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M’S Bullpen Could Look Like Horror-Show Sequel

Art Thiel Seattle Post-Intelligencer

Last time we saw Mike Timlin, he pitched two-thirds of an inning in Game 1 of the Division Series against Baltimore, giving up a home run, double, single and four runs.

Last time we saw Bobby Ayala, it was Game 2 against the Orioles. In his 1-1/3 innings, he gave up four hits, three walks and six runs.

In case nature’s defense mechanism of selective memory has blotted out the recollection, their appearances came in the twin 9-3 defeats at the Kingdome that couldn’t have been a more ghastly development for Mariner fans had George Argyros stood at home plate with a check to re-purchase the team.

The reason for re-dredging the horror is that either Timlin or Ayala, barring developments, appear destined for the bullpen’s closer role now that Heathcliff Slocumb likely will be let go this weekend.

Mariner owners are approaching their self-imposed $50 million limit on player payroll for this season, and Slocumb’s probable stipend of about $3.5 million can’t be handled.

He didn’t exactly wake the echoes of Rollie Fingers last season, but compared to Ayala and Timlin, Slocumb is FDR in a matchup with Laurel and Hardy.

A big part of the reason the Mariners traded catcher Jason Varitek and pitcher Derek Lowe to Boston for Slocumb was because Ayala couldn’t take the pressure. Timlin had 31 saves in 1996 for the Blue Jays, but whatever he had then got lost.

Nor is it reasonable to expect a miracle for them via pitching coach Nardi Contreras. No mound renaissance was visible last year, when the Mariners, despite the presence of Randy Johnson, Jeff Fassero, Jamie Moyer and their combined 53-18 record, finished 10th in the American League with a 4.78 team ERA.

Truth be told, the Mariners’ best postseason guy in the bullpen was Norm Charlton, who is now with Baltimore. While no one would suggest bringing back Charlton, neither would anyone suggest having a 162-game season with Ayala or Timlin as the final word.

Slocumb must be offered a contract by Saturday’s deadline for arbitration-eligible players. Unless a Randy Johnson trade frees up payroll cash, a move considered unlikely by the weekend, if at all, Slocumb will be allowed to become a free agent.

That means Slocumb, Varitek and Lowe (who had a 3.38 ERA in eight appearances with the Red Sox and figures to be a factor next spring) will have been sacrificed to the same rolling personnel debacle that claimed rookie left fielder Jose Cruz Jr., a debacle that could have ended with the retention of closer Mike Jackson a year earlier.

All the Mariners will have to show for those four players is Timlin and pitcher Paul Spoljaric (4.76 ERA in Seattle), who came for Cruz.

The problem of losing top talent because of cash problems has never been resolved in the team’s 22 years.

“The (payroll) increase was good, but not enough to keep the entire team intact,” said GM Woody Woodward. “We’ve kept our all-stars, but we weren’t able to keep a player like Roberto Kelly (left fielder who signed with Texas).”

Now they will have another hole.

A roster churn dictated by cash is hardly unique in baseball to the Mariners. But the Mariners are among the few teams with legitimate postseason parts without the budget for postseason success.

The point has been made here before that nearly every World Series entrant over the last decade has had a top closer. Slocumb most closely approximates that kind of pitcher.

Without him or his equivalent, the M’s risk not only squandering their investment in the position, they will risk extra innings upon starters Johnson (or his replacement), Fassero, Moyer and Ken Cloude.

A reason Slocumb was attractive in a trade to the Mariners last year was because he had another year on his contract, albeit arbitration-dependent. Slocumb was also protected from the expansion draft, a spot that could have gone to infielder Andy Sheets or pitcher Bob Wolcott if they weren’t keeping Slocumb.

Even though he’s not as good as Mike Jackson, Slocumb’s loss without return will be even more costly, given the cumulative investment in the position.

Why spend $50 million to beat three teams in the A.L. West when $52 million can create a champion?

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