Mariners make large leap in 2009
GM Zduriencik, skipper Wakamatsu usher in new era
SEATTLE -- They hugged, high-fived fans, carried players off the field and reveled in the joy of a Major League-best 24-game turnaround.
It wasn't a postseason celebration, but the Mariners still partied in 2009, proud of the fact that they went 85-77, a year after posting the worst record in the American League at 61-101.
Gone was the internal strife that rocked a clubhouse. In its place was a belief system set forth by first-year general manager Jack Zduriencik, rookie skipper Don Wakamatsu, veteran leaders Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney, and a 25-man roster of players committed to setting a tone for winning.
Looking ahead to 2010, as the front office continues to make bold moves, the roster crystallizes and the landscape of the AL West seems to shift with every Hot Stove update, the Mariners appear to be a team on the rise.
But before we enter the great unknown of the New Year, Spring Training and the championship season that may await, let's take a look back at the Mariners' memorable 2009, month by month.
With Zduriencik and Wakamatsu aboard and the Mariners needing a new attitude, the team adopted a fresh slogan -- "A New Day, A New Way" -- that would prove prophetic as the events of 2009 unfolded. A successful Fan Fest at Safeco Field allowed the Seattle faithful to meet the new players on the team, and more new ones were introduced later in the month when the Mariners acquired infielder Ronny Cedeno and left-handed pitcher Garrett Olson from the Cubs for pitcher Aaron Heilman. But more significant moves were in the offing for January, with Seattle adding its future closer, David Aardsma, in a trade with Boston, and signing veteran hitter Sweeney to a Minor League deal.
The sun rose on Peoria, Ariz., for the Mariners' fresh start in Spring Training, marking the first camp for Wakamatsu. And the skipper got a huge boost when legend Griffey Jr. decided to come back to Seattle. Griffey had been reported as signing with Atlanta, but he electrified the Emerald City by returning to where his Hall of Fame career began in 1989.
The Spring Training schedule flew by, and it was an eventful March. The Mariners lost lefty Ryan Feierabend for the year because of elbow surgery and then lost several players for up to a month to the World Baseball Classic. Ichiro Suzuki played for Japan, Felix Hernandez, Endy Chavez, Jose Lopez and Carlos Silva went to Team Venezuela, and prospects Phillippe Aumont (Canada) and Greg Halman (Netherlands) also participated in the tournament.
Ichiro didn't surprise anybody by singling in the winning run in the championship game of the Classic, giving the Japanese club its second straight title, but Ichiro got a day off from camp on the last day of the month because of light-headedness, setting the tone for a slightly scary April for the Mariners' table-setter.
After wrapping up the Cactus League schedule with a 16-16-3 record, the team learned Ichiro would be out with a bleeding ulcer, an ailment that cost him the first eight games of the year. Wakamatsu's Opening Day roster included a surprise or two, including right-hander Chris Jakubauskas, who had persevered through independent leagues before pitching his way onto the roster.
Something special was in the air during the team's opener in Minnesota when Hernandez turned in a solid start and Griffey homered in his first game in a Seattle uniform in over 10 years. Ichiro made a splash in his return, too, hitting a grand slam as Griffey hit his 400th homer as a Mariners player. More injury news came when top shortstop prospect Carlos Triunfel broke his left fibula in a Minor League game, but more Ichiro news came in the form of the right fielder's 3,086th professional hit, breaking the 27-year-old Japanese record of Isao Harimoto, who was on hand to witness the pivotal knock.
Elsewhere on the field for Seattle, Rob Johnson took over for injured Kenji Johjima behind the plate and served notice that he would be a factor at catcher because of his good defense and rapport with pitchers. By the end of April, the Mariners had posted a 13-9 record, ending a six-month losing streak and marking the first time since 2003, when they went 17-10, that they had a winning record in April. It also was the first time since July of '03 that Seattle led the American League West at the end of a month.
May came in like an icepack when promising reliever Shawn Kelley went down for a month with a strained oblique muscle and starter Carlos Silva was put on the shelf with a shoulder impingement. The Mariners struggled at the beginning of the month, dropping six in a row and nine of 10.
Closer Brandon Morrow wasn't hurt, but he was hurting when his inability to lock down wins forced Wakamatsu to go with Aardsma to finish games. Meanwhile, a famous former Mariners player, Randy Johnson, pitched in Seattle en route to his 300th career victory, and the Mariners managed to tread water in the standings despite going 11-18 for the month and holding a 24-27 record.
