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Ms expect it to just get better this year

New skipper is fitting in fine with a strong, and so far healthy, team

PEORIA, Ariz. Ñ The Seattle Mariners, who have won 300 games in the last three seasons, will field another strong team capable of challenging for a postseason berth. But in the American League West, which features defending World Series champion Anaheim and the always imposing Oakland A's, will it be enough?

The Mariners seem to be brimming with confidence.

'We are the same team we were two years ago,' says second baseman Bret Boone, referring to Seattle's record-setting 2001 team, which lost to the New York Yankees in the AL Championship Series. 'We are the same team that won 116 games, with a few tweaks. And I think the changes will make us better.'

Gone is tough and feisty Manager Lou Piniella, who patrolled the Seattle dugout for a decade. In his place is Bob Melvin, 41, decidedly more mellow, in his first job as a major league manager after four years as a coach with Milwaukee, Detroit and Arizona.

After a spring observing his talent, Melvin isn't shying away from high expectations.

'There were 12 to 14 teams that came to spring training expecting to win the World Series,' Melvin says. 'We are one of those teams, and rightly so. It is a team expected to win, and it expects to win. Our goal is to make it to the postseason and see how many we can win from there.'

After reaching the ALCS in 2000 and '01, the Mariners failed to make the playoffs last season despite winning 93 games. Injuries to designated hitter Edgar Martinez and pitchers Paul Abbott, Jeff Nelson and Norm Charlton (now out six to eight weeks because of an injured shoulder), poor starts by Boone and center fielder Mike Cameron and poor finishes by right fielder Ichiro Suzuki and pitcher Freddy Garcia kept what might have been a great season merely good.

'There was nothing wrong with our team last year,' Boone says. 'The problem was we had a lot of key guys get injured for long stretches. To still win 93 games after going through that tells what kind of team we have. We happened to be in a tremendous division, and it wasn't enough.'

General Manager Pat Gillick has added three important bats to this year's team Ñ left fielder Randy Winn, who came to Seattle as compensation for the loss of Piniella to Tampa Bay Ñ and reserves Greg Colbrunn and John Mabry.

Winn, 28, hit .298 with 27 stolen bases and made the All-Star Game for the first time last season with the Devil Rays. Melvin will put him into the No. 2 slot between Ichiro and Boone, Martinez or John Olerud, and see what he can do.

'I can't complain about that,' says Winn, who hit .391 (18 of 46) in 15 spring games. 'That is a great place to hit in the order. I would like to build on what I did last year. I would like to score a lot of runs. If I can get on base and get into scoring position, those guys will drive me in.'

Colbrunn, a right-hander, is a career .291 hitter who has hit better than .300 five times in an 11-year big-league career, including .333 with 10 home runs in 171 at-bats for Arizona last season. Mabry, who bats left-handed, hit .276 with 11 homers in 214 at-bats for Oakland and Philadelphia last season.

'Colbrunn and Mabry give us two legit power guys off the bench, and (Mark) McLemore will be back as a guy who can play all over the place,' Boone says.

The regular lineup seems set, except at catcher, where Dan Wilson (strained abductor) might miss the first few games. Ben Davis will step in until Wilson returns.

Olerud (first base), Boone, Carlos Guillen (shortstop) and Jeff Cirillo (third base) form the infield. Winn, Mike Cameron and Ichiro combine for an outfield with jets.

'We have the best defense in either league,' Boone says. 'You won't see better. We have Gold Glove candidates all over the place.'

Pitching seems a little more suspect. Jamie Moyer, Garcia, Joel Pineiro and Ryan Franklin have earned four of five starting jobs, and Melvin will choose a fifth from among Gil Meche, Ken Cloude or Rafael Soriano. The relief corps Ñ setup guys Nelson, Arthur Rhodes and Shig Hasegawa and closer Kaz Sasaki Ñ appears solid. But can Moyer, 40, continue to get people out? Can Garcia, who struggled this spring, rebound from a so-so 2002? Can Franklin, in his first year as a regular starter, get the job done?

Another question: Will the Mariners have a new look under their new skipper? They may run a little more, and the pitchers may get a little more love, but initial indications are that it will be business as usual.

'This is a veteran team,' Melvin says. 'I think it has made my transition much easier than it could have been. They have been through the wars. They know how to prepare. The one thing I would say is it will be more of group effort this year. It will be more of a 25-man team, which will allow us to rest key guys and have them fresh late in the season.'

Notes: Boone on the managing change: 'I like them both, for different reasons. I loved playing for Lou Piniella. There is only one Lou. Now we have Bob, who is a tremendous guy. The players love him and respect him. He is different from Lou, but that is not a bad thing. He's not tried to change anything. He has tried to keep this team going in the same direction it has been going, while adding his own way of managing. I think he will do a great job.'

Winn says he was struck by the difference in the clubhouse between the Mariners and Devil Rays. 'It's a laid-back group, more so than I have been a part of,' Winn says. 'It has made it easy for me to fit in. I'm excited about what I've seen. We have a good mix. We have some power, some speed, some pitching, some defense Ñ a little bit of everything. If we play like we are capable, I can see some big things ahead.'

Through Tuesday, Martinez was sporting a major league-leading .535 average (23 of 43, 12 runs, 9 RBIs) in 13 games. 'Every time I look, he is getting another hit,' Melvin says. É Other strong Mariner averages: Olerud .438 (14 of 32, 14 RBIs), reserve catcher Pat Borders .394 (13 of 33), Cameron .350 (14 of 40, 13 runs), Davis .355 (11 of 31), Cirillo .325 (13 of 40) and Ichiro .363 (15 of 41). É Best spring among Seattle's starters goes to Moyer: 2-0 record, 4.15 ERA with 14 hits and 11 strikeouts in 13 innings.

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