Mariners' Toughest Calls Still Lie Ahead

Lou Piniella closed the door to his office for 45 minutes after the Mariners lost an 8-1 decision to the Baltimore Orioles.

He met with Roger Jongewaard, the director of scouting and player development, and Lee Pelekoudas, director of baseball administration.

They weren't talking about the weather.

"We're going to have to be bold and imaginative next winter," Piniella said later, "because you can't sit still in the water."

Right now, they are trying to find a left-handed hitter with power. But the bigger decisions, the ones that shape a franchise, involve starting pitchers Randy Johnson and Erik Hanson and catcher Dave Valle.

Tough choices ahead

Don't be surprised if all three are playing elsewhere next season.

"They are going to have some tough choices to make," said Valle, who has been the Mariner starting catcher since 1987. "Personally, I don't want to talk about my situation. Harold Reynolds told me he worried about it last year and it hurt him.

"I'm just going to try to do as much as I can for the Mariners for the next five weeks."

Valle will be 33 next season. As a free agent, he is expected to seek a multiyear contract at $3 million per year.

Yesterday, Reynolds hit a three-run homer to beat his old team.

Were the Mariners wrong in letting him go?


Rich Amaral, a 31-year-old rookie, has been more productive this season than Reynolds, while making one-tenth the salary. And Bret Boone still looks talented enough to be the long-range answer. If not him, then Ruben Santana, who is hitting .301 with 20 home runs and 81 runs batted in for Class AA Jacksonville.

Or if not Boone or Santana, then Arquimedez Pozo, who is hitting .332 for Class A Riverside.

Piniella in it for long haul

Baseball in the '90s.

Unlike Dick Williams, the previous big-name manager hired by the Mariners, Piniella seems to understand and relish the challenge of fluid rosters, of getting the most for every dollar management spends, of trying to win with limited means.

Clearly, Piniella is in it for the long haul, excited more about what might be than what is, satisfied with management's decision not to mortgage the future for the present.

"Let's be perfectly honest," he said. "If we play good baseball the rest of the season, wherever we finish, I'm going to be pleased.

"Let's not kid ourselves, with all the injuries we've had we are disadvantaged."

After 120 games, the Mariners are 59-61 and 6 1/2 games out of first place. At the same time last season, they were 48-72 and 25 games out of first place. The crowd yesterday was 21,917 on a sunny weekday in August.

"A nice crowd," Piniella said. "And we had 34,000 Monday night. It shows if you put a competitive team on the field people will come. For the most part, we've played good baseball."

Piniella said he wasn't dissatisfied with the inability of management to get him pitching help before the trading deadline. He said he didn't believe a team unable to reach .500 could challenge for a division pennant no matter how mediocre the division.

The injuries to Tino and Edgar Martinez and Norm Charlton only underscored his position.

"The only way we could have gotten help (for a pennant drive) was to give up on prospects, and we don't have that many in the organization to begin with," he said. "You give a few up for help today and you have nothing for tomorrow.

"Most of the players offered were older and at the higher end of the salary scale and facing free agency. I understand what we did."

Piniella still talks about his tenure with the Mariners as a three-year plan.

"We've got some areas to shore up, but we'll do it," he said.

The team needs a left fielder and a designated hitter. It also needs quality middle relief, and a closer, given the uncertainty surrounding Charlton.

Piniella won't talk specifics, but it appears the team will commit to Jay Buhner, who is eligible for arbitration, while letting Valle go. Bill Haselman has shown major-league ability with the bat, but he lacks the skills behind the plate to play every day.

Valle confirmed that the team has not talked to him about a contract extension.

Piniella, acting more and more like the team's general manager as well, won't let the organization stand pat. The Mariners' needs, of course, would be exacerbated by the loss of Valle.

But the money saved could be used elsewhere. It appears management is also willing to trade both Johnson and Hanson if it can get pitching and power in return. They both face arbitration this year and free agency the next and might bring prospects as well as proven players in a trade.

Piniella tried this year to get by with young pitching. He gave John Cummings, Mike Hampton and Jim Converse a chance, and they failed.

"They need a year in Triple A learning how to win," he said. "I can't expect them to help us next season."

Ron Villone, Roger Salkeld and a young reliever named Scott Schanz are also in the Mariner system. There is hope, but can the Mariners wait that long?

Piniella says they have to.