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M’S Could Benefit From Trading Cruz

An explosion of flashbulbs greeted Jose Cruz Jr. Sunday during the Seattle Mariners annual Photo Day at the Kingdome. Ken Griffey Jr. and Alex Rodriguez got the same walk-of-fame treatment, but Cruz, whose big-league career is little more than a month old, clearly is the Fresh Prince of Seattle.

With his high blue socks and unmistakably regal manner, Jose the Second sure looks terrific in a Mariners uniform.

But all things considered, I would rather he be in Philadelphia. Or Houston. Or San Diego.

Nothing against the rookie, who has the tools to finally solve a “Who’s In Left?” quandary as old as the disco-era double-knit look the Mariners showcased on Saturday night. Indeed, with Cruz, Seattle will continue to score runs and sell tickets and maybe even sneak away with a division title.

If Cruz is traded for a top-tier closer, though, Seattle will have a real shot at all points beyond, like winning the pennant and the World Series. Imagine an All-Star caliber reliever such as the Phillies’ Ricky Bottalico in a closing role for the Mariners. As Bob Wells was compiling career save No. 1 to preserve his team’s 5-4 victory over Kansas City on Sunday, the Philadelphia right-hander was working on his 17th save for a team that has won 29 times.

Bottalico combines low-90 mph heat with a late-breaking slider that’s almost as fast. He is a ferocious competitor who, a month removed from his 28th birthday, is in his prime. And he could be in a Mariners uniform tomorrow.

Team general manager Woody Woodward has insisted that Cruz is untouchable. It’s time to shift that stance, Wood Man. It’s time to consider the opportunity at hand and make the same sort of bold move that paid off two years ago, when former first-round prospects Ron Villone and Marc Newfield were dealt to the Padres for a dozen starts from Andy Benes.

There’s a temptation to point to Rodriguez and Griffey - and, yes, Cruz - and paint the Mariners as a team that’ll compete for championships well into the 21st century. Look again. Randy Johnson and Jay Buhner will turn 33 in a few weeks; Edgar Martinez already is there. The winner Sunday, Jamie Moyer, is 34, as is Jeff Fassero.

The future will pose different dilemmas and open new holes. As we speak, there is but one critical concern, and the Mariners either can solve it with a gutsy move or choose to sit still and watch Bobby Ayala and Norm Charlton kill them softly with their stuff.

A bullpen not essential? I think of an immortal scene from “Treasure of Sierra Madre,” where Tim Holt turns to Humphrey Bogart and says: “If you think like that, there’s nothing to do but tie you up every night.”



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