Gillick's goal: keep superstars aligned

ON BASEBALL

Baseball

January 23, 2000|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

No doubt, when new Seattle Mariners general manager Pat Gillick signed free-agent pitcher Aaron Sele recently, it was viewed by some fans in Baltimore as an act of one-upmanship.

Gillick, after all, used to be the Orioles' general manager and Sele seemed to be on the verge of signing a four-year deal to flesh out the Orioles' starting rotation. The acquisition left the Orioles' front office looking a little disorganized -- even if it was more a case of owner Peter Angelos having a sudden attack of caution -- and it left Gillick looking like the genius that everyone outside the Orioles' front office thinks he is.

Only time will tell who made the right decision, but the notion that Gillick spends any time conspiring to embarrass the Orioles is a little far-fetched.

It seems far more likely that Gillick is involved in a conspiracy of a different sort, one that would not only make him look like a genius, but also qualify him for sainthood in the Pacific Northwest.

Gillick won't admit it, but it seems obvious he is trying to accomplish two things with his recent wave of free-agent signings. He is, of course, trying to pull the Mariners out of a two-year competitive malaise, and he is trying to create an environment in Seattle that will make it possible to keep at least one of his two superstars -- Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey.

Look at the evidence. Gillick agreed this winter to try to trade Griffey, but drove such a hard bargain that it now appears that the popular center fielder will start the season in a Mariners uniform. That does not appear to be an accident.

Rodriguez has made it clear that he will test the free-agent market at the end of next season. The outcome of the 2000 season probably won't change his mind, but a return to the playoffs might soften him up and might persuade Mariners ownership to make a legitimate attempt to re-sign him.

It still seems highly unlikely that both will be back in Seattle in 2001, but there was a time when it appeared just as unlikely that either one would return. Gillick's winter rebuilding project, at the very least, has created hope for a much brighter future.

The addition of Sele has improved the starting rotation, and the arrival of former Orioles left-hander Arthur Rhodes has shored up the bullpen. Gillick also signed veteran first baseman John Olerud and second baseman Mark McLemore to beef up the offensive lineup and the infield defense.

Will it be enough to lift the Mariners back into contention in the American League West?

Probably, but the defending division champion Texas Rangers have made some dynamic moves over the off-season, including the blockbuster deal that sent outfielder Juan Gonzalez to the Detroit Tigers for (among others) starting pitcher Justin Thompson and top outfield prospect Gabe Kapler.

Even the Oakland Athletics, who surprised everyone with their strong showing last year, could be a formidable contender again.

The exception

The one team in the AL West that cannot make a case for possible contention is the Anaheim Angels, who have -- almost inexplicably -- remained dormant throughout the winter.

The only significant roster change involving the Angels this off-season was the loss of veteran starting pitcher Chuck Finley. Front-office officials are banking that the team's talented young lineup will be healthier this year and that first baseman Mo Vaughn will bounce back from a difficult season to lead an explosive offensive attack.

That could happen, but the pitching staff will miss Finley and may be without injured veteran Tim Belcher for the first few weeks of the season. That's going to put a lot of pressure on veteran Ken Hill to come back strong from an injury-marred 4-11 season.

Tarnished Angels, Part II

Rumors persist that the Walt Disney Co. will sell the Angels, but the big question after this inactive winter is this: Why did the media giant buy the team in the first place?

The club's huge corporate backing was supposed to put the Angels in a position to compete with the rival Los Angeles Dodgers in the nation's No. 2 media market, but Disney seems more interested in cutting corners than in carving out a bigger market share in Southern California.

"We're not going to strike a deal just to strike a deal," new Angels GM Bill Stoneman told the Los Angeles Times recently. "If we go to spring training with the club the way it is now, then we do. Is that going to happen? I don't know."

There still is time to pull off a significant deal. The Angels can afford to deal one of their highly regarded outfielders -- Garret Anderson or Jim Edmonds -- but will be hard-pressed to get a top-quality pitcher in return.

If they don't do something, they could end up looking up at the rest of the division again in 2001.

Labor pains

Still waiting to see if deposed union director Richie Phillips finally takes the hint and allows the new umpires union to get on with the business of negotiating a new labor agreement.

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