New season, same old story for the Mariners

  • Thu Jan 26th, 2012 11:29pm
  • Sports

By John Boyle Herald Writer

SEATTLE — The Mariners are a construction site, general manager Jack Zduriencik says, with a foundation finally filling that hole in the ground so the building can start to go up.

No wait, they’re climbing a ladder. Check that, the Mariners are learning to walk before they run.

Zduriencik said all of those things during Tuesday’s pre-Spring Training luncheon in which he chose realism over bubbly optimism.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. When a general manager needs three different metaphors to describe the challenges his team is facing, that can’t be a good thing. And well, you’re absolutely right.

Zduriencik feels very good about the young talent the Mariners will have on the field in 2012 and beyond. With young bats like Jesus Montero, Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Mike Carp and Kyle Seager expected to see regular playing time, and young arms like Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton waiting in the wings, the future is potentially very bright for the Mariners. The present, however, figures to be a struggle.

“This is going to be a challenging year at the big-league level for us,” Zduriencik said. “Let’s not kid ourselves. We’ve got a young club, no matter how you shake it.”

And while “this is going to be a challenge” probably won’t be printed on your 2012 pocket schedule, Zduriencik’s candor is as refreshing as it is necessary. If the Mariners are going to win by doing things — in Zduriencik’s words, the way they’re supposed to be done — it will take time. There is no sense selling everyone a pipe dream they’re not going to buy into anyway.

Of the 65 players the Mariners invited Spring Training, 55 have less than five years major league service time, and 40 have less than one year. That should bode well for the 2014 Mariners, but this year, in a division that features two teams (Anaheim and Texas) with legitimate World Series aspirations, Seattle’s youth likely means a lot of losses.

“It’s going to be a challenge, because of the young kids,” Zduriencik said. “… Then you look at what happened in this division. No matter how you shake it, you can’t ignore what Anaheim did and you can’t ignore what Texas did, and those clubs were ahead of us prior to these moves. So it’s an uphill battle. We’ve got a real challenge before us.”

The problem, of course, is selling that idea to a fan base that has sat through five seasons of 90-plus losses in the past eight years. Had the idea of patience been pitched in say, 2005, not a lot of people would have complained. However when fans have been, to borrow one of Zduriencik’s metaphors, staring at that hole in the ground for the better part of a decade, it becomes a much tougher sell.

“It is tough to look somebody in the eye and say, be patient,” Zduriencik said. “But hey, you’ve got to walk before you can run.”

“I like where we’re at as an organization. I’m not satisfied where we’re at, I’m not content with where we’re at, but given all of the issues and things, we’re in a pretty decent place moving forward to get to where we need to get. We’re climbing the ladder and we’re moving up those steps in a real positive way.”

Of course, none of this means the Mariners won’t try to contend in the AL West. Manager Eric Wedge goes into every Spring Training hoping for good things, and this year is no different, even if the odds are stacked against his team.

“I’ve seen too many crazy things happen not to feel that way,” Wedge said. “It may be pie-in-the-sky type of situation, because everybody tells me that two of the best teams in baseball are in our division now. And maybe they’re right, maybe they’re not.

“My expectation is to try to come in here and win every ballgame.”

And contenders or not, Wedge fully expects to see improvement, particularly from an offense that has been the worst in baseball for two consecutive seasons. Young or not, he won’t be satisfied with a repeat performance of last year’s offensive ineptitude.

“I’m sticking my neck out there a little bit, and I don’t mind doing that,” he said. “I feel like this year should be the year that we really take a significant leap forward offensively. I’ll be very disappointed if we don’t do that. I don’t really worry about that because I’m very confident we will do that. That’s how confident I am in our young people, that’s how confident I am in our plan, that’s how confident I am in the foundation that we have here and that’s the faith I have in our kids individually.”

Then again, Wedge did also mention something about not going zero to 60 right away. Hey look, that’s metaphor No. 4.

So hang on folks, it could be a bumpy ride. Again. The Mariners are building/climbing/learning-to-walk-before-they-run their way to better days. Those better days, however, probably won’t come in 2012.

“Would I like to be able to give our fans instant success? I would, but that’s unrealistic,” Zduriencik said. “It just takes time. … I think it’s going to be positive, I think we’re going in the right direction. There are too many good things happening here to not notice it, but again, it just doesn’t happen over night.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.