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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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April 25, 2008 9:58 AM

Waiting game

Posted by Geoff Baker

Whew! Is it my imagination, or are the days getting longer and the nights shorter? Seemed like a very long day yesterday that got even longer after the ballgame began. No writer likes to see a massive lead change like that while trying to write newspaper stories on deadline and keep a blog updated. Crazy stuff.

Reading through your comments this morning, a few things jumped out at me. I think it was Stevo in Oregon who wrote that the M's would not have what it takes to come back from a 5-0 deficit. As much as the M's would love to argue that point, so far, they can't. Stevo is statistically right. In fact, when Ichiro homered to tie the game 7-7, it marked the second time all year the M's have come back from a two-run deficit. Not that they won the game or anything. So far, in games the M's trail by two or more runs at any point, they are 0-8.

That underscores just how inconsistent the offense has been. Seattle did everything right offensively last night -- for one inning. The third inning was a complete package of everything the M's have preached since spring training: two-strike hitting, a hit-and-run, sacrifice flies, taking extra bases and even a double-steal. And then nothing. Take out the shaky, erratic starting pitcher, who may have been hurt, and the M's went back to being the same offensive club we've seen. I don't care if they scored seven runs. They were outscored 8-2 after Adam Loewen was pulled. This is why that whole Pythagorean thing gets to me sometimes. Not all seven-run games are created equal. The M's had one big inning, then went to sleep until they were trailing 7-5. Let themselves be outhit 12-5 before the bottom of the seventh. That is not a strong offensive showing. That's jumping all over a bad-looking pitcher for one inning. Big difference. On paper, the M's will look OK in the runs scored department because of last night's outburst and a few more like it. In reality, they tend to bunch up a couple of big scoring games, then go on prolonged droughts. They had scored four runs or less in six of the last seven games heading into last night.

I'm not as worried about the bullpen as some of you are. The Mariners got squeezed badly in the seventh inning. Arthur Rhodes could not adjust to the strike zone, whatever it was, and paid for it. Happens. This bullpen has plenty of live arms and a good bit of depth. If Mark Lowe (who is coming off elbow surgery, remember?) can't figure things out, there are more guys who can step in until he does. If none of them figure it out and the bridge to J.J. Putz continues to be a problem, you can always put Miguel Batista in the bullpen come mid-season.

Actually, I'm looking forward to Batista's start tonight. Let's see if that new "discovery'' of his from his last outing really has allowed him to become a seven-inning pitcher at age 37. If so, it will transform this rotation in ways no one imagined. But we'll have to wait a few weeks to know for sure.

That's the theme of today's post: the Waiting Game.

It's not easy. In fact, it's the source of angst for many of you reading this. The gut instinct when things go wrong is to pinpoint a source and try to make a correction. Many of you have pointed out what the Toronto Blue Jays did with Frank Thomas, cutting him loose and eating $7 million in salary this season. I can tell you, though, had his vesting option for 2009 been something like $4 million once he reached 600 ABs (instead of $10 million at less than 400) then Thomas would still be with the Jays.

Don't kid yourselves. That was a money move. With more time and less money at stake, the Jays would have been willing to wait Thomas out to see whether he'd truly "lost it.''

But you can't go on waiting forever. I guess, the trick is figuring out when to go Kenny Rogers and know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em.

There is no precise formula. No exact date.

I can give you some ideas that I have on this. In my book, a team can afford to wait on wholesale changes as long as it is still within reasonable striking distance of the clubs it hopes to beat out in a given year. The M's being three back of the A's and Angels with more than five months to go certainly qualifies. Now, if Seattle goes out and gets swept this weekend, things become a lot more dire. Being six games out at any time is cause for concern. By mid-September, as one of you jokingly wrote this morning in a mock post attributed to yours truly, the season would be over.

It would not be over by April 27, but it would be another sweep or two from becoming almost unworkable. The M's almost did catch the Angels for a point last year despite being eight games out. But that was an unusual combination of a big Seattle streak and an awful Angels stretch helped immensely by them waiting a long time for Ervin Santana to come around. It's not something you can count on.

Six games or less seems pretty workable to me as a gap this early in the year. Not etched in stone, but workable. This team went out and spent seven figures on Brad Wilkerson expecting a certain return on the investment. As with any mutual fund, you can't just wait 2 1/2 weeks to see if that return pans out. Especially when the guy is now hurt. Wilkerson has to come back, be given the chance to show if he can produce the numbers expected by the team and then be dealt with from there.

I don't care who the guy is. Two and a half weeks from the start of the year is not enough time to make a call on an everyday player. Jose Vidro has had 3 1/2 weeks and has not looked good, but then he goes and hits that rocket over the head of Adam Jones last night. Sign of things to come? Who knows? Maybe, maybe not. Point is, none of us knows.

I've been writing all along that mid-May would be my cutoff point. I think 1 1/2 months into a six-month season is enough time to make a call. The M's might carry it through May, giving some guys a third of a season to produce. As long as the team is still within reasonable striking distance -- reasonable being the key word here -- that type of wait is doable. Gives Jeff Clement and Wladimir Balentien the chance to fully get into their seasons as well. Clement appears to be ahead of schedule. Perhaps this allows the team to move up the timetable. For me, going into June with three severely struggling hitters is too long. Not when you have potential replacements.

But there are also no guarantees the replacements will be much better. No matter what we think, or project. And once you replace a guy, that's it. It's tough to go back to that well. So, the way I see it, being less than a month into the season, with a three-game gap between the M's and the division leaders, is too early to make a definitive call. If the team was going to be that antsy, it should not have started the year with the aforementioned hitters. But it did. It had that much confidence. Before pulling the plug, the team must justify the newfound lack of confidence to itself. And it does that with a sample size greater than a few series.

But the team also must not delude itself. The team's management must have the courage to admit a mistake. To know within its mind when the true drop-dead date is and stick to it. As I've mentioned, it's not an exact science. But for the Mariners, it could become an important science nonetheless.

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