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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

March 21, 2011 at 2:54 PM

Mariners past is dotted with late-spring transactions

valdez.jpg

(Shortstop Wilson Valdez was acquired by the Mariners on April 1, 2005, and was in the Opening Day lineup three days later. Seattle Times staff photo).

Like many of you, I’m still suffering from the agonizing basketball loss over the weekend. This one may take weeks to get over. I really, really thought Cal was going to beat Colorado in the second round of the NIT. Oh, well, there’s always next year.

With Opening Day now less than two weeks away, everyone is madly trying to handicap the Mariners’ final 25-man roster. I would submit that there’s a decent chance someone not even in camp could sneak in, via a late trade or waiver claim. It’s happened before, as recently as 2007, when the Mariners swung a deal on April 1 to acquire outfielder Jason Ellison from the Giants for left-handed pitcher Travis Blackley. When the season opened the next day, Ellison was on the Opening Day roster, which pleased his former high school teammate Willie Bloomquist but didn’t have much of an impact on the season. Ellison had just 48 plate appearances, though he did make his presence felt in a big way on July 8. In a win over Oakland, Ellison had his first (and only) four-hit game in the majors, and also charged after A’s pitcher Joe Blanton with raised fists following an incident in which Blanton shoved Ichiro.

In a roundabout way, the Mariners’ acquisition of Jay Buhner was the result of a late-spring acquisition. In 1983, future Rockies and Pirates manager Clint Hurdle appeared to have the team made after hitting over .400 in the Cactus League. As the story goes, Seattle manager Rene Lachemann told Hurdle he was on the ballclub, but on March 31, then GM Dan O’Brien couldn’t pass up an opportunity to purchase Ken Phelps from the Montreal Expos. O’Brien told the Seattle Times’ Bob Finnigan years later that the purchase price was $35,000. Hurdle was the odd man out, getting released by the Mariners and signing with the Mets. I talked to Finnigan today, and he recalled there was nearly a mutiny in the clubhouse over the departure of the popular Hurdle (though O’Brien got the last laugh — Hurdle played in 137 games over the next four years and hit a combined .195 in 272 at-bats). Phelps, meanwhile, had some good production for the Mariners over the next six years (including 105 homers in 1,399 at-bats, a very nice ratio of one every 13.3 at-bats). On July 21, 1988, Phelps was sent to the Yankees for the young Buhner in a deal that so confounded Frank Costanza.

In 2005, the Mariners went through their entire spring camp hoping that shortstop Pokey Reese, signed as a free agent over the winter after he had helped Boston win the World Series, would recover from an arm injury. But he never did, and an April 1 — three days before the start of the season — they picked up Wilson Valdez on waivers from the Mets and put Reese on the DL. Valdez wound up as their Opening Day shortstop but played just 42 games and hit .198. The Mariners went through four more shortstops in ’05 — Ramon Santiago, Mike Morse, Bloomquist and Yuniesky Betancourt — but Reese never played one single inning. Valdez, by the way, has turned into a valuable reserve infielder for the Phillies.

The Mariners made an unfortunate trade late in spring training in 2006, sending the heretofore inconsistent and disappointing left-hander Matt Thornton to the White Sox for outfielder Joe Borchard on March 20. Thornton, of course, has developed into one of the most dominating relievers in the American League, an All-Star last year and their closer this year. Borchard, a former Stanford quarterback and, like Thornton, first-round draft pick, played all of six games for the Mariners. On March 31 of that same ’06 spring, the Mariners claimed catcher Guillermo Quiroz on waivers from Toronto. When the season started on April 3, Quiroz was on the roster as Kenji Johjima’s (temporary) backup.

The M’s pulled another fast one in 2003 when, on the eve of the season, they signed reliever Giovanni Carrara, who had been released two days earlier by the Dodgers. Carrara started the year in their bullpen, appearing in 23 games with a 6.83 ERA. As a result of acquiring Carrara, the Mariners were left with only one opening in their bullpen, which went to Julio Mateo over Rafael Soriano, J.J. Putz and Ken Cloude, all of whom were sent to the minors. I happened to be covering the team at the time of the Carrara acquisition. The Mariners were in San Francisco playing an exhibition game right before Opening Day, and Cloude, in particular, was furious. I dug up my story, with these Cloude quotes:

“For them to say, two days ago, they were going to stay within the organization and rely on guys in the organization this year and then go out, I don’t know how many hours later, and pick up a guy off waivers is very disappointing,” Cloude said. “That single move probably frustrated me the most and didn’t make much sense at all.

“… It angers me. I know they don’t care if I’m angry, but what does this team need? Does it need another right-handed reliever? Do they need more experience in the bullpen than they already have? I mean, for crying out loud (Arthur) Rhodes, (Jeff) Nelson, (Shigetoshi) Hasegawa, (Kazu) Sasaki. How many power right-handed arms are in this organization that can throw fastballs and sliders?

“If you want to pick up a guy off waivers, pick up a left-handed relief guy. That’s what you need. Or starters. I think if I’d be concerned about anything this year, it wouldn’t be the guys that are competing for the long-relief jobs out of the pen.”

Postscript: The once-promising Cloude never again pitched for the Mariners, or anyone else for that matter. He was out of baseball after 2004.

The Mariners sneaked infielder Jolbert Cabrera onto the Opening Day roster in 2004, acquiring him in a trade from the Dodgers on April 3, two days before the start of the season. Pitchers Aaron Looper and Ryan Ketchner went to the Dodgers. Cabrera played in 113 games, hitting .270 with six homer and 47 RBI before taking off for Japan the following season.

A couple of other acquisitions in late spring: On March 26, 1998, the Mariners acquired right-handed pitcher Jim Bullinger from the White Sox in a minor-league deal (for pitcher Marty Weymouth), and he was on the Opening Day roster a few days later. Bullinger appeared in two games (one start) and gave up 13 hits and 10 runs in 5 2/3 innings. That was the end of his major-league career.

And on April 3, 1999, a day before the opener against Boston, the Mariners traded reliever Bobby Ayala, one of the most maligned players in club history, to Montreal for a pitcher named Jimmy Turman who never made it past Tacoma.

The moral: Crazy things can happen in the waning days of spring.

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