Those fans who expect a dramatic improvement in the Seattle Mariners this year, including actor-board member Danny Kaye, probably are going to be disappointed.
While some visible progress seems likely, especially in the pitching department, what you have to remember is that most expansion franchises take at least five years just to reach the .500 mark.Seattle, because of a power shortage, may take even longer.
This will be voyage No. 4 for the Mariners, whose 67-95 record last year left them 21 games behind the champion California Angels in the American League West. Part of their problem was the fact that only two of their regulars (designated hitter Willie Horton and infielder Dan Meyer) hit 20 or more home runs.
The plus this year, if there is one, will have to come from a deeper, more dedicated, and more talented pitching staff.
"Potentially we've got some people who can throw the ball at the big league level and get it over the plate," explained manager Darrell Johnson. "We'll have at least eight pitchers competing for five starting jobs, and we're also going to have some depth in the bullpen.
"With good pitching you've always got a change, and we hope to win more close games this year by giving up fewer runs," Johnson continued. "We also have to get the big plays on defense -- you know, the ones that kill rallies before they can turn into four- and five-run innings. But I think we have the people now how can do this."
The pitching staff Johnson is so high on is headed by Seattle returnees Mike Parrott (14-12), Rick Honeycutt (11-12), and Floyd Bannister (10-15), who are all starters, plus relievers Byron McLaughlin (14 saves) and Shane Rawley (11 saves).
Others from last year's roster with a chance of starting include Odel Jones, Glenn Abbott, Randy Stein, and Ron Dressler. Jones had an outstanding winter season in Venezuela; Abbott was a 12-game winner in 1977 before injuring his arm; Stein and Dressler, meanwhile, are just beginning to reach their potential.
The two newest arms in the group belong to starter Jim Beattie and reliever Rick Anderson, both of whom were in the New York Yankees organization last year. In fact, Beattie was a starter with the Yankees for a while and threw a two-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1978 World Series.
Present plans call for Seattle to go with nine instead of 10 pitchers, so that Johnson can have the maneuverability of three catchers -- Bob Stinson, Larry Cox, and Jerry Narron, another former Yankee.
Half of the Mariners infield is set -- the half that has all-star Bruce Bochte (.316 average, 16 HRs and 100 RBIs) at first base and Julio Cruz (one of the best lead-off hitters in the game) at second.
Shortstop has become a battleground for incumbent Mario Mendoza, who has a sparkling defensive glove, and Jim Anderson, a pretty good clutch hitter last year with the Angels.
Challenging Dan Meyer at third base will be Ted Cox, obtained in a trade with the Cleveland Indians. But Meyer, who has a lot more power than Cox and drove in 74 runs last season, appears to have a built-in edge.
With Ruppert Jones gone to the NY Yankees, the Mariners new centerfielder will be Juan Beniquez, another former New Yorker who can be brilliant one day and often mediocre the next.
Leon Roberts (.271 average, 15 HRs andd 54 RBIs) is being moved from right field to left, a much more natural position for someone who doesn't throw that well. This means that RF probably will be split between Joe Simpson andd Tom Paciorek, depending on wheterh the opposing pitcher throws left or right.
Willie Horton, who many people felt was the American League's best designated hitter last season on the basis of a .279 batting average, 29 home runs, and 106 RBIs, has no challenger except Father Time and will again bat cleanup.
What Johnson has to hope for is a fast start from Beattie; more consistency from his catchers; more offense at shortstop from either Mendoza or Anderson; and a bullpen that can pitch shutout ball in the late innings.