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Originally published January 28, 2012 at 6:37 PM | Page modified January 28, 2012 at 10:14 PM

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The Mariners' battle of perception: Good plan vs. bad past

The Mariners are building for the future in the right way, but they are still battling a negative perception from a fan base in Seattle that has been burned too many times in the past 10 years.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Dustin Ackley

Age: 23

Gms   Avg.   HRs
90   .273   6

Jesus Montero

Age: 22

Gms   Avg.   HRs
18   .328   4

Justin Smoak

Age: 25

Gms   Avg.   HRs
223   .227   28

Mike Carp

Age: 25

Gms   Avg.   HRs
114   .273   13
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Here's the great contradiction that burdens the Mariners: They're finally building the right way, a way that many fans had long desired, but after years of floundering without a solid plan, people are so bitter they refuse to believe in anything.

The Mariners are like the reformed man trying to get his woman back. They're saying to you, "Baby, I'm finally ready to change. I'm already changing. I'm going to do right by you this time." But you're not impressed, no matter how many times they plead, "Please, baby! Baby, please!" To you, there's no difference between optimism and naiveté anymore. And so the Mariners shuffle away, head down, intent on proving themselves.

You'll see. One day, you'll see. And then you'll love them again.

That's what the Mariners think, at least. They don't just have a plan. They have a vision.

Problem is, if you want an early glimpse, it requires blind faith.

Yet another contradiction.

You know a franchise suffers from distrust when it gets criticized for not outbidding a team that paid $214 million for a player who didn't have a strong desire to come to Seattle. The Prince Fielder story illustrates the friction between the Mariners and the public. Fielder was a media and fan pipe dream, the longest of longshots. But somehow Fielder signing elsewhere has become reason to rip the team for being cheap and uninterested in winning.

In reality, the Mariners are doing what most teams undergoing a youth movement do. They're refraining from excessive free-agent spending, committing to their young players and attempting to create a core that can grow together. The test of their willingness to spend money will begin next offseason, when they should understand fully what they have — and don't have.

After using a portion of the past week to probe the Mariners, I can offer this assessment: They're convinced they are creating a winning infrastructure. General manager Jack Zduriencik isn't carrying out some sophisticated con job with this youth movement. This is the team-building model that he knows. This is why he got the job, to replenish a barren farm system, to create a front office that identifies good talent early rather than too late, to build a sustainable winner.

It's important to remember that, before Zduriencik arrived, the Mariners learned a harsh lesson. In 2008, they spent a team-record $117 million and lost 101 games, becoming the first team in major-league history to accomplish the dubious double-triple. The Centurions, I called them mockingly.

The franchise was embarrassed. The public blasted them for having a roster full of overpriced free-agent acquisitions who were unprofessional, unaccountable and unconcerned with team pride. So team chairman Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong chose Zduriencik to fix former general manager Bill Bavasi's mess and redirect the franchise. It was a significant hiring because, for the first time since they raised Alex Rodriguez in the mid-1990s, the Mariners were wholeheartedly returning to conventional baseball wisdom and abandoning the notion that they could scrounge up competitive teams through free agency.

It's something that Bavasi wanted to do, but his front office never scouted well enough, and he also inherited a team that needed major free-agent help just to be functional. The pressure to win ultimately caused him to leave the Mariners hamstrung with infamous contracts such as the $48 million Carlos Silva deal.

Enter Zduriencik, a longtime scout who specializes in helping teams build from the ground up. The Mariners had to go in that direction. Otherwise, they made the wrong hire.

Overall, Zduriencik, who is entering his fourth season, has done a fine job. The Mariners now have a realistic future with second baseman Dustin Ackley, catcher/hitting savant Jesus Montero and first baseman Justin Smoak atop their collection of intriguing 25 and under position players. They have three elite pitching prospects — Baseball America cover boy Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton — who are on a fast track to join Felix Hernandez in what could be a scary rotation. In his first three seasons, Zduriencik also has traded for Franklin Gutierrez, who has become the best defensive outfielder in baseball in Seattle, and at 28, he still has an offensive upside if his stomach problems have indeed been solved; traded for Brandon League, 28, who has developed into an All-Star closer; and re-signed Hernandez, the 2010 American League Cy Young Award winner who is only 25 despite seven years of experience, to a contract that still has three years remaining.

If the Mariners' front office is evaluating talent properly, you can see the window they are creating. They already have amassed a solid collection of under-30 talent that could create a contending core. They can't rely exclusively on homegrown players, though. At some point, they'll need to spend money to supplement this youth movement. They will, Zduriencik promises.

"We're not forever going to be a ballclub that says, 'Wait 'til next year. Wait 'til next year,' " Zduriencik said. "Timing is everything. Quite frankly, the time is to build. At this moment in time, that's what's best for this organization. To deviate from the plan would be the wrong thing. I realize people want it done yesterday, want it done a year ago. Believe me, I do, too. But this is my vision. We're going to stay the course."

The problem isn't this current plan. It's the old baggage weighing it down. It would be easier to accept if the Mariners had hired Zduriencik and taken this route in, say, 2004. But from 2003 to 2008, the franchise wasted time trying not to rebuild. The result was a string of frustrating, fruitless seasons.

Now, it's 2012, and the franchise is on a 10-year playoff drought. Since the Mariners' 116-win season in 2001, they've had more 90-plus-loss seasons (five) than winning seasons (four). Last season, their attendance dipped below 2 million for the first time in 16 years. Without some luck, it'll be even lower this season.

The Mariners are resigned to the fact that they can't win the perception game right now. They can only beg for mercy and envision future redemption.

"At certain points in time in your life, you've got to have blind faith," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "You've got to believe in something, even though you can't see it. And that's where we are right now.

"And we've given everybody very good reason to have that. We've got a lot of passionate sports fans out there, and we're not going to let them down."

Ask Wedge about the Mariners' vision and he says, "I can see it right here as I'm talking to you."

He sees Ackley as an All-Star, Smoak as a 30-homer, 100-RBI guy and Montero as a player who will hit for average and power. He sees a championship rotation in the near future. He even sees what players such as infielder Kyle Seager and shortstop prospect Nick Franklin can be. You know Wedge, the man whose eyes talk. He's always seeing something.

Problem is, when the Mariners are around, you're often covering your eyes.

It's fitting that, after being aimless for so long, the Mariners must attempt to prosper amid cynicism. When you think about it, it's the truest test of their conviction.

Before the Mariners get people to believe in them, they need to continue proving how much they believe in themselves.

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

On Twitter @Jerry_Brewer

Projected opening-day lineup
The Mariners are expected to have five of nine players in the lineup 25 years old or younger.
Pos Player Age*
C Miguel Olivo 33
1B Justin Smoak 25
2B Dustin Ackley 24
3B Kyle Seager 24
SS Brendan Ryan 30
LF Mike Carp 25
CF Franklin Gutierrez 29
RF Ichiro 38
DH Jesus Montero 22
* Age on opening day

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