Last season, the Mariners got a taste of contending for the first time in four years. They battled the Angels for supremacy in the American League West into late August before falling six games short. Seattle finished the year in second place at 88-74, its first winning season since 2004. As closer J.J. Putz recalled, “When we left that clubhouse for the last time at the end of last season, we were all already excited [about] getting back to spring training. Our appetites had been whetted.”

What Mariners management did in the offseason only added to that hunger. Right-hander Carlos Silva was signed to a four-year, $48 million contract before the Mariners made their biggest move, trading five players–including talented young outfielder Adam Jones–to Baltimore for left-hander Erik Bedard. “We had a good team last year, and everyone knows we’re even better this year,” Putz said. “Now, it’s up to us to prove it.”

That has been a big problem so far for the Mariners. They haven’t lived up to the great expectations in the Northwest, as they now have the worst record in the major leagues at 15-26, and are already nine games behind the Angels in the AL West. Part of the reason is that Bedard and Putz both spent much of April on the disabled list. That left the Mariners without the starter they felt would give them a true ace in the rotation and the closer who led the major leagues in WXRL last season.

“I think if you would have asked anyone in our clubhouse what they thought might happen if we didn’t have Erik and I for most of April, if they were honest, they probably would have said we were in big trouble,” Putz said. “But we hung in there, a lot of guys stepped up while we were out. We held our own, kept our heads above water. It’s taken us awhile to get going, but I know the type of talent we have on this team, and I know we’re better that what we’ve played. We’re going to start rolling and we’re going to win a lot of games this season.”

If the Mariners are going to win a lot of games, they had better get going. In an effort to jump-start an offense that now ranks ninth in the AL with an average of 4.1 runs a game, the Mariners decided to overhaul their lineup on the final day of April by calling up catcher Jeff Clement and outfielder Wladimir Balentein from Triple-A Tacoma. Clement has taken over the bulk of the designated hitter duties, starting against right-handed pitchers, while Jose Vidro now plays primarily against lefties. Balentien became the starting right fielder, replacing Brad Wilkerson, who was released after posting a .242 EqA following his signing of a one-year, $3 million contract as a free agent in the offseason. The results have been mixed for the top two prospects, as Balentien has an adequate .257 EqA, while Clement has been overmatched.

“I think I’m a pretty patient person,” Mariners manager John McLaren said. “However, there comes a time when you have to try something different if something isn’t working. We gave guys a fair chance to show what they could do. We gave them a month, and it had become obvious they weren’t getting the job done, so it was time to try somebody new. I know this offense has a chance to score its share of runs. We’ve had a number of guys who haven’t hit up to their potential in the early part of the season. I believe that is going to change, but we also couldn’t wait all year for it to happen.”

To get back into contention, though, the Mariners are going to need solid pitching. Despite their upgrade of the rotation in the winter, the Mariners are just 11th in the AL in runs allowed, giving up an average of 4.7 per game. Felix Hernandez (1.2 SNLVAR), Silva (0.9), and Bedard (0.6) are the only starters who have been above replacement level, and in the pen, Putz is struggling with a -0.647 WXRL.

“I have no doubt that our starting rotation has a chance to be one of the best in the league and our bullpen will be better now that we have J.J. healthy,” McLaren said. “We really have everything you would look for in a pitching staff. We have power pitchers. We have finesse pitchers. We have left-handers and right-handers. We have veteran guys with experience and young guys who still have plenty of upside. I like the way it sets up. Now, it’s a matter of guys pitching up to their potential.”

If the Mariners don’t start playing up to their expectations pretty soon, though, it is going to be too late. “We’ll get going,” McLaren insists. “We’ve got too good of a team not to.”