Looking for an offensive boost, the Mariners moved slugger Russell Branyan to No. 2 in the lineup and watched as the bats reaped the benefits. Ichiro got it going with a team-record 27-game hitting streak, and the good vibes continued when Seattle selected University of North Carolina hitter Dustin Ackley with the second overall pick in the First-Year Player Draft.
The Brandon Morrow Experiment continued with the team moving Morrow to the starting rotation. Inflammation in Erik Bedard's shoulder stalled what was turning into a fine bounce-back season for the left-hander. Good news came when Wakamatsu was named to AL All-Star manager Joe Maddon's staff for the Midsummer Classic in St. Louis, but bad news came when Chavez tore knee ligaments and was lost for the year and third baseman Adrian Beltre needed minor shoulder surgery. The Mariners capped off a 15-10 month by trading Mike Morse to the Nationals for outfielder Ryan Langerhans.
Hernandez's stellar season was in full swing, and that success netted him the AL's Pitcher of the Month award for June. A day before Independence Day, Branyan provided some serious fireworks with a cannon blast of a home run off the restaurant windows in the new Yankee Stadium. Filed in the category of no-brainer were Ichiro making his ninth straight All-Star Game and Hernandez making his first, and lefty Jarrod Washburn provided his best game in a Seattle uniform with a home one-hitter over Baltimore.
Meanwhile, Morrow was sent to Triple-A Tacoma to work on refining his starting repertoire, and the Mariners continued to sculpt their roster for the present and future, trading shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt to the Royals for Minor League pitchers Danny Cortes and Derrick Saito. Seattle continued to warm up for the Trade Deadline by swapping with Oakland for infielder Jack Hannahan.
In St. Louis, prospects Alex Liddi and Tyson Gillies played in the Futures Game, and Ichiro made the most of his time in the Gateway City, visiting George Sisler's grave to honor the man who used to have the single-season hits record before Ichiro shattered it in 2004. When the lights came on for the big game, Ichiro hit a single, Hernandez pitched a scoreless inning, and the AL won.
After the break, Seattle kept busy, promoting rookie outfielder Michael Saunders from Triple-A and signing their second-round Draft pick, Rich Poythress. Bedard's shoulder put him on the DL again, and then Trader Jack (Zduriencik) got active by the deadline, dealing Jeff Clement and Cedeno to Pittsburgh for starter Ian Snell and shortstop Jack Wilson, sending outfielder Wladimir Balentien to Cincinnati for right-hander Robert Manuel, and shipping Washburn off to Detroit for lefties Luke French and Mauricio Robles. When the smoke cleared more than halfway through the 2009 campaign, the surprising Mariners remained in contention with a 14-13 record for the month and a 53-50 mark overall.
The Mariners started August well, winning three of four, and on the first day of the month, Griffey hit another milestone, belting a home run off the 400th different pitcher he'd gone deep against, with Texas' Tommy Hunter being the victim. Seattle got banged up in the dog days of summer, though, losing Bedard early for a second straight season when an MRI revealed a labrum tear, losing Wilson for a while with hamstring problems, and seeing Beltre [contused testicle] and Branyan [lower back] miss time, but some enthusiasm was restored when Langerhans came up with the first of what would be two extra-inning walk-off homers in Safeco in the month.
Otherwise, it was another productive month for Zduriencik behind the scenes. The Mariners signed Ackley and their other first-round pick, shortstop Nick Franklin, and traded Minor League pitcher Ruben Flores to Milwaukee for versatile multi-purpose player Bill Hall. And on the field, Seattle wouldn't give up, going 15-14 for the month to enter September with a 68-64 record, already exceeding their 2008 win total by seven games with 31 left to play.
Sept. 1 was the day for callups, and the Mariners welcomed back first baseman Mike Carp and lefty pitcher Jason Vargas. They also welcomed back Beltre from the DL, but the front office said goodbye to longtime assistant GM Lee Pelekoudas, who stepped aside.
Griffey's left knee acted up and so did Ichiro's bat, as the speedy leadoff man notched his 2,000th big league hit, becoming the second-fastest player to reach that number since Al Simmons. Ichiro also was nearing 200 hits for the year for a record ninth straight time, but he went 1-for-14 in a series against the Angels, prolonging the suspense. Ichiro finally got his 200th hit on Sept. 13 in Texas, smashing the mark of Hall of Famer Wee Willie Keeler, who had reeled off eight consecutive 200-hit seasons culminating in the 1901 season.
As the final full month of the schedule progressed, the Mariners saw more young players in action, including locally bred infielder Matt Tuiasosopo, and young executives, with the hiring of Jeff Kingston as assistant GM being announced in September.
