• Batting changes, new and old talent, have stopped many rivals in the preseason

PEORIA, Ariz. Ñ If only the game were always as easy for the Seattle Mariners as it was for them Sunday at Peoria Sports Complex.

The Mariners raked Chicago pitching for 18 hits and 11 runs in the first four innings of a 21-hit, 12-2 Cactus League victory over the White Sox. That brought Seattle into Monday's game with Arizona sporting a league-best 11-5 record.

The games don't start counting, however, until April 6, when Jamie Moyer takes the mound at Safeco Field for the opener of a three-game series with American League West rival Anaheim.

The Angels, who have invested Yankee-like money in landing new talent such as Vladimir Guerrero, Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar, are getting most of the attention as division favorites. Defending champion Oakland, with its crack pitching rotation, is well-regarded, too.

Moyer doesn't quarrel with any of that, but the veteran left-hander isn't fond of conceding things until teams take the field for real.

'I don't care if we're overlooked or not,' says the 41-year-old Moyer, who was midseason sharp against the White Sox, limiting them to three hits, a walk and a run with six strikeouts over six innings. 'The bottom line is, you go out and play.

'The media puts its fingerprint on what teams have done to change their personnel in the offseason. Then you compare teams on paper. Our management feels like it did what it can to make us better. Now we're seeing how the pieces fit into the puzzle. I don't see why any of the new guys can't come in and make big contributions. You find out only when the bell rings.'

Gone are third baseman Jeff Cirillo, shortstop Carlos Guillen and center fielder Mike Cameron. In their place are Scott Spiezio at third, Rich Aurilia at short and Raul Ibanez in left field, with Randy Winn taking over in center.

So far, so good. Spiezio is hitting .400 in 30 at-bats this spring. Ibanez, batting cleanup, went 3 for 3 against Chicago to raise his exhibition average to .286. Aurilia, hitting .222 in only 18 at-bats, returned to the lineup after missing a week with a strained calf muscle.

'The new guys are outstanding,' says second-year manager Bob Melvin, who took Seattle to a 93-69 record but missed the playoffs last season. 'They have fit in like everybody thought they would. Scott and Rich are tough, gritty players who played the postseason recently. Raul has fit in perfectly. Playing every day with Kansas City the last couple of years has gone a long way for him. His bat is a great fit in our park.'

Batting lineup makes room

The left-handed-hitting Ibanez started his big-league career with Seattle but wasn't a regular until he made Kansas City as a nonroster invitee in 2001. Ibanez, who hit .294 with 42 homers and 193 RBIs the last two years with the Royals, will bat fourth ahead of Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, who will each move back a spot in the order.

The idea: With lefty-batting Ichiro Suzuki, switch-hitter Winn and righty Bret Boone occupying the first three spots, the Mariners will have a left-right thing going through the first seven batters in the lineup. That makes it tough for opposing managers to lock in with either a left-handed or right-handed pitcher.

And Melvin looks at it as if he had two cleanup hitters. Or more succinctly, two No. 3 hitters, with Martinez still the cleanup guy. And the Seattle skipper doesn't want Ibanez to get hung up trying to post power numbers.

Says Melvin: 'I told Raul, 'With you in the four hole, it sets up better, because we have four guys who run better than Edgar ahead of him. But listen, you are not our cleanup guy. Our cleanup guy is in the five-hole, hitting right behind you. I don't want you to get out of your game and do things that are uncomfortable for you.' '

Martinez, hitting .416 this spring, has approved the switch.

'No. 5 is fine with me,' says the man who is as close to a hitting machine as there is in baseball. 'There is a lot of action in the middle of the lineup. I'm going to have the same opportunities. If it makes the team better, I'm all for it. Raul is a great hitter, he'll be on base a lot, and it'll help me, too.'

Spiezio and Aurilio faced each other in the 2002 World Series. Spiezio was the first baseman for the Angels' championship squad, ending the postseason with a record-tying 19 RBIs. Aurilia was the shortstop for San Francisco's National League titlists. Both were signed by the Mariners as free agents.

Age has its advantage

Aurilia hopes to return to the form he showed in 2001, when he hit .324 with 37 homers and 97 RBIs for the Giants. The last two seasons he has struggled with an assortment of injuries and an appendectomy.

'The last two years, there were some freak injuries I had no control over,' Aurilia says. 'Hopefully, I have that behind me and I can go on and play the way I'm capable of.

'This is a veteran club. Everybody is relaxed, which is a nice thing. The more relaxed you are, the better your performance can be. The way I see it, we're going to win a lot of games. We have as good a chance to win the division as anybody.'

The starting rotation returns, though Melvin has moved Moyer and Joel Pineiro to 1-2 and Freddy Garcia back to No. 3. Arthur Rhodes and Kaz Sasaki are gone from the bullpen, with free agent Eddie Guardado Ñ who spent all of his 11 seasons with Minnesota and had an ERA under 3.00 the last two Ñ moving in as closer.

Melvin says his biggest concern is health, with good reason. Seattle is one of the oldest teams in baseball, with Moyer and Martinez both 41; Boone, Olerud, catcher Dan Wilson and reliever Shigetoshi Hasegawa all 35; Aurilia, 32; and Ibanez and Spiezio, 31.

But there are other questions. Is there enough home run power in the Seattle lineup? Spiezio has played third in the past, but he hasn't been a regular third baseman. Aurilia's defense has never been his strong point. Will Ichiro return to his MVP form of 2001, or will he fade in the second half as he did the past two seasons? Can Moyer and Martinez, Old Men River, keep rolling along?

'No question we can win our division,' Melvin says. 'The Angels have made the biggest splash, spending a bunch of money, but history proves that doesn't always get it done for you. Oakland's pitching is always going to keep them a contender, so the division is going to be tough.

'But we're not going to worry about anybody else. We have a good enough team to do it ourselves.'

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