Tempe — For all those who are anxious to find out whether Maury Wills has the ability and the temperament to manage successfully in the American League, this is not the year to make judgments.
The team that employs Wills, Seattle, does not have a great deal to recommend it over a 162-game schedule. The pitching is suspect; the catching inexperienced; the shoteam; center field a crossroads for the young, the old, and a couple of maybes.
Wills seems to understand the problem only too well, even if he won't get into specifics with those who come to interview him. Instead he would like you to believe he is still sorting things out, still considering two or more players for every position, still hoping to make a trade for a player whose best years aren't all behind him.
The Mariners, who lost 103 games last season while finishing 38 games behind Kansas City in the AL West, were also last in club batting and 12th in pitching. Defensively they made 149 errors, a total exceeded only by the Chicago White Sox.
"Although we expect to win 10 to 15 more games than we did last year, we can only do this if our pitching improves," Wills said. "It's an old saying, of course, that no team ever gets anywhere without good pitching, but it also happens to be true. We have almost 20 pitchers in camp."
For starters Maury is counting heavily on right-hander Glenn Abbott and left- hander Floyd Bannister, who had a combined won-lost record last year of 21-25. The feeling is that these two could have at least reversed that record if the Mariners' infield hadn't approached all ground balls as though they were hooded cobras.
The other two starters are probably going to be holdovers Jim Beattie and Rod Dressler, plus someone from among the ranks of Jerry Don Gleaton, Kenny Clay, Brian Allard, and Steve Finch, all acquired during the off season from Texas. Rookies who might also have a chance are Bryan Clark, Greg Biercevicz, and Bob Stoddard.
Shane Rawley (15 saves) heads a bullpen including Dave Heaverlo, Manny Sarmiento, Rick Anderson, Mike Parrott, and rookie Larry Andersen.
Catching duties are expected to be shared between Jerry Narron and Brad Gulden, who was up briefly last year with the New York Yankees. So far neither has indicated much of an ability to hit big league pitching, and maybe free agent Dave Skaggs will beat them both out.
The infield looks like Bruce Bochte at first base, Julio Cruz at second, rookie Dave Edler at third, and Mario Guerrero at shortstop. But that could change abruptly if Edler doesn't hit or Guerrero follows his usual pattern of making the spectacular play while often having trouble finding the handle on routine ground balls.
Wills's No. 1 infield insurance policy will be free agent Lenny Randle, who can play second, third, or short, and whose 21- game hitting streak was the longest in the National League last season.
After several weeks of negotiations, Seattle was finally able to get power hitting outfielder Jeff Burroughs from Atlanta. The holdup reportedly was to work out a $400,000 personal loan that Burroughs had been given by Braves' owner Ted Turner.
Jeff will play left field, with Dan Meyer moving to right, a tough break for Tom Paciorek, who won a regular spot there last year. Rookie Rod Craig, Dave Henderson, and Willie Norwood are center field prospects, but chances are the position will go to the more experienced Joe Simpson.
Richie Zisk, who had 19 homers and 77 runs batted in with the Texas Rangers last year, will be the team's designated hitter.
"In order to win consistently inside the Kingdome, you need enough power to generate five or six runs a game," said Wills, who is running his first spring camp after taking over the club in midseason in 1980. "We think that Burroughs, Zisk, and Meyer can do that for us that they will also help our power on the road."
If Seattle gets away poorly and stays that way, incidentally, Wills had better get used to reports that ex-Minnesota slugger Harmon Killebrew will replace him.