Wilson continued to be plagued by injuries, this time with a heel problem, and Ichiro even showed he was human by being ejected from a game for the first time in his career, but Suzuki provided Seattle with one of the most dramatic moments of the entire year on Sept. 18.
With the Mariners losing to th Yankees, 2-1, entering the bottom of the ninth at Safeco, New York turned to super-closer Mariano Rivera. Rivera gave up a pinch-hit double to Sweeney, however, setting up Ichiro for the first walk-off homer of his career, sealing a complete game for Hernandez, who notched his 16th win. Seattle would go on to finish 14-12 in September, assuring a winning record for 2009.
There would be no postseason at Safeco Field, but there was still plenty of joy for the Mariners, who won three of their last four games to finish 85-77. Oct. 4, the last day of the season, was particularly special, with Hernandez toughing out a win over Texas to notch his career-best 19th victory against five losses, lowering his ERA to 2.49, and clinching his second Pitcher of the Month award. Griffey, emotional and unsure if 2009 would be the final year of his storied career, singled in his final at-bat and was given multiple standing ovations as he was lifted for a pinch-runner and then tipped his helmet to the crowd on his way to the dugout.
Aardsma recorded his 38th save to finish tied for fourth in the AL, and Lopez drove in three runs to lead the team in RBIs with 96. Best of all, the third-place Mariners, who won their 85th game, took a 10-minute lap around the outfield, tossing baseballs into the crowd, high-fiving fans and saying goodbye and thank you for an eye-opening, rewarding year at Safeco Field.
After the glow of the good finish wore off, the Mariners went back to business. Seattle lost one catcher when Johjima opted out of his contract to return to Japan, Mike Brumley was introduced as the third-base coach for 2010, and prospects, including Ackley and Triunfel, strutted their stuff in the Arizona Fall League.
Capping off October was the news that Griffey had a bone spur removed from his left knee, a precursor to Junior announcing soon enough that he'd sign on for one more year.
The awards came fast and furious in recognition of Seattle's rebound season. Hernandez finished second to Zack Greinke in AL Cy Young Award voting, Wakamatsu was mentioned in AL Manager of the Year consideration, and Ichiro nailed down Silver Slugger and Gold Glove honors. The Mariners announced that they would look to improve Ackley's defensive versatility by trying him out at second base, and the team said goodbye to Jakubauskas, who was claimed off waivers by the Pirates.
One of the most popular Mariners in history was officially given a chance to make history when Edgar Martinez was named on the National Baseball Hall of Fame Ballot for the first time, and another one, Griffey, made his expected decision official when he signed a one-year deal to return in 2010.
Meanwhile, the Mariners signed pitcher Yusmeiro Petit to a Minor League deal, Branyan turned down a one-year offer from the club and Bedard, Miguel Batista, Sweeney, Beltre and Chavez all filed for free agency.
The final month of the year was fast and furious for the Mariners from the get-go. The team started the month by offering arbitration to Beltre but not offering it to Bedard. Beltre waited until the last minute to decline, making him a free agent, although Zduriencik indicated that Seattle was interested in bringing him back.
Before the Mariners even left town for the Winter Meetings in Indianapolis, they had already agreed to terms on a four-year deal with an option for a fifth with free-agent infielder Chone Figgins, formerly of the division-rival Angels. Once the team got to Indianapolis, Seattle inked Josh Wilson and Corey Patterson to Minor-League deals, took right-hander Kanekoa Texeira in the Major League portion of the Rule 5 Draft, and laid the groundwork for more.
Back in Seattle, the Mariners non-tendered Langerhans before that deadline but then re-signed the reserve outfielder to a Major League deal. They also signed 19-year-old amateur shortstop Pedro Okuda to a Minor League contract.
Then Trader Jack struck again.
First was the blockbuster four-player deal in which Philadelphia landed Roy Halladay from Toronto while the Mariners got Phillies lefty ace Cliff Lee, shipping off prospects Aumont, Gillies and J.C. Ramirez in the process. With Lee in the fold, Seattle struck again, trading Silva to the Cubs for outfielder Milton Bradley, a virtual salary-neutral swap that will give both players the chance to make the most of new opportunities.
With some more needs to fill -- first baseman, starting pitching, bullpen help remain possibilities -- and some payroll flexibility, it's likely that Zduriencik will head into 2010 with moves to make as he continues to try to make Seattle better.
And after such a promising 2009, that's music to the ears of Mariners fans.
Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.