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Originally published Saturday, March 5, 2011 at 10:01 PM

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Jerry Brewer

Are the Mariners developing players or buying time? Here's how to tell

Grading the Mariners' rebuilding plan.

Seattle Times staff columnist

While spending this indefinite period teaching their kiddies to swim, hoping they'll rescue the franchise from Irrelevance Island, the Mariners should consider a complete re-branding, temporary name change included.

Your Seattle Moppets, anyone?

Well, it's better than the Whippersnappers. Or the Lads. Or (disgusted face) the Pipsqueaks.

The Mariners' latest unofficial rebuilding attempt — they never call it by its name — is the classic approach, tried and true. They want to become a winner by acquiring and developing young talent. General manager Jack Zduriencik is amid Year 3 of this effort, but this is the first season the Mariners have depended heavily on young players at the major-league level.

We're about to see this franchise either put itself back together properly or pull its most disheartening fast one.

Having spent 10 days in Arizona with the ballclub recently, I can say with certainty the franchise has an intriguing collection of young players to develop. But at the same time, that's kind of like saying that a newborn is cute. They're all cute, even the ones that look like aliens, because, well, what else are you going to say? They're too young to insult. Everything good about them is overemphasized; everything bad is explained away by the need for patience.

So, how can we possibly determine whether a franchise is moving in the right direction or creating an illusion of youth?

You can think about it more clearly if you split the Mariners' plan into four different areas and judge them that way. Call it the Moppet Index.

Area No. 1: Talent

Mariners' current grade: B-minus

It's the most essential issue. Do the Mariners have enough young talent to make this plan worth the wait?

Their high-end young talent — Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda, 20-year-old shortstop Nick Franklin (you won't see him for a while) — is very good right now. Ackley, Pineda and Franklin are all consensus top-50 prospects. Smoak was a top-10 prospect a year ago, and he has now played 100 big-league games.

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But below the top shelf, things are a little more questionable. The Mariners' overall depth in the minor leagues remains average. Zduriencik has done a good job of multiplying the overall talent in the organization, but it's not where it needs to be yet. Zduriencik's director of amateur scouting, Tom McNamara, needs to lead a few more good drafts to replenish the farm system. With the No. 2 overall pick in a well-regarded draft this June, the Mariners should be able to get another Ackley/Smoak/Pineda-type player while also addressing their depth.

Another item worth noting: Baseball America estimated that the Mariners spent more money ($6.47 million) on international amateur signings than any team in baseball. Bob Engle, the team's vice president for international operations, is a gem of a talent evaluator. The Mariners' international scouting is a huge strength.

Area No. 2: Leadership

Mariners' current grade: B

Zduriencik has a good track record in scouting and player development. McNamara and his scouts have done a good job. We just told you about Engle. Pedro Grifol, the director of minor-league operations, has worked in the organization 12 years and understands how to develop young players.

And then there's new manager Eric Wedge, who helped the Cleveland Indians rebuild in a similar manner from 2003-09.

On paper, this is an ideal mix of leadership, with a big-league manager that serves as the perfect complement. Then again, we were saying the same thing about Don Wakamatsu, and that relationship lasted less than two seasons.

But Wedge does seem qualified for this assignment. He's the manager, but he also likes to coach. He won't sit in his office and fill out the lineup card, make some pitching changes and go home. He's a good communicator who likes to teach young players. Because he's only 43, perhaps he's more willing to be this kind of manager.

"You have to have your grand vision for these players, but each day, you've got to take care of today," Wedge says of his approach. "I try to channel my intensity, my focus, in the right direction. Patience has to be a part of that. Patience is usually rewarded in this game."

Area No. 3: Commitment

Mariners' current grade: Incomplete

This is the big question. Will the Mariners stay with the process? The franchise has been adamant about not rebuilding in years past. Does it trust this plan?

The 2011 season could provide an answer. Zduriencik built a team that lost 101 games last season. He acquired Josh Lueke, an accused sex offender who pleaded no contest to a lesser charge three years ago, in the Cliff Lee trade. Jack Z is clearly on the hot seat, and this club could lose 90-plus games this season.

If Zduriencik's player development plan is working even with the losing, will Mariners chairman Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong remain patient? They're the ones who get criticized the most, wrongfully so at times. But that's the nature of their jobs. Assuming the plan is working, will they stick with this GM?

The success of this rebuilding attempt depends on it.

Area No. 4: Vision

Mariners' current grade: A

Zduriencik has seen this work before. He has contributed to such a master plan in other organizations. He has a good feel for how players should progress through the minor leagues, when to call a prospect up to the big leagues, and when to trade a prospect.

There are only 25 spots on a major-league roster. The goal isn't to raise every player with the idea that he'll play for your team. Young talent makes it easier to trade for stars, too. Zduriencik has proved to be creative at making deals. If the Mariners build a strong farm system, they'll have a chance to create a team that inspires civic pride.

"Through some of the lumps and bumps we've taken, we've continued to try to acquire talent," Zduriencik said last month. "There was a plan in place from the very beginning. We have not deviated from that plan."

It's spring training, and the Moppets look good right now. They're young, athletic, big, strong, energetic, and best of all, they have yet to disappoint us. Then again, we say that about all babies.

But this time, we're really telling the truth, right? Promise. Promise?

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer

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About Jerry Brewer

Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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