piniella says.

Hasegawa's response: 'Yeah, I don't want to be like that.'

As reporters laughed, Hasegawa added quickly, 'Don't write that down, OK? That was bad.'

NOTES: Randy Adamack, Seattle's vice president of communications, says fans can expect to see the regulars in the lineup for the Mariners' March 29 exhibition against San Diego in PGE Park. The Mariners will have exhibitions at Safeco Field in Seattle the following two days before their April 1 regular-season opener with the Chicago White Sox. 'But we will be down to close to our 25-man roster by the Portland game,' Adamack says. 'All the starters should be in there for the first few innings, at least.' É

The March 29 exhibition game in Portland is sold out. Individual Safeco game tickets are available at prices ranging from $6 to $40 through the Web site at www.seattlemariners.com or TicketMaster. The Mariners have already sold a franchise-record 21,404 season tickets for 2002, a nearly 10 percent jump from last year's 19,700 figure. É

Randy Myers, the Vancouver, Wash., native who was signed to a minor-league contract by Seattle late last season, won't be back. Myers, 39, gave up four runs without recording an out in his only appearance with Triple-A Tacoma. He hasn't fully recovered from the shoulder injury that has hampered him since 1998, and the Mariners didn't re-sign him. It appears his career is over. É

The Mariners will honor recently retired outfielder Jay Buhner with a ceremony before their April 2 game with the White Sox. Buhner will remain with the team as a spring training camp instructor and is expected to be involved in the team's broadcasting team along with local charities and community projects. É

Pitcher Jeff Nelson, who represented the Mariners in the Olympic torch relay in Seattle last week, said he was humbled by stories of other participants, including one who was a pilot in Bosnia and others who have survived life-threatening illnesses. 'The only thing I might have survived was New York,' the former Yankee reliever joked. É

Nelson also warned: 'We're not going to win 116 games again. It took 95 years to get there,' the reference to the Mariners' tying the 1906 Chicago Cubs for most victories in a major-league season. 'Even 100 wins is tough for any club, and fans shouldn't expect that,' Nelson says. 'But fans should expect us to be in the playoffs again. We expect that from ourselves. We'd like to take it at least a step further and get to the World Series.'

Contact Kerry Eggers at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..