The Seattle Mariners could have gone young and turned the season over to their best prospects, knowing that growth can be a painful thing.
Or, the Mariners could have signed a wave of experienced players, meshed them with the veterans in-house and hoped for a one-year flash of success.
Instead, the 2011 Mariners are a mix that they hope plays well this year and in the future.
From 22-year-old starting pitcher Michael Pineda to 37-year-old superstar right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, the Mariners are a team in transition.
Three players on the 25-man team that will open Friday night at Oakland are rookies – Pineda and relief pitchers Josh Lueke and Tom Wilhelmsen.
Two others, first baseman Justin Smoak and backup catcher Adam Moore, have less than a full season of major league service time. And two more, starting pitcher Doug Fister and outfielder Michael Saunders, have barely more than a year in the majors.
“We’ve got some young kids who made this club and they’re going to cut their teeth this year in the big leagues, and that’s going to be a challenge,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said. “But they’re also talented guys, and how quickly they adapt to being big-league players will be interesting to watch. It has the potential to be an entertaining year.”
The Mariners built with experience up the middle of their defense. They signed veteran catcher Miguel Olivo (although he committed league-leading totals in passed balls four of the past five seasons), traded for shortstop Brendan Ryan and moved shortstop Jack Wilson to second base. Gold Glove-winning Franklin Gutierrez returns to center field, although he will start the season on the disabled list because of stomach problems that bothered him since last season. Saunders is expected to get most of the center-field starts until Gutierrez is ready.
The bullpen is a mix of youth and uncertainty, especially with veteran closer David Aardsma out until late April – if that soon – because of hip surgery and right-handed setup man Shawn Kelley out until June after elbow surgery.
Olivo also missed nearly half of spring training with a strained groin, and he’ll be monitored carefully the first few weeks of the season.
“We have a few challenges we’re facing right now, one with (Gutierrez) not being ready. It’s a big void,” Zduriencik said. “With David Aardsma not being here, that’s a void here as well. You’d love to have those guys starting with you now. And Olivo, he looks great and feels great, but there may be a degree of catching up there.”
Zduriencik says only that the Mariners have a chance to be competitive. Veteran players must play to their career averages and young players must develop, but it can happen, he says.
Most everyone else from a national perspective believes otherwise, that the Mariners are headed toward another last-place season. They may not lose 101 games like last year, but it may be too much to expect them to compete in an American League West Division that should be strong.
New manager Eric Wedge says he hasn’t read preseason reports on the Mariners and, frankly, he doesn’t care what others are saying. Since he took the job early in the offseason, he has said this will be a season of learning, adjustment and improvement. That’s all he predicts.
“I know what we have here right now. I’m not sure how it’s going to play out,” Wedge said. “But whatever happens, we’ll adjust and get better. You’ll see the team evolve. There’ll be points in time where it’s a step back for two steps forward. But we’re always going to continue to move forward. You really have to get into the season, under the lights with the third deck to really see where you’re at with that, with so much uncertainty.”
At a time like this, when the Mariners know they must develop young players, Wedge says it’s important to blend youth with veterans.
“I think you want to have some diversity in regard with experience on your ballclub. That’s a positive thing,” Wedge said. “You don’t want everybody in the same place in their career. You have some young kids coming up, you maybe have some kids with short experience in the big leagues that are trying to figure it out and you’ve got some veteran guys who are true major leaguers who have had success for a significant amount of time in the big leagues. Then you’ve got guys maybe coming back from injury or poor performances, maybe non-roster guys. That’s the type of diversity you want on your club.”
That’s the 2011 Mariners, who had five non-roster players make the team out of spring training.
Why not go with a complete youth movement? Why not start the season with second base prospect Dustin Ackley or the promising young outfielders in the minor league system – Carlos Peguero or Johermyn Chavez?
Ackley needs more work defensively after being moved to second base from the outfield a year ago, and by waiting until midseason to call him up the Mariners can delay by a year his arbitration eligibility. Peguero and Chavez simply need more time to develop.
Wedge doesn’t favor an young team from top to bottom.
“One, this is not a rebuild so you’re not just going to go all young,” he said. “Two, you’re looking to go out there and compete and win as many ballgames as you can. That’s real. It is the big leagues and it’s all about winning. And three, if you want these young kids to develop as quickly as possible, you need that veteran presence, you need that experience around them. That shortens up that learning curve.”
It will take time to know whether rookies like Pineda, Lueke and Wilhelmsen can hold up to major league competition.
It will take regular at-bats over a long period by Smoak, Saunders and Moore to know if they can live up to long-held expectations.
Nobody knows whether often-injured Jack Wilson will remain healthy, if No. 2 hitter Chone Figgins will be the perfect complement to Ichiro, if Gutierrez will overcome his health issues or if temperamental veteran Milton Bradley will remain sound in mind and body.
And the offense, it’s as uncertain as anything about the team. The Mariners added home-run-hitting (but also strikeout-prone) Jack Cust as their designated hitter, but they still don’t have a consistent RBI presence in the middle of their lineup.
Friday night at Oakland, a six-month process to learn those things will begin. It could be entertaining, as Zduriencik hopes, or difficult to watch. Or both.
“I love the effort, the attitude, the approach, the work ethic,” Wedge said. “There’s a lot of good things that have happened. They’re on board with what we’ve thrown at them. But ultimately all that plays with the performance. You’ll see the kids go out and compete from pitch one to the end. There’s no clock on this thing. We’ll play it all the way through.”
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