Eric Wedge spent seven seasons as the Indians' manager from 2002-08, compiling a 561-573 record and winning the American League Manager of the Year Award in 2007 when his team got within one game of the World Series. However, Wedge was fired at the end of the 2009 season when the Indians fell to 65-97.
But after that roller-coaster, all you have to do to understand how excited Wedge is about returning to managing is to see the look in his eyes. They sparkle when he talks about getting back in the dugout and trying to turn around a Mariners team that lost 101 games last season. "In some ways, it was nice to get away from the game for a year, spend more time with my family and take a step back," Wedge said. "But I'm also glad to be back. I'm a baseball guy and I love managing. I really missed it and I appreciate getting another chance to be a major-league manager."
Now Wedge takes over a team that fired Don Wakamatsu last August, just one year after he had led the Mariners to a surprising 85-77 record. The Mariners were the trendy pick to win the AL West last season. While Wedge realizes his team suffered a steep fall in 2010, he also believes it can surprise the prognosticators again as the Mariners figured to be the consensus pick for last place in a division that includes the defending AL champion Rangers, the pitching-rich Athletics, and the Angels, who won five AL West titles in six years from 2004-09.
"I love starting everything with Felix, the fact that we've had a closer here the last couple of years that has done a pretty good job and a leadoff hitter we can count on," Wedge said. "So we've got some pieces."
Wedge, of course, was referring to right-hander Felix Hernandez, closer David Aardsma, and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki. Hernandez and Suzuki are certainly premier players as Hernandez won the AL Cy Young Award last season with an AL-leading 8.7 SNLVAR and Suzuki has had at least 200 hits in 10 consecutive seasons, setting a major-league record, since coming from Japan prior to the 2001 season. Aardsma is more of a question mark as he had hip surgery earlier this month, though he is expected to be recovered by Opening Day.
Yet the Mariners have many questions marks, particularly when it comes to their lineup. Last season, they scored the fewest runs of any AL team since the designated hitter rule was implemented in 1973, averaging a major league-worst 3.2 a game while posting a team-wide .238 True Average, the lowest mark in the majors, and among the 10 worst AL team marks in a non-strike season since the adoption of the DH. The Mariners have hired Chris Chambliss as the hitting coach to try to help solve the problem.
"Everybody hits me over the head with the offense, and I completely understand why, but that's just not one area," Wedge said. "That's the whole package when it comes to what's happening or what has happened here offensively. So it's not just one area that we need to do better with. It's an entire mindset. It's an approach. It's a level that has to be raised. This is the major leagues, and that bar has to be raised."
While the bar was set so low last season that a gnat would have a hard time doing the limbo under it, the Mariners have made no major off-season additions to the offense. The primary changes were signing catcher Miguel Olivo and trading for defensive whiz Brendan Ryan to play second base, enabling Chone Figgins to move back to third base. Figgins was shifted from third to second at the start of spring training last season after signing a four-year, $36 million contract as a free agent the previous winter. Figgins was said to be unhappy about both the position shift and hitting second in the batting order behind Suzuki after being a leadoff man for the majority of his career, which was all spent with the Angels beginning in 2002. Figgins had a .261 TAv last season.
Wedge believes he will bounce back this year, asserting, "He's going to be much more comfortable this year. Any time you go and you leave home and you get that first multi-year contract, then you put a position change on top of it, you've got a lot going on. He's a fantastic player, and he's going to do a very good job for Seattle. I saw him for so many years when I was in Cleveland, and I know what he's capable of. I know what he's all about. We're proud to have him."
There has long been a school of thought that Suzuki's talents would be best utilized by hitting him in the third spot in the order. That move would seem to make even more sense with Figgins on the roster. However, Suzuki has made it clear he prefers to hit at the top of the order, and Wedge doesn't plan to stir that pot. "He's had a tremendous amount of success there," Wedge said. "We've got a lot of work to do here. We don't need to take on something else right now. Ichiro's one of the cornerstones right now for us. We want him to be himself, get his hits, get on base. We need to do a better job helping him score more runs. He's doing his job, and has done his job for years now, but we need to come complement him, whether it be situational hitting or runners in scoring position whatever it may be. We have a number of different areas that we need to raise the bar with."
