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Red-hot Vidro a driving force for Mariners

To Seattle Mariners critics -- a veritable cottage industry in the Puget Sound during the team's three-year fallow period that began with 99 losses in 2004 -- it was just another in a long line of dubious moves by the organization.

On Dec. 18, 2006, the Mariners traded popular (but injury prone) outfielder Chris Snelling and promising (but inconsistent) pitcher Emiliano Fruto to the Washington Nationals for Jose Vidro.

That would be the "oft-injured" Jose Vidro, to use his omnipresent identifying tag. Vidro was a one-time All-Star second baseman and dynamic offensive force whose chronic leg injuries had muted his power and limited his playing time in recent years.

Yet the Mariners assumed $12 million of the $16 million remaining on Vidro's contract through 2008, added a vested option for 2009 to induce him to accept the trade, and declared him their designated hitter for 2007.

"His downside the last couple of years was that he had been unhealthy," Seattle general manager Bill Bavasi says now. "He didn't have healthy legs. We felt if we took a shot at getting his legs healthy, he could be a pretty good player for us."

The howls from the Mariners' active sabermetric and blogosphere community could be heard from Bellingham to Walla Walla, but Vidro is making Bavasi's gamble look justifiable, if not astute.

After a modest first half in which his .286 batting average was supported by a paltry .349 slugging percentage, Vidro has been scorching since the All-Star break. His .387 second-half batting average (55-for-142) is second best in the American League, behind only Chone Figgins (.388). Overall, Vidro is hitting .318 with an on-base percentage of .384.

Vidro says his legs, battered by years on the unforgiving Astroturf of Montreal, feel better than they have in many seasons (he credits diligent work by Seattle's training staff for his improved health). But longtime Mariners' trainer Rick Griffin said Vidro, who once had 51 doubles in a season (2000) and hit better than .300 every season during 1999-2003, deserves the credit.

"In April and May, I almost thought Edgar was back out there," Griffin joked, referring to slow-footed Mariners DH legend Edgar Martinez, who retired after the 2004 season.

"Now Jose is running pretty good. He's been great about doing the work. I've never had to go and find him."

After getting a tutorial in spring training from Martinez, a fellow Puerto Rican, Vidro is adjusting well to the quirky life of a DH. Griffin believes that not having to play defense has allowed Vidro's troublesome knees, hamstrings and quads to heal at the same time he works to strengthen them.

And Vidro is thriving in a Mariners lineup that might have the best top-to-bottom depth in the American League. The surprising Mariners, whose .288 team batting average trails only the Yankees (.292), open a three-game showdown with the Angels on Monday night at Safeco Field, with first place in the AL West on the line.

"I knew after the first half it would be different in the second half, because I have more experience," said Vidro, who turns 33 on Monday. "I know the league more. It took me awhile to get used to a lot of things, but I can say now I feel more comfortable playing in the American League.

"I feel if I keep doing the same things, and stay positive, I can keep doing it until the end."

Overall, Vidro has been a substantial improvement for the Mariners from 2006, when Carl Everett flamed out as their designated hitter. Seattle batters ranked last among American League DHs in slugging percentage (.358), on-base percentage (.298) and runs (65), and next to last in average (.233), RBIs (65) and doubles (21).

Vidro isn't a prototype slugging DH in the fashion of David Ortiz or Jim Thome -- or even Edgar Martinez, a two-time batting champion -- but his slugging percentage in the second half is a respectable .493.

"He's not doing anything that really is that much of a surprise, because he's just a good hitter," Bavasi said. "He was a good hitter as a kid. Jose has always been a good offensive player."

Meanwhile, the Nationals have since traded both Snelling and Fruto, getting outfielder Ryan Langerhans from Oakland for the former, and first baseman Chris Carter from Arizona for the latter.

Of course, skeptics still remain. The influential USS Mariner Web site, in a post by co-founder Derek Zumsteg on Aug. 15, analyzed Vidro's season and concluded: "Vidro was a horrible player the first half of the year and has been an amazing one since, but the underlying skills suggest that we should expect something a lot closer to this first half performance than his second half performance going forward."

Vidro shrugs at the criticism.

It's not a first half and it's not a second half. It's a full season. ... I've seen guys like myself have a slow first half, and then the numbers in the second half come around. In the end, I know the numbers are going to be pretty
good.

-- Jose Vidro

"I know there's always going to be controversy, but hey, when this ballclub called me up to be the DH here, they knew I was not a power hitter," he said. "I was just mainly a line-drive hitter, and a good average guy. I'm not putting pressure on myself to be anything I'm not.

"It's not a first half and it's not a second half. It's a full season. I've seen a lot of guys go hot in the first half, and then in the second half fall asleep. I've seen guys like myself have a slow first half, and then the numbers in the second half come around. In the end, I know the numbers are going to be pretty good."

Brad Wilkerson -- a former teammate of Vidro's in Montreal, Puerto Rico and Washington who is now playing for Texas -- sees shades of the vintage Vidro this season.

"I've always said the injuries caught up with him," Wilkerson said. "I think it was the turf in Montreal more than anything. Everyone knows, especially me, the way he can swing a bat. It was just amazing to see how he could take the best of the pitchers, guys throwing 98 mph, and he looked so controlled and relaxed up there, using all fields.

"I think he was put in a perfect role as a DH, where he can just go up and hit. The things he's doing at the plate this year are the old Jose Vidro."

Vidro is thriving in the No. 2 hole behind Ichiro and ahead of former Nationals teammate Jose Guillen, who himself is having a resurgent season as the Mariners' No. 3 hitter.

"He's kind of locked in," Mariners hitting coach Jeff Pentland said of Vidro. "What I like is that it doesn't matter who the pitcher is. It could be the best guy in the league, and he seems to hit anybody or anything.

"Ichiro is such a big part of our offense, if Vidro has any success at all, which he's had a lot of, it turns into runs. Vidro's power numbers aren't huge any more, but he's just a force to be reckoned with every time he comes to the plate.

And now the Mariners, to the amazement of just about everyone in and out of the Puget Sound, have become a force to be reckoned with as well.

Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.