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Reshaped Mariners eye consistency

Reshaped Mariners search for consistency

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PEORIA, Ariz. -- They've got a new catcher, a new starting pitcher, a new designated hitter, a new pitching coach and a new hitting coach.

So here's the main question as the Seattle Mariners, losers of 192 games over the last two seasons, head into 2006: Can this be the beginning of a new, winning era?

The 2005 Mariners tried to change the tide of their 99-loss 2004 season, bringing in a new manager, Mike Hargrove, plus unloading a total of $114 million on multi-year contracts for two high-profile free-agent sluggers, Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson.

The team got a lot of good preseason press for making the effort to improve, but the Mariners didn't see much of a leap in the standings once the lights came on in the regular season.

In between the stat lines of the 93 losses in 2005 were issues that came to the fore over the winter:

• Why did the Mariners finish second-to-last in runs in the American League and last in batting average?

• Why were the quality arms of the starting pitchers unable to deliver on a consistent basis?

• How could a team with so many good players not win more games?

One year later, the Mariners have done a lot more to answer those questions. To wit:

• They signed highly sought-after free-agent catcher Kenji Johjima from Japan to a three-year deal, solidifying what became a seven-player problem behind the plate last year.

• They signed lefty Jarrod Washburn to a four-year, $37.5 million deal, giving their pitching staff a dependable arm with championship experience.

• They signed DH Carl Everett, a fiery veteran with a World Series ring from the White Sox last year and a bat with some pop from both sides of the plate.

• They tabbed Rafael Chaves to coach the pitchers and brought in Jeff Pentland to work with the hitters.

To hear Hargrove tell it, the Mariners' disappointment hinged on one factor: consistency and the Mariners' lack of it across the board.

"Certainly there are some things that we can do differently that we'll do differently, but there will be some things that we continue to do the same way, things that I believe in that had worked before and they will work again," Hargrove said. "We just have to be consistent with it and that's probably the biggest thing.

"Just be consistent in whatever we do, just be consistent from Day One."

The Mariners certainly have enough exciting offensive players to make things interesting in the AL West.

They have right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, fresh off a World Baseball Classic championship for Japan, they have steady Raul Ibanez and they have young up-and-coming infielders Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt.

If Beltre and Sexson catch fire at the same time, Seattle figures to score a lot more runs.

Beltre had a disappointing year last season, hitting .255 with 19 homers and 87 RBIs a year after a huge season for the Los Angeles Dodgers (.332, 48 homers, 121 RBIs), but new Mariner Pentland has been working with him tirelessly, and it already has paid off.

Beltre went bonkers for the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic, hitting four homers in five games, and then hit one in his first Cactus League at-bat.

"I think he's a very good hitting coach," Beltre said of Pentland. "I feel comfortable with him, and that's probably the most important thing.'

On the pitching side of things, the starting rotation is set. Ageless ace Jamie Moyer heads the five-man staff that will be rounded out by Joel Pineiro, Washburn, Gil Meche and 19-year-old phenom Felix Hernandez.

Hernandez has the stuff and the beyond-his-years composure to eventually be the most exciting player on the team and maybe in the AL. That's why the Mariners will be careful to monitor his pitch counts and innings.

Still, his presence for a full year could be invaluable to the staff and to the Safeco Field faithful.

As for Pineiro and Meche, both can be baffling with their inconsistency, which is why the other new Mariner, Chaves, becomes vital this year. Chaves has been working hard with both right-handers all spring and both look strong and improved. "And with Gil, I've seen it happen before, where he needs to have that commitment with one thing and one thing only. It's hard to find consistency when you're trying something new every week, and that's basically something he's done over the last few years."

And what the Mariners have done over the last few months is improve the team to the point where another 90-loss season just doesn't seem realistic, not with the effort that Hargrove expects to see on the field in 2006.

"I see nothing that [makes me] think we're not moving in the right direction," Hargrove said.

"I'm encouraged by what we've got."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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