The Angels decided to take on a whole lot of salary in an effort to bolster an offense that suffered the biggest drop in runs scored from 2009 to 2010 of any team in the major leagues. The Angels will pay outfielder Vernon Wells $86 million over the next four seasons to help anchor the middle of the lineup after acquiring him from the Blue Jays; they also gave up catcher Mike Napoli and outfielder Juan Rivera in the trade.
Manager Mike Scioscia claims he is not expecting Wells to be a savior, even if the Angels are paying him like one. Instead, the skipper believes the Angels need improvement across the board if they are to approach their average of 5.5 runs per game of 2009, which sunk to 4.2 last season. Scioscia observes, "We had a lot of guys that underperformed. I think last year we got thin (because of injuries) and put a lot of pressure on some, and it went the wrong way."
In retrospect, the Angels' season essentially ended on May 29 when first baseman Kendry Morales broke his ankle. While the team feels a healthy Morales will provide a major boost to the offense, some of the underperformers Scioscia referred to were second baseman Howie Kendrick (.264 TAv), infielder Maicer Izturis (.258), shortstop Erick Aybar (.243), and third baseman Alberto Callaspo (.245).
"It's not like we're expecting some guys that have never done it in the big leagues to all of a sudden jump up and do it," Scioscia said. "We're talking about guys who have played in the major leagues, played at a high level, that we're looking at rebounding to some level this year."
The immediate thought when the Blue Jays traded Wells was that it would free up money to be used in trying to sign outfielder/third baseman Jose Bautista to a long-term contract extension. Bautista, who led the major leagues with 54 home runs last season, is in the midst of the salary arbitration process. However, Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos said the trade was made with more of a long-term view in mind.
"The financial flexibility it gives our organization in 2012 and beyond with where we go and build this organization, it make a lot of sense to us," Anthopoulos said.
Wells had a complete no-trade clause as part of his seven-year, $126 million contract. While he waived it to join the Angels, he was not as willing to leave an organization that hasn't been to the postseason since 1993 as some might think.
"He did not come to us," Anthopoulos said. "He wanted to consider it first because of his ties to Toronto. After going through the process, he was very excited about being an Anaheim Angel and knowing how aggressively they pursued him and how much they wanted him."
White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen says he is looking for a smooth 2011 for his team. That would certainly be a big difference from a tumultuous 2010 that was included his highly publicized clashes with GM Ken Williams.
"I tip my hat to the players," Guillen said. "I have more respect for the players last year because of all the problems we went through. From the beginning, it was tough to play and act the way they did. That's very professional. No player ever used that as an excuse."
Guillen also said he was saddened that former closer Bobby Jenks took verbal jabs at him. After being non-tendered by the White Sox and signing with the Red Sox as a free agent, Jenks told MLB.com that he was looking forward to pitching for Terry Francona because he is a manager who knows how to handle a bullpen.
"I guarantee we (treated) Bobby Jenks better than any of the 1,000 players that I managed," Guillen said. "That's why it was surprising. It hurt my feelings when I heard that from him, but when you're managing and somebody isn't going to like you, that's part of the game. But Bobby was the last person I thought would say something about managing."
Guillen's son, Oney, fired back at Jenks on Twitter by tweeting that he had drinking and marital problems. However, Guillen insisted Oney isn't the only person who has violated baseball's time-honored policy of "what happens in the clubhouse stays in the clubhouse."
"He grew up in baseball and he knew all the clubhouse stuff, whatever happens in there everybody knows," Guillen said. "In the past, our clubhouse was a temple. Now you can do what you want to do and people find out what happened in the clubhouse. That is not the first time it happened."