|It began with a plan that didn't pan out, forcing a slight change of direction midway through the off-season that worked out better than anyone could have imagined. The Mariners went from being a contender to one of the most successful regular-season teams in the history of the game.
Good scouting, wise spending and even some luck made the Mariners one of the best stories in Major League Baseball in 2001.
After being eliminated by the Yankees in six games in the American League Championship Series last October, Mariners management already knew there was sufficient starting pitching and the foundation for an outstanding bullpen. A starting rotation built around Freddy Garcia, Aaron Sele and Jamie Moyer might include young guns like Gil Meche and Ryan Anderson. The bullpen was rock solid, with Kazuhiro Sasaki, Arthur Rhodes and Jose Paniagua returning.
But a big question remained unanswered.
"We thought we were a hitter short (of being a championship team)," General Manager Pat Gillick said, "and that was with Alex (Rodriguez). With that thought in mind, after the season, we really wanted to add to our offense. There was a possibility Alex was going to leave, so consequently there was even more of an urgency to add to our lineup."
Late-season organizational meetings made it perfectly clear that the minor-league system was stocked with good pitchers but lacked position players ready for the Major Leagues. "So consequently," Gillick said, "we had to look at the free-agent market."
While some teams are built from within, Gillick has a history of making wise free-agent signings. In slightly more than one season as the Mariners' GM, he had signed six free agents -- Sele, Sasaki, Rhodes, first baseman John Olerud, outfielder Stan Javier and the versatile play-everywhere Mark McLemore.
All played significant roles in the Mariners getting into the 2000 playoffs.
Although Rodriguez filed for free agency, the Mariners still thought they could re-sign the All-Star shortstop. In November, they also investigated the possibility of signing outfielder Manny Ramirez of the Indians. Juan Gonzalez, another free agent, wasn't high on the Mariners list because of his history of missing so many games because of injuries.
And there was this virtually unknown player from Japan the Mariners wanted. His name: Ichiro.
"Early on, before we even got into the period of heightened free agency in December," Gillick recalled, "we signed Ichiro. We thought he would help us some, but we were still interested in Johnny Damon."
Damon, the prototype leadoff hitter, eventually was traded to the Athletics.
Little did anyone know that the best leadoff hitter in baseball this season would be the one signing on Nov. 18, 2000. That was the day the Mariners and Ichiro finalized a three-year contract.
"We thought getting Ichiro would add to our offense," Gillick said. "And we thought we could probably bring Alex back. With him and Ichiro, we thought that would give us the offense we needed. We thought it might be enough, depending on what Ichiro's performance would have been.
"There was some doubt as to how he was going to cope with the pitching over here."
With that in mind, the Mariners kept searching for offensive help. Discussions were held with other free agents, like Jose Valentin (White Sox) and Tony Gonzalez (Blue Jays) -- veteran shortstops who could play shortstop if A-Rod bolted. Gillick figured he had to be prepared, just in case.
"We liked the way Valentin profiled," Gillick said. "He was a switch-hitter who basically could play second, third short and the outfield. We made strong pitches to Valentin and Gonzalez."
Valentin re-upped with the White Sox. And Gonzalez re-signed with Toronto.
Gillick went back to the drawing board.
"We didn't get any of the free agents we wanted and decided that we would shore up the bullpen so we could hold down the opposition if we scored enough runs to get leads," Gillick said.
They targeted and signed right-hander Jeff Nelson on Dec. 4. The right-hander had been traded to the Yankees in 1995, participated in four World Series over a five-year period, kept his home in Issaquah, Wash., and wanted to come back. The Mariners signed him to a three-year contract.
By then, Rodriguez had signed with Texas. Ramirez inked a deal with the Red Sox. Damon was off the market, as were Valentin and Gonzalez.
Still, the Mariners' focus turned back to offense.
"It was Lou (Piniella), Roger (Jongewaaard) and (scout) Kenny Compton who really pushed to make a move on Bret Boone," Gillick recalled. "They pushed us in that direction."
Boone, a 31-year-old coming off a knee injury that robbed him of the final two months of the season, wanted a two-year contract but the Mariners offered only one year plus an option year.
With some power -- Boone hit 24 home runs in 1998, 20 in '99 and 19 in '00 -- the Mariners figured he could pick up some of the slack lost with Rodriguez's departure. A typical year for the second baseman was a .255 batting average, 16 home runs and 67 RBIs.
What they got was a Most Valuable Player candidate.
When it was all said and done, the Mariners added three key players during the off-season -- Ichiro, Nelson and Boone.
"Going to spring training, we felt our bullpen was very, very good and our starting pitching was ok," Gillick said. "But we still thought we would have a problem scoring runs.
"It probably would have been our problem except for the fact Ichiro never missed a beat coming over from Japan and fit right in, and Boone had one of those magical seasons for himself. Between them, they had close to 450 hits. If a normal guy gets 150, you would be happy. This was like having three guys in two."
Gillick said that everyone contributed to the team's success, but "if you take either (Ichiro or Boone) away, we probably aren't going to be where we are."
Although the trade he made that sent Ken Griffey Jr., to the Reds for center fielder Mike Cameron, pitcher Brett Tomko and two others has worked out well, Gillick seems to be at his best when signing free agents.
"It is very difficult to make trades now because of the contract hindrances," he said. "So you have to be pretty aggressive in the free agent market. We have been fortunate. The guys we have signed have good character and have been productive."
Team chemistry has been one of the reasons for the remarkable regular season. Winning has a lot to do what that.
And it is a team built for SAFECO Field -- good pitching and defense.
"Strong pitching and defense are our two top priorities," Gillick said. "Pitching, speed and defense don't fluctuate. Hitting can fluctuate."
SAFECO provides a nice comfort zone for the pitchers, who can make a mistake and not get punished for it the way they did at the Kingdome.
"It all starts with good scouting and identifying the players who we think can help us," Gillick said. "One thing we have done in this area is stick with players we know and have followed. Nelson and Rhodes we know well because they have been in the American League their entire careers. Same with McLemore. Boonie we knew from when he was here before. Javier has played in and out of the AL, so for the most part, we have a good handle on these guys.
"(Jim) Colborn did a good job on Sasaki and Ichiro. He identified their talent and character."
It has been like putting the pieces of a puzzle together. And the Mariners wound up with a winner.
Jim Street covers the Mariners for MLB.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.