ERA and SNLVAR are certainly more effective measures to determine a starting pitcher’s worth than wins. However, victories are what matter the most to the men who take the mound. After all, it is wins that usually determine the Cy Young Award winner and factor heavily into contract negotiations. Astros right-hander Shawn Chacon has yet to register a win in eight starts this season. However, he also doesn’t have a loss, so Chacon has become the king of the no-decision. In fact, Chacon has tied the major league record for most no-decisions at the start of a season. The TwinsDick Stigman set the mark in 1965, and Chacon could break the record Friday when he starts against the Rangers in Arlington.

“It’s pretty weird,” Chacon told the Houston Chronicle. “I definitely want to get a win before I get a loss. I’ll keep taking them [no-decisions] as long as we’re winning. I don’t know how excited I am about [the record]. If the relievers get all my wins, then fine. I’ll take them.”

Despite the lack of any decisions, Chacon has been a critical addition to the Astros rotation; he leads the team with a 1.1 SNLVAR and 11.0 VORP, and he has recorded quality starts in six of his eight outings. In contrast, Stigman was not nearly so valuable. He sent to the bullpen after his eighth straight no-decision in ’65, and did not make another start that season; he went 4-2 with a 4.37 ERA in 33 games and had 0.8 WARP3.

Speaking of wins, the PadresGreg Maddux notched the 350th of his career last Saturday when he beat the Rockies 3-2 in San Diego. He became the ninth pitcher to reach that plateau, and the second in two years, with Roger Clemens hitting the milestone last season. However, the low-key Maddux did not make a big deal about 350, using his usual dry wit when asked what he would do with the ball: “I’ll probably give it to my kid so he can go out and play with it.”

Maddux allowed one run in six innings in his fifth quality start in eight outings this season. Padres manager Bud Black said it was a vintage Maddux performance, with the way he changed speeds and had all his pitches moving: “Greg will have movement when he’s throwing to his grandchildren,” Black said. “He’ll change speeds to his grandson, probably.”

Defense doesn’t usually come to mind when one thinks of Red Sox left fielder Manny Ramirez, who has developed the reputation of being indifferent in the field at best, and a butcher at worst, while racking up 498 career home runs. However, the 35-year-old Ramirez says he has one goal left to accomplish before his career ends, and that is to win a Gold Glove. Seriously. “I think I’m the best ever to play left field in Boston,” Ramirez told the Boston Herald, perhaps out of ignorance of the career of Carl Yastrzemski.

Ramirez is also proud of how he has developed a double play-like flip to get balls back into the infield during games at Fenway Park, where the Green Monster looms over a short left field. “I don’t know how it started, it just happened like three years ago,” Ramirez said. “I started to learn how to throw it where it tails right into [second baseman Dustin Pedroia] but I need to practice it more. I haven’t practiced it at all this year, but I’ve got it.”

Ramirez also began playing closer to the infield dirt a few years ago, but the Red Sox have asked him to move closer to the wall. “I figured when I play in Boston anything that was hit over my head was a hit, so I catch everything that might be base hits,” Ramirez said. “But if they want me to play back, I’ll play back.”

Rumors and Rumblings: With the Padres falling further out of contention in the National League West, the chances of Maddux getting traded are increasing. One team said to have interest is the Braves, who would not only like to reunite Maddux with Tom Glavine and John Smoltz for old time’s sake, but also to help their chances of getting back to the postseason following a two-year absence. … The Cubs are expected to sign center fielder Jim Edmonds, released by the Padres last week, once he clears waivers on Wednesday. … The Marlins are trying to work out a trade with the Tigers for outfielder Jacque Jones, who was designated for assignment last weekend, to fill their hole in center field. … The Rockies are trying to swing a deal with the Red Sox for versatile right-hander Julian Tavarez, who was also designated for assignment. … The Mariners have been scouting Reds right fielder Ken Griffey Jr., but don’t expect them to make a play to bring him back to Seattle unless they close the gap in the AL West. … Right-hander Freddy Garcia, a free agent who had shoulder surgery last August, is expected to work out for scouts sometime before the end of the month near his home in Miami.

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