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Originally published Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 8:03 PM

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Mariners add veteran flavor, but season is still about the kids

Mariners should be better but a lot of the veterans might not be around after this season.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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Of course, the Mariners have more power. They've added some old-man strength to the team.

OK, maybe they're not old by the traditional standard of judging age, but for a franchise that has been all about the kids in recent years, it's the veteran acquisitions that make you believe the Mariners will trot out their most competitive team since the 85-win squad in 2009.

It looks like general manager Jack Zduriencik has executed a good plan for this year. With Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales bringing bop and experience to the lineup, with 40-year-old Raul Ibanez returning in a reserve role, the offense should be more productive than it has been during the past three seasons of epic anemia. The starting rotation isn't quite as strong as it has been, but it will be better than some think. And the bullpen has the potential to be special. The Mariners don't have the sexiest roster, but they're solid.

There's also the intangible that these guys seem to enjoy playing with each other. It was obvious during spring training. It doesn't mean it will carry over to the regular season, when the pressure and distractions increase, but this isn't a clubhouse of odd personalities and players wanting to be left alone to do their job. There's a more collaborative spirit than when Ichiro was the dominant star.

"We have veterans like Morse and Ibanez who clearly love the organization and are willing to help it thrive by talking to the younger players and being mentors," Zduriencik said. "And the young kids, they have made their mark, and the veterans respect that. This is their team."

But despite the positive vibe, there is plenty of room to wonder what this season will mean in the big picture. Desiring flexibility, Zduriencik has an overload of expiring veteran contracts this season, which means that a potential breakthrough 2013 season might not be the breakthrough that it seems. There are so many veteran placeholders on this team that it's hard to project where the Mariners will be a year from now.

At least nine players on the 25-man roster are perhaps short-term veterans: Morse, Morales, Ibanez, Franklin Gutierrez, Brendan Ryan, Kelly Shoppach and pitchers Kameron Loe, Oliver Perez and Joe Saunders. They're all playing for their next contract, which should benefit the Mariners. But that can also make it difficult for the team to evaluate how to proceed.

If a significant number of these veterans have good seasons and lead the Mariners to a winning record, do you simply bring back the band? But what about all of the near big-league ready players — Mike Zunino, Nick Franklin and Danny Hultzen — in the minors?

Zduriencik acknowledges he has a tricky balancing act. But he'd rather have options than be pigeonholed into one way of thinking.

"I think we're real confident in what we're trying to do with this ballclub," Zduriencik said. "Nobody's foolproof. We know that, and we have to continue to try to make our roster better. But we like our mix of players."

For all the preseason talk about the veteran additions making life easier for the youngsters, the Mariners' present and future still boils down to the kids being able to handle more responsibility. It's still about Jesus Montero establishing himself, Dustin Ackley and Justin Smoak getting better, and Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders continuing to prove they are foundational pieces. It's still about developing their own stars and finding the right veterans as supplements.

If the Mariners can't do that, they'll be stuck in mediocrity for a long time.

It means that, even if Morse and Morales can carry the lineup at times and influence winning, you still can't consider this a good season unless the Mariners finish above .500 and do so with an encouraging level of improvement from their young players.

"I don't think the veteran guys we brought in are going to smother these kids," Zduriencik said. "They are here to support them. We need balance. With the veterans, we've added an element that we haven't had the past few seasons. But we're still in the business of developing our own. We know our own players better than anyone. We have a history with them. We know what we have, and we like what we have."

Outsiders might not be as confident as Zduriencik, but the Mariners are intriguing. They have some versatility now. They have protection in case players flop. They still don't have a 35- or 40-homer beast, but they have a lineup in which you don't have to strain to think seven players are capable of a 20-plus homer season: Morse, Morales, Montero, Smoak, Saunders, Seager and Gutierrez (if healthy). That's unlikely to happen, but the point is that the Mariners can reach back and get more out of this team when they need it.

Then, if all goes well, they'll have some difficult decisions to make when nearly 40 percent of their opening-day roster hits free agency.

It'll be a good problem if their young talent does its job. It would allow the franchise to be picky, sign a few of those vets (Morse might be the priority), pursue some new ones and continue to carve out room for the youngsters in the minors.

But if the Mariners win mostly because a bunch of stopgap veterans carry them, they could turn out to be the rare rising team with a murky future.

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

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