SEATTLE (AP) -This time last year, you couldn't pry a smile out of the Seattle Mariners.
Questions that Mike Hargrove didn't like - and there were many - often got profane rebukes in the manager's office at Seattle's spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz..
General manager Bill Bavasi remained seen but rarely wanting to be heard on the record, especially saying something of substance.
The pressure on a team not having made the playoffs since 2001 was showing.
Now? What a difference an Erik Bedard makes.
``Well, we're better,'' Bavasi said last week as he casually leaned against a wall in the basement of Safeco Field.
He was chatting and joking and generally seeming like a man transformed from a year ago.
Oh sure, the Mariners still haven't seen the postseason in six years. The improvement of an 88-win season got tainted by an epic pratfall from contention last September.
megatrade that took all winter to complete. The cost was starting right fielder Adam Jones, top left-handed reliever George Sherrill and three prospects.
Bedard, Felix Hernandez, newly signed Carlos Silva plus holdovers Miguel Batista and Jarrod Washburn are due to report to spring training Wednesday, with Bavasi having met his offseason goal of upgrading two spots in the rotation. The first workout for pitchers and catchers is Thursday. The first full-team drills are Feb. 20.
Bavasi's smile got wider when he thought of the pitchers he's cultivated.
``It's easier to be at ease when you have a Bedard, when Felix Hernandez is a year older and has more experience, when Brandon Morrow is a year older and more experienced,'' Bavasi said, naming Seattle's top two starters and then the 2007 rookie whiz who will go back into the bullpen to compete for the primary setup job ahead of All-Star closer J.J. Putz.
``There's just a whole lot of things to be comfortable about.''
Hargrove is long gone, back home in Ohio after abruptly quitting last July. In his place is his folksy former bench coach, John McLaren, who went 43-41 over the remainder of last season. He's been coming to major league spring trainings as a coach since 1977. This is the first one where he will be in charge.
water and redden while talking about how much these Mariners want to win for him. For themselves. For silencing cynics who gripe about how a team with so many revenues and so high a payroll (expected to be about $115 million again this season) could fall short so often.
``We know the Angels are the team to beat. And I think the Angels know we've got a really talented ballclub,'' McLaren said of the AL West champions in three of the last four seasons.
``I really like our chances. We are getting better and better.''
Yet they still have plenty to accomplish in Arizona before the games get real March 31.
Second baseman Jose Lopez must show he can consistently focus and put forth the effort Seattle is now demanding - or else. The Mariners signed him to a $6 million contract early last season. Then his brother died in June. He lost focus and then his job by September.
McLaren has brought former fiery major league manager Lee Elia onto his staff. Even more fiery Tony Phillips, a former infielder, will be in camp as a consultant.
Seattle's options if Lopez doesn't rebound in camp are utility man Willie Bloomquist and Miguel Cairo, 33, whom the Mariners signed to a $850,000, one-year contract last month.
Jones' departure makes newly signed Brad Wilkerson the leading candidate to replace Jose Guillen's 23 home runs and 99 RBIs in right field. Wladimir Balentien, a Triple-A star, will also get a look.
The other spring competitions are in the bullpen to set up Putz, who has lost 15 pounds following a 40-save season and 1.38 ERA. Morrow is the favorite to become the primary man. Mark Lowe, who has had multiple major surgeries in the last 18 months on his pitching elbow, is also a candidate. But as Bavasi said, ``We can't count on him.''
Trainer Rick Griffin said Lowe will start with a reduced workload in Arizona, with gradual increases.
Eric O'Flaherty, who went 7-1 in relief last season, and Ryan Rowland-Smith are the first options to replace Sherrill as the main left-handed reliever. Left-hander Horacio Ramirez lost his troubled place in the rotation with the acquisition of Bedard and is the long reliever, for now.
Lefty Arthur Rhodes, the 38-year-old who missed all of 2007 following elbow ligament replacement surgery, may be ready for games by May, Griffin said. Bavasi said Rhodes is primed to be a surprise in '08.

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