It's playoffs or bust for M's


Forget about hollow pretenses. Six dreary years out of the postseason have taken care of those.

From trading five players for new ace Erik Bedard to going all out to beat the rival Los Angeles Angels &

in spring training games &

the Seattle Mariners have made their 2008 mandate clear: Playoffs or bust.

"Oh, we've got the bar set high, believe me," manager John McLaren said. "Anything less than the playoffs would be a disappointment."

The division seems there for the taking. The Angels have won the AL West in three of the last four years but will begin the season with four pitchers on the injured list &

including their top two starters and primary setup reliever. Oakland has started a complete roster remodel and Texas is, well, still Texas, in search of even passable pitching.

Seattle spent $48 million to give former Minnesota Twins innings-eater Carlos Silva the No. — job in its rotation. Then last month the Mariners traded outfielder Adam Jones, left-handed reliever George Sherrill and three prospects to the Baltimore Orioles to get Bedard. He will start Monday's opener at home against Texas.

All-Star Ichiro Suzuki has been waiting six years for such a bold stroke. The franchise cornerstone has often complained that the organization lacked dedication to winning a World Series, which Seattle has never done since entering the league in 1977.

"We made a big trade, the biggest of my career in Seattle," Suzuki said, through an interpreter. "It was a trade that we didn't try to avoid risk. To gain power sometimes we need to take big risks. And the Mariners showed that by trying to get better."

Bedard and Felix Hernandez, who turns 22 next month, give the Mariners a rotation that new pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre says could be the best he's tutored in 22 years of coaching. That means better than World Series winners with the Yankees and the 1986 Mets.

It's good enough to force Miguel Batista, the staff leader with 16 wins in '07, into the No. 5 starter's job. Jarrod Washburn, who has a new change-up this season, is slotted between Silva and Batista.

Flush with profits from still-attractive Safeco Field and an increase in attendance last season, the Mariners upped their already gaudy payroll to above $115 million. And general manager Bill Bavasi said the Mariners have flexibility to add payroll for a playoff push.

"We definitely have what it takes to be there," veteran designated hitter Jose Vidro said. "Now, it's up to us."

Yet Bedard compiled spring numbers so bad they were hard to ignore. Known for allowing only one home run in every two games during his career, Bedard allowed nine homers in six spring starts and had an 8.63 ERA.

Halfway through his less-than-splashy first month with the Mariners, Bedard said this spring was like many he had with Baltimore &

working on his curve ball, building arm strength for his fastball and ignoring results.

"Compared to others, I would say pretty close. No difference," Bedard said. "If I would do that bad the rest of the spring, that would be different."

He did. So it is.

Bedard didn't throw from Aug. 26 until last December because of a strained right oblique. So it could be he is just now getting into pitching shape.

The Mariners are betting their season on it.

"We've got some guys who if they come back and have their type of years we're going to be in great shape," McLaren said.

The most vital of those in the lineup is Richie Sexson. The towering slugger endured his worst season in 2007, filled with boos, a .205 average and the lowest power production of his career &

21 home runs and 63 RBIs in 121 games.

The lineup has singles with Suzuki, line drives with Vidro, Adrian Beltre and Raul Ibanez and sporadic power bursts from Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt and Kenji Johjima. But it relies on Sexson for game-changing blasts. His revival in a contract year, during which Sexson is earning $14 million, is the key to providing the pitching staff with comfortable operating space.

The Mariners of 2007 drove statisticians nuts. They contended into September and went 88-74. But the were outscored 794-813 and lost six or more consecutive games four times.

That's led some numbers geeks to think the law of averages will drag Seattle back down this season. The offense is almost the same &

minus the 23 home runs and 99 RBIs Jose Guillen took with him as a free agent to Kansas City. Oft-injured Brad Wilkerson, recently a part-timer in Texas, has arrived as a one-year stopgap for Guillen in right field.

"The run differential made no sense," McLaren said of 2007. "We think we've tightened that up. We've addressed that with Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva. We are going to try to manufacture runs more, be aggressive on the bases."

One aspect of 2007 did make sense: The starters didn't pitch deep enough into games early in the season, wearing out a talented bullpen. The relievers were exhausted by August, when Seattle began losing 15 of 17 games to plummet out of contention.

"We have to start stacking up quality starts," Bavasi said.

The bullpen is still a concern. The trade of Sherrill leaves unproven 23-year-old Eric O'Flaherty and perhaps Arthur Rhodes, who is 38 and still coming back from ligament replacement surgery last May, as the primary lefty options ahead of All-Star closer J.J. Putz.

Right-hander Brandon Morrow, last season's hard-throwing rookie wonder, was supposed to be the main eighth-inning reliever. But he's had a sore arm for weeks after spending the winter starting in Venezuela. The fifth overall draft choice in 2006 may not be ready to open the season.

So despite the offseason overhaul and the spring bravado, Seattle still has concerns.

"We've got to get back to the playoff scene," McLaren said, bluntly. "Until we do that we haven't accomplished anything."

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