Time for Mariners to grow up

SEATTLE — Banking on potential is no longer acceptable in the rebuilding of the Seattle Mariners.

General manager Jack Zduriencik knows this. So does manager Eric Wedge. And so do the young players the Mariners are counting on to return the franchise to competitiveness.

Seattle begins its 2013 season Monday night with expectations. Not expectations to win the AL West or even earn a playoff berth. This is the year Seattle needs to be competitive. Needs to improve the worst offense in baseball. Needs to prove that making Felix Hernandez one of the highest-paid pitchers in baseball was a shrewd maneuver and that the pieces are in place for Seattle’s ace to be the centerpiece of a baseball revitalization in the Northwest.

“In regard to how we see our future and where we see ourselves at right now, we feel we’re in a very, very good place,” Wedge said. “I get questions often in regard to the timetable of us being a championship team. The only thing I can tell you is we’ll be better, we’ll continue to get better. That’s what happened the last couple years. And at some point in time sooner than later, we will be a championship team.”

It’s been a dozen years since the Mariners last reached the postseason. They’ve produced just four winning seasons during that span. A fan base that was once among the best in baseball has eroded to where even Safeco Field — one of the gems in the game — isn’t much of a draw anymore.

When Zduriencik arrived in 2008, his top priority was to restock a decrepit farm system. He’s done that, and the system is delivering highly regarded prospects to the big leagues.

Now it’s time for those prospects to turn their potential into production.

“What we wanted to do, and we have accomplished, was to continue to let these kids grow, continue to keep this system where it’s at, but augment it with middle of the lineup hitters as well as experience,” Zduriencik said. “That’s where it’s at.”

Seattle was among the busier teams during the offseason, staying in the national conversation with its aggressive pursuit of offense and the signing of Hernandez. Zduriencik traded for first baseman/DH Kendrys Morales and outfielder Michael Morse to give the Mariners the middle-of-the-order power hitters they have sorely lacked.

While the leadoff spot remains unsettled, the arrival of Morales and Morse puts hitters in more natural spots in the order. Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero no longer have to be cleanup hitters. Dustin Ackley can bat in the bottom of the order and Kyle Seager can slot into the No. 2 hole coming off a breakout season in which he hit 20 homers and drove in 86 runs.

With shorter fences at Safeco Field — they were moved in 4 to 17 feet in places — and a dynamic power surge during spring training — the Mariners led the majors in home runs — it seems likely Seattle’s offense should be drastically better.

The pitching staff begins with Hernandez and his $175 million contract. The deal includes a no-trade clause that will keep him in a Seattle uniform through the 2019 season. Beyond Hernandez and a bullpen led by closer Tom Wilhelmsen and some dynamic young arms, there are questions. Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders will hold down the next two spots in the rotation, followed by rookie Brandon Maurer and Blake Beavan.

Despite the uncertainty in the rotation, Hernandez, for one, is convinced the Mariners are headed in the right direction.

“I believe in this team,” he said, “and I know we’re going to win.”

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