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As the Mariners start the 2007 season, the pressure is on. The club has suffered a well document three year run in the basement in the AL West, running a combined 66 games under .500 over three years and averaging just 70 wins a year. Sure, they’ve made slow and steady progress toward the .500 mark, but with attendance dropping and fans getting restless following four straight years as serious contenders and 90+ game winners, the Mariners need to make an impression in 2007 or risk losing everything they’ve gained since the opening of Safeco Field in 1999.

The strain falls hardest on the shoulders of General Manager Bill Bavasi and Field Manager Mike Hargrove, who’ve been a tag team to forget since 2005. This would not be such a crucial season if it weren’t for the impending free agency of the team’s franchise player, Ichiro Suzuki, the man whose name is typically followed by an exclamation mark by Mariner fans even when he’s being discussed casually. Ichiro! has made it clear that he intends to test free agency after the season and will not look to resign in Seattle unless the team proves it has a commitment to winning. As a response, the Mariners bolstered their budget (up from 92 million dollars in 2006 to roughly 110 million this year) adding Miguel Batista, Jeff Weaver, Jose Guillen, Jose Vidro, Horacio Ramirez, Arthur Rhodes, and Chris Reitsma to the roster to patch gaping holes.

On the field, those guys, plus youngsters Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Felix Hernandez, and Brandon Morrow will be very much on the hot seat this year. If the team doesn’t get off to a quick start, Ichiro! may be traded, and the entire ball club may have to be restructured to compensate for his loss.

The real story, however, is not on the field, but in the front office. Both Bavasi and Hargrove are in the last year of their respective contracts with the club, and neither is likely to get a job of equal prestige again if their tenure in Seattle ends in disgrace. Bavasi left Anaheim having built a powerhouse farm system, but that success never made it to the big league level until after the arrival of Bill Stoneman. Seattle is beginning to stockpile an army of brilliant young players who are similarly underrated by the national media under Bavasi’s watch, but he has thus far proven incapable of making the Major League moves needed to push the club back into contention. This off-season serves as a microcosm of Bavasi’s entire career as a GM.

Many may not be aware of how close Seattle came to acquiring five (5!) big names over the winter break. The story begins with the Mariners’ top priority, the addition of a top of the rotation starter to anchor a completely rebuilt rotation. At the top of the Mariners’ list of potential targets was free agent flame thrower Jason Schmidt who’d made numerous public statements expressing his desire to pitch in the Northwest and even went so far as to say that he might be willing to play for less if he got a long term contract in Seattle. As the Mariners’ first target, he got a lucrative offer from the Mariners worth $44 million over four years, or $42 million over three years (different sources argue for different offers, and in fact both may have been on the table as options for Schmidt). For the longest time, Schmidt was considered a lock in Seattle until the Dodgers arrived with a late offer of $47 million over three years and stole the prize.

After Schmidt there was a wave of excitement on the web as the Mariners and Red Sox entertained serious talks involving superstar slugger Manny Ramirez and Mariner closer J.J. Putz. The deal never materialized, mainly because Boston was demanding an outrageous package that included prospects Jeff Clement and Adam Jones, Putz, and at least one other (unnamed) player and not offering to cover any of Ramirez’ salary. No GM could justify bowing to the Red Sox’ unrealistic demands and Bavasi was forced to back out. Meanwhile, the Mariners talked to Atlanta about acquiring either Tim Hudson or lefty slugger Adam LaRoche, but those talks got bogged down when the Braves traded LaRoche to the Pirates for Mike Gonzalez. Seattle wound up settling for a controversial trade of power righty Rafael Soriano in exchange for groundball specialist Horacio Ramirez, a deal roundly razzed by fans that now appears to have been very smart given Soriano’s ailing shoulder and Ramirez’ excellent spring.

The Mariners moved on after striking out with Schmidt, Hudson/LaRoche, and Manny Ramirez and set their sights and Japanese import Kei Igawa, reportedly a high end #3 starter similar to Barry Zito in ability. The Japanese posting system is a joke and everyone knows it, but the Mariners played the game, bidding an estimated 18 million dollars to acquire the rights to negotiate with Igawa. Unfortunately, the Yankees, still stinging after the Red Sox’ acquisition of Daisuke Matsuzaka and J.D. Drew came with a 25 million dollar bid and Seattle was aced out again.

Four grabs at the cookie jar, and four bruises into a frustrating winter, the Mariners retreated to a meeting in which it was decided that they would make a serious push for Barry Zito. Scott Boras has been quoted as suggesting that the offer they presented was “a home run” and “in excess of (the reported) 6 years, $99 million.” Zito very nearly signed on the first day following the club’s pitch. Boras worked an even better deal from the Giants and the Mariners had taken their last beating of the winter.

Fans of the team are understandably frustrated with the lack of a big name addition. The front office has egg all over its’ face unless the club contends. If Seattle doesn’t win in 2007, Mike Hargrove and Bill Bavasi will see an end to their serious careers in baseball. If there’s anyone in the game suffering from the pressure, these are the two guys to consider. The team is much improved over last year, but whether it’s enough to keep Ichiro in Seattle and get the Mariners back to the Promised Land is an open question. I know two men whose professional lives depend on it.