Mariners are a work in progress — still

SEATTLE — Rarely has a team so far out of playoff contention had as much at stake in the second half of a season as the Mariners do between now and the end of what is almost certain to be another season without a postseason berth.

Barring a spectacular run by the Mariners in the next few months, or a spectacular collapse by the rest of the American League, Seattle won’t end the franchise’s playoff drought that dates back to 2001, but the remaining 67 games are far from meaningless.

The Mariners are nine games under .500 and 13 games out of first place in the A.L. West, so what could they possibly have to play for other than pride? Well for starters, the Mariners are playing to win back the faith of a fanbase that, with good reason, becomes increasingly cynical with every losing season. Individual players with histories of struggles are fighting to show they can be a part of the team’s future. And very relevant to the future of the franchise, these suddenly very young Mariners are almost certainly playing for the jobs of general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge.

If Seattle falters down the stretch, if young players like Brad Miller and Nick Franklin take a step back and play the second half like they’re in over their heads, if the number in the loss column is once again in the 90s, you can expect to see some significant changes.

However, if the youth movement continues to produce runs and victories as it did during an 8-5 start to July, that might just be enough to convince folks that Zduriencik’s plan has a light at the end of what has been a very long tunnel.

Before the season started, this campaign was seen as a prove-it year for Zduriencik’s rebuilding plan. The young nucleus of Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager and Justin Smoak was supposed to finally turn a long-struggling offense around, and even if the Mariners weren’t ready to contend, they were at least hoping that the addition of some veteran bats would make a winning season a reality.

Well now, Montero is rehabbing an injury following a demotion to Tacoma, Ackley was also sent down and is now back, but as an outfielder, and those struggles, along with back end of the rotation issues and a whole lot of injuries led to a losing first half.

Yet it hasn’t been all bad. Seager continues to show he is well on his way to being an All-Star caliber player. Smoak has been hitting of late and maybe, just maybe, might finally be coming around — though you’ll be forgiven if you’re not buying it just yet given his history. Then there’s a new wave of young players like Franklin, Miller and Mike Zunino who have arrived ahead of schedule and provided a glimpse of what might just be a brighter future for a long-suffering franchise.

“I wanted to see improvement, I wanted to see our club take the next step, I wanted to see guys get to the next level, and in some cases we’ve seen that and in other cases we have not,” Zduriencik told reporters before the All-Star break.

“But I also think you have to be realistic with young players. You’re going to have ups and downs, you’re going to have setbacks. And I’ve said this a bunch of times, not every player is on the same timeframe. … It just hasn’t come together completely like we’d like. We’ve seen great things out of the some of the veteran guys we brought in here, they’ve done what we’d hoped they would do, and we’ve had some young guys experience difficulty. It’s continuing to be a process, it’s continuing to be a learning experience. There have been good things and there have been things I wish were better.”

The Mariners have put their fans in a tough place. Believing in them at this point is like being Charlie Brown and believing Lucy will finally hold the football in place this time. Team officials can say the right things, they can make it look like things will be different, but after so many letdowns, can you really believe anymore?

Zduriencik points out that the experience players like Miller and Franklin are getting now will pay off next season when they won’t be “wet behind the ears.” But if you’ll recall, he also said the same thing about the likes of Ackley and Montero not long ago. Every time I think the Mariners are turning a corner, I almost feel silly for doing so, yet despite so many recent failures, this really does feel different (and I can’t believe I’m falling for it again).

However, Wedge is convinced that what he is seeing is different.

The offense has been significantly better of late and Wedge steadfastly believes that what we’ve seen out of Smoak is “more real now than it’s probably ever been.” He and Zduriencik also still have faith in the players who have struggled this year like Montero and Ackley.

“Everybody has a different path, and you don’t know where these guys will end up, but we feel like at the end of the day they’re all going to be pretty good ballplayers,” Wedge said. “Sometimes it takes a little bit longer, sometimes you have to go back to Triple-A, then you’ve got guys like Seager who come up here and figure it out and know themselves so well that they can be consistent enough to contribute on a daily basis.”

No one can be expected to blindly believe in this team at this point, but a strong finish over the next 67 games could be enough to brighten the club’s long-term outlook, and perhaps save some jobs.

At the very least, this team is more intriguing, more entertaining than any the Mariners have put on the field in quite a while. Unlike early this season, the offensive production isn’t coming almost entirely from Seager or veterans playing on one-year deals. Now we’re seeing Smoak, Miller, Franklin and Michael Saunders contribute.

The rotation is still shaky, but other than Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the starters Seattle has used this season are short-term solutions. The 2014 Mariners will be much more concerned with what Taijaun Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen are doing than they will the performances of Joe Saunders or Aaron Harang.

“I think you’ve got to be proud of what these kids have done up here in a short time,” Zduriencik said. “I think they’ve shown you some things that if you have a crystal ball, you can look forward and say this has a chance to be a pretty good group of kids, and that bodes well for our future.”

And yes, you have every right to scream, “It’s the All-Star break and you’re already talking about the future, that makes this season a failure!”

But the Mariners can’t change what they’ve been in past seasons or even the past few months. What they can do between now and the end of the season, however, is show that finally, after so many years of losing, this rebuild has a chance to succeed.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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