Lefebvre Even More A Beliebvre

Over in the corner of a dining room at the Bellevue Athletic Club, Jim Lefebvre seemed almost incidental. After all, he wouldn't have a vote on the baseball owners' decision to lock out the players from spring training.

He wouldn't be picking the new Mariner mascot, or trying to make possible new owner Jeff Smulyan's vision of day care for the children of fans at the Kingdome.

Traditionally, in the gloom and doom of February, a bright spot always was the gathering of writers and baseball executives and players to talk baseball.

Not salary caps, but earned-run averages. Not arbitration figures, but on-base percentage figures.

Tanned and looking as if he'd just stepped out of the Arizona sunshine - which he had - Lefebvre seemed different than a year ago, his first as a big-league manager.

He was excited, virtually vibrating as he talked, but the anxiousness that was there a year ago was gone.

``The new owners,'' he said, ``have given me what I need. I don't want to get into ownership styles, but I feel more comfortable.''

A year ago, he had to know, down deep, he was going to lose his best pitcher, Mark Langston. He had an $800,000-a-year designated hitter he didn't want, a quixotic shortstop, a fading third baseman, a 19-year-old kid trying to become the regular centerfielder, and George Arygros as owner.

``We had questions last year,'' said Lefebvre, ``and now we've got mostly answers.''

So much at this time of year is just the optimism of spring, opening up around you like so many yellow, white and purple crocuses. So much is also just vintage Lefebvre, his haiku optimism as the zen master of the Mariners.

But the situation is more settled for the Mariners, on the field if not in the boardrooms where ownership struggles with the spectre of a prolonged strike.

If Lefebvre had to put a lineup on the field tomorrow - and he'd love to - he would have Dave Valle at catcher, Pete O'Brien at first, Harold Reynolds at second, Darnell Coles at third, Omar Vizquel at short, Jeffrey Leonard in left, Ken Griffey Jr. in center, Jay Buhner in right and Alvin Davis as the designated hitter.

The first four pitchers are Scott Bankhead, Erik Hanson, Randy Johnson and Brian Holman. The fifth starter is likely to be Young.

``Left-handed relief pitching,'' he said, identifying a pressing need, ``left-handed relief pitching.''

An outsider would wonder if Vizquel can really cut it at short - he hit .220 last year. If Leonard will be productive at the plate and in the clubhouse as he was for the first half of last season, or be a pain in the organization's side, as he was the second half?

Will Coles ever realize his considerable potential? Ditto Valle and Buhner. Will Davis be happy not playing in the field every day? Is there really a fifth starter, and is Mike Schooler, the club's stopper, first-rate, as the Mariners think he is.

It is clear Lefebvre has made some fundamental assesments about his talent. He is putting an awful lot of faith in Coles, Leonard and Buhner.

He says the same for Vizquel, although there is a feeling that a trade with the Braves - for Andres Thomas - might be made any day.

One of the more significant revelations yesterday by Lefebvre was that Greg Briley, when asked, decided he did not want to play the infield.

Briley, at one point last year a rookie-of-the-year candidate, began last season as a second baseman. He was such an offensive dynamo in the minors, that the Mariners turned him into an outfielder - they had Reynolds at second base - though he eventually played some second base for the big club.

After the club decided to trade Jim Presley, Lefebvre went to Briley and asked him if he wanted to give third a try.

``He said no,'' said the manager. ``All I know is that he will be an offensive player for us, hitting, stealing bases, scoring runs.''

It's possible that Briley's rejection of the offer may prove a blessing for the club. If history tells us anything, then it tells us that Coles doesn't need competition, rather assurance.

``I think Darnell Coles is going to surprise a lot of people,'' said Lefebvre. ``He knows there is no one in the wings, just Edgar Martinez to back him up. I think it is time for him to realize that he belongs at third, because to play that position you have to be an athlete. And Darnell Coles is an athlete.''

Coles showed some confidence in his ability to be more productive than he was last year (.252 with 59 RBI and 10 home runs) by signing a one-year contract, even though the club offered more. He has added 15 pounds and will obviously be pleased both by his salary ($740,000 compared with $510,000 last year) and the fact Presley is gone.

The two had battled for the position once before with Presley going to the big leagues and Coles in the tank.

Lefebvre says Leonard has recovered from a foot injury that took him out of left field and left him an unhappy DH. Lefebvre is right when he says Leonard hits better when he plays in the field everyday.

As for Davis, Lefebvre went out of his way yesterday to say that Mr. Mariner will also play in the field. Davis has avoided interviews, which is unlike him, and the presumption is he was less than delighted by the talk of his weak work on defense and the help O'Brien would bring to the field.

As for Buhner, Lefebvre says, ``He is a polished major-leaguer everywhere outside the batter's box. If he can improve there, he will be an all-star.''

Into his second year, Lefebvre has a club that is still young and unproven, but more proven than perhaps any previous Mariner team.

The challenge will be continued improvement in Buhner, Briley, Griffey, Reynolds, Valle and Coles, plus the passel of young pitchers.

``The second year is one where you can be complacent,'' said Lefebvre. ``I think we've got as good young talent as there is in baseball. But we also won 74 games last year. There is no room for complacency; but making sure there isn't, is my job.''

And even standing there in the corner, he looked up to the task.


Blaine Newnham's column usually is published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday in the Sports section of The Times.