Mariners CEO: Hargrove, GM Bavasi on 'hot seat' in '07
SEATTLE -- So much for stability.
Mariners players thought that's what they were getting when team CEO Howard Lincoln announced last week that manager Mike Hargrove and general manager Bill Bavasi would return in 2007.
This, even though the Mariners went 78-84 in 2006 to complete their third consecutive last-place season in the AL West. And even though Hargrove just finished his sixth consecutive losing season as a major league manager.
"It gives you a good feeling that the front office trusts the guys we have," veteran Willie Bloomquist said Friday, a day after Lincoln's announcement.
But Seattle fans immediately began letting Lincoln know what they thought of his vote of confidence.
"I've heard from some fans that are supportive and I heard from some fans that are not so supportive. That's to be expected," Lincoln said.
No one has to remind Lincoln that the 2.4 million fans drawn to Safeco Field this season represented the fourth consecutive drop in attendance.
A day after his endorsement of Hargrove and Bavasi, Lincoln made himself available on the field during batting practice. It was odd -- he speaks publicly about his team just a bit more often than the Mariners win the World Series.
The CEO then re-lit the fire under his manager and GM, which was white-hot after Seattle went 0-11 on an August road trip to freefall out of playoff contention.
"I don't want to leave any doubt in anybody's mind: Mike Hargrove and Bill Bavasi are on my hot seat," Lincoln said. "And I expect that they are going to work even harder than they're already working to produce the results the fans and I think the ownership group expects."
When asked if he was trying to send a message to fans and the two men most responsible for getting Seattle back to the playoffs for the first time since 2001, Lincoln said: "That's exactly right. You've got it."
The young, still-developing Mariners rebounded from that 0-11 disaster trip to go 22-16 the rest of the way. So Hargrove, who has one year left on his three-year contract, was defensive when asked about Lincoln's "hot seat" comments after Sunday's season finale.
"Do I think  is my one chance? I've been doing this for 15 years. And I'm pretty good at it, too," Hargrove said, his eyes steely and voice stern. "I will work as hard next year as I always have.
"If it works, great. If not, then I know I've done my best."
For the usually bland Hargrove -- who last went to the postseason while managing Cleveland in 1999 and then spent four losing years in Baltimore -- it was perhaps his most passionate postgame talk of a long season.
Hargrove said he, Bavasi and the baseball operations staff were already planning the offseason.
"We're serious about getting this done," he said.
The 2006 season represented more than a nine-win improvement over '05. Seattle found a younger, sometimes dominant closer in J.J. Putz. Putz, 29, took the since-traded Eddie Guardado's job in May and had 36 saves in 43 chances.
In late summer, the Mariners finally got Ichiro Suzuki to play center field, something they've been trying to do for years.
Suzuki confirmed Sunday that he will begin 2007 in center field. That clears a corner outfield spot for the powerful, left-handed bat the Mariners have been craving to acquire for two years.
Suzuki will be entering the final year of his $44 million, four-year contract. Lincoln wouldn't declare his intent to re-sign the team's most recognizable star this winter, but he hinted at it.
"Obviously, Ichiro is a very important part of this organization and he's been here a number of years and I think very highly of him," Lincoln said. "So I guess the only thing I can say is: stay tuned."
Even though Seattle needs to acquire two or even three starting pitchers to fill voids in its rotation, there are more reasons to stay tuned to the 2007 Mariners -- thanks to 2006.
Second baseman Jose Lopez was fighting for his job in spring training. Then the 22-year-old became an All-Star. Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt, 24, are one of the league's best young middle-infield tandems.
The Mariners got unexpected power from 34-year-old Raul Ibanez. He signed a contract extension and then hit 33 home runs -- nine more than his previous career high. His 123 RBI were 20 more than his previous season best.
The much-maligned Adrian Beltre had a 16-game hitting streak in September and a career-high 39 doubles for the season. He finished with 25 home runs -- six more than in 2005 -- and 89 RBI.
Beltre, a Los Angeles Dodger through 2004, said Sunday that only in the last month has he finally been comfortable in his knowledge of AL pitchers.
Richie Sexson finished with 34 homers and 107 RBI. But he was most proud of rebounding from a .221 average on Aug. 7 to finish at .264. To do it, he hit .365 in September.
"To me, it's my greatest year," the nine-year veteran said.
Mark Lowe arrived from Double-A San Antonio on July 7. He then threw a franchise-record 17 2/3 scoreless innings to begin his career and become Putz's key, eighth-inning setup man.
Lowe, 23, is to have arthroscopic surgery this offseason on his right, pitching elbow. But the Mariners expect him back throwing when spring training opens in mid-February.
Hargrove and Bavasi will be there, too.
"I'd like to see this thing through," Hargrove said. "... I don't want to do all this hard work and have someone else reap the benefits."
Copyright 2006 by The Associated Press