Mariners tell 2012 fans to believe in wave of young talent
The Mariners' push to youth is both a blessing and a curse and will leave many fans nervous about the coming season.
Seattle Times baseball reporter
The Mariners once offered "Believe Big." The overriding message this year is "Believe in Us — Despite Everything."
Believe in the plan. Believe in the kids. Believe in Jack Zduriencik's scouting acumen and Eric Wedge's passion. Believe in a Justin Smoak breakout and a Franklin Gutierrez revival and a Jesus Montero coronation.
Believe that better times — finally — are lurking just around the corner. Oh, and one more thing: Be patient. These things don't happen overnight.
It's a tough message to hear, and one that will be rejected out of hand by some in a fan base that has been sold too many failed plans.
It's especially tough when their division rivals keep adding high-priced talent like Albert Pujols and Yu Darvish to already successful clubs, while all the Mariners have to sell is a vision.
But it's a vision that has at least — and at last — reached the stage of plausibility. The young talent that Zduriencik continued to tout at Thursday's annual pre-spring training media luncheon at Safeco Field is also being lauded by those in the business of ranking prospects. The Mariners, by many accounts outside the built-in bias of Seattle's front office, could be sitting on a gold mine of burgeoning talent.
This final step — the one from potential to finished project — is the hardest to navigate, the one fraught with the most danger and opportunity for setbacks. Which is why Zduriencik, at an event usually oozing with optimism, dished out realism.
"This is going to be a challenging year at the big-league level for us," Zduriencik said. "Let's not kid ourselves. We've got a young club, no matter how you shake it."
The Mariners' youth is both their blessing and their curse, of course. They hope it's their salvation in the long term, but could well be their stumbling block in the short term. Asked Thursday if he viewed this as a contending season, Zduriencik didn't exactly bubble over with pennant fever.
"It's going to be a challenge, because of the young kids. ... Then you look at what happened in this division. No matter how you shake it, you can't ignore what Anaheim did, or what Texas did. And those clubs were ahead of us prior to these moves. It's an uphill battle. We have a real challenge before us."
The Mariners can't complain too much, mind you. They consciously chose this route, chose not to invest their money in established veterans that might have eased, or hastened, the transition, adding experience only in the form of ancillary pieces like George Sherrill or reclamation projects like Kevin Millwood.
It's no coincidence that their flashiest winter move was to acquire Montero, a 22-year-old phenom catcher, not Prince Fielder, a $200 million superstar. And it's no surprise that any pending moves between now and the opening of camp in less than three weeks "will probably be a little chip," according to Zduriencik. "I don't think it will be anything earth-shattering."
Zduriencik said they're waiting for the right time to strike, at which point he's confident that ownership will pay for the pieces to put them over the top. In the meantime, they just hope that their fans can come around to believe in this team's future like he does, as fervently as Wedge does.
Wedge looks at a beefed-up Gutierrez and sees a twinkle in his eye that foretells a comeback. He sees Smoak, Montero, Casper Wells and Mike Carp vying for playing time and sees a puzzle that can be solved.
"I want to be able to make that work," he said. "Right now, we're in a situation where we can make it all work, between first base, DH, catching and left field, depending on who you're talking about."
He fixes his young players with his vaunted death stare, as he did during a gathering of nine players a few weeks ago, and tells them, "If you guys can believe half of what I believe, not just in this organization, and this plan, but in yourself, then we're golden."
Wedge looks at an offense that has been staggering in its ineptitude and sees an end to the scoring drought.
"I'm sticking my neck out a little bit, and I don't mind doing it," he said. "I feel this should be the year we really take a significant step forward offensively. I'll be very disappointed if we don't. That's how confident I am in our plan, that's how confident I am in the foundation we have here."
The foundation isn't the issue. Not ultimately. It's when, and whether, the building will be completed.
Fans want tangible signs of progress. This will be the last year the Mariners will get away with selling a blueprint.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or email@example.com.
On Twitter @StoneLarry
About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.