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Originally published March 27, 2012 at 10:02 PM | Page modified March 28, 2012 at 6:58 PM

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Mariners' future looks brighter — even when viewed at 3 a.m.

The Mariners begin the 2012 season in an unusual manner — against the Oakland Athletics, in Japan, at 3 a.m. Pacific time.

Seattle Times baseball reporter

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M's in 1st place, Ackley leading the majors in HR's and RBI's, Ichiro leading the... MORE
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To be up front right up front: I have no idea how the Mariners did in their season opener, even though it might well be over and done with as you read this.

Such are the time-zone vagaries of playing games in Japan, wreaking havoc with both sleep patterns and newspaper deadlines. This edition of The Seattle Times had to be put to bed even before resolute Mariners fans crawled out of theirs to watch, bleary-eyed, as the M's and A's grappled at 3 a.m., Pacific time.

Opening days, at any hour, are overrated as omens, anyway. The most exhilarating one I ever saw was in 1986 at the Kingdome, when Jim Presley hit a game-tying homer in the ninth and a walkoff grand slam in the 10th, to beat the Angels. That stirring win galvanized the Mariners to a 16-31 start that cost manager Chuck Cottier his job.

In 2008, the Mariners pulled off a crisp 5-2 win over Texas in the opener, and then lumbered off to the most dispiriting, dysfunctional 101-loss season you'd never want to see. Two years later, they dispatched the A's, 5-3, on opening day, and proceeded to lose 101 games that season.

Granted, it was indeed an omen in 2004 when the Mariners were blasted by the Angels in the first game, then dropped four more in a row to prove it wasn't a fluke. That was the perfect introduction to a 99-loss season that marked the beginning of the team's Era of Darkness, out of which the Mariners are still trying to emerge.

Will this be the year? As a new season dawns, that is the central question, not the small-sample-size manifestations of 0.6 percent of a 162-game season.

And this is the time to believe it is possible, because if you can't be optimistic on opening day — even one that takes place one hour after the bars close down — then when can you?

Optimism has been an elusive commodity for Mariners fans, with every timid step forward (an unexpected winning record in 2009) followed by a rude shove backward (squabbling, turmoil and triple-digit losses in 2010).

I honestly see the makings of a brighter future, and not too distantly, for the Mariners. There's too much star-caliber talent brewing, both in the majors and minors, not to think that a turnaround is possible.

Not probable, mind you. I'm too jaded by too many Mariners missteps to go out on that limb. Possible. And that's your opening-day optimism talking.

To the Land of the Rising Sun comes the team of the falling runs — one of the worst offensive units in the modern era the past couple of years, as has been well-chronicled. Nothing has been more mind-numbing than seeing a 3-1 early deficit and knowing — with full conviction — that the Mariners don't have a chance of pulling ahead.

But, finally, there's a light at the end of the batting cage. In Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero, the Mariners have bona fide impact bats in the making. They might have some growing pains along with way, but unless every scout in existence is wrong, they will hit, and hit big.

To me, Justin Smoak is the key to the Mariners' hopes of finally having a respectable offense in 2012. If he can be the power threat the ballclub envisioned when they made him the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade — over Montero — then they have the makings of a potentially formidable trio to build around in Smoak, Montero and Ackley. But if Smoak continues to be inconsistent, the lineup is not nearly as imposing.

I see a team that should hit better than it did last year, which isn't really a bold declaration. But the Mariners could actually have a league-average offense — which in comparison to the past two years would be like importing the 1927 Yankees. Don't get too giddy, however: After finishing third and sixth in the American League in team earned-run average the past two years, the pitching might take a step backward — at least until the rookie reinforcements arrive.

The Mariners need for the youngsters upon whom they are pinning all their hopes of a brighter tomorrow — primarily, Montero, Smoak and Ackley at the big-league level, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker at the minor-league level, plus a few others — to progress to the point they can be counted upon as the nucleus of a contending team.

It doesn't add up to a contending team in 2012, not in a division with heavyweights like the Rangers and Angels. According to my crystal ball, it adds up to a third-place finish, with the M's holding off the A's to win the have-not division of the AL West. I'll be optimistic and say: 76-86, an improvement of nine victories.

But, meanwhile, how about that season-opening game? I still can't believe what I saw. I mean, what I'm about to see, if I can stay awake.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @StoneLarry


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