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Originally published Saturday, March 31, 2012 at 8:02 PM

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Waiting for youth to prosper can get old very fast

While the youth movement will continue well beyond this season, the Mariners are about to lose the luxury of having the public pamper their precocious talent.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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The babies — they're front and center again.

As long as the Mariners can lift up their youth and ask you to hold 'em, they have a weapon against the cynicism. Because cute kids make this hardened world go soft. And they're all cute, these kids, because they're too young to judge harshly. So as the Mariners shuffle into another developmental season, youth remains both their protection and their burden.

But this will be the last year they receive so much free child care.

While the youth movement will continue well beyond this season, the Mariners are about to lose the luxury of having the public pamper their precocious talent. Impatience is already nearing an all-time high within the fan base, even though there's a faction genuinely intrigued by this rebuilding plan. But this figures to be the Mariners' third straight losing season and their 11th straight year without making the postseason. They've infuriated many of their supporters, but if they continue on like this, they will turn them apathetic, which is most dangerous of all.

It's inevitable that the Mariners will stay young, but here's the key: They can't be underdeveloped. Babies are expected to crawl, then walk, then run by a certain time. The same applies to fledgling baseball players.

Though the Mariners have a legitimate point (and a solid plan), their "Look At Our Cute Kids!" screams are meaningless unless there's more tangible progress to support it. So that's what the 2012 season is about — true development.

The Mariners need to show it, individually and collectively. They need to gain clarity on which players are young and promising and which ones are merely young. And when they realize they have holes that can't be covered simply by waiting for a player to mature, they need to be willing to spend the money to fix the problem.

Otherwise, the Mariners will enter a vicious wait-until-next-year cycle. Bad teams stubbornly hope for a better tomorrow. Good teams have a crystallized vision and a specific plan, but they stay flexible.

Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik seems to get it. For certain, his master plan doesn't involve having a roster of 25 youngsters who magically figure out how to win. He always wants to be stocked with young talent because that allows the Mariners to do anything — keep the ones that project to be stars, use others as assets to make impactful trades, create depth within the organization to withstand inevitable hardships.

But the scary part is that Zduriencik can't project how long it will take to win. He knows the Mariners will be successful this way eventually. But when? That's a huge problem. And so while the Mariners spent the 2011 season going 67-95 and letting young players get experience, the urgency will increase this season.

"Last year, they got their feet wet — many of them," Zduriencik said. "OK, so now you're coming back with some experience. Now, you have to be a big-leaguer. Yeah, we understand you're young. Yeah, we understand you'll be a much better player in three years than you are now. But you can also speed your clock up. Why not put expectations on them? Why not challenge them and see how they respond?

"We understand the challenge we have before us. But we also have expectations that we talk about to each player on an individual basis. We want to win, and we want to win a World Series. It's nice to be a big-leaguer, but now it's time to produce because where we're headed is a long way from where we are right now."

The Mariners need Dustin Ackley, who had a solid half-season after being called up, to develop quickly into the star he's projected to be. They need Justin Smoak, who has been slower to develop, to play with a sense of urgency. They need Jesus Montero to be the real deal sooner rather than later, and they need several players from the cluster of Kyle Seager, Michael Saunders, Carlos Peguero, Casper Wells, Blake Beavan and Hector Noesi to establish that they can be high-quality role players. And at least two of their four hyped pitching prospects who have yet to pitch in the big leagues — Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Erasmo Ramirez — must become difference-makers at the next level within the next two years.

When Mariners manager Eric Wedge speaks of this development project, he likes to use a word that fits quite well with our child-rearing analogy: discipline. He's talking mostly about the discipline of patience, but considering Wedge's accountability-based managing style, tough love should apply, too.

"What we want to do is get there and stay there," Wedge said. "That's the discipline. You have to stick to a plan, even if it's not always rosy. It's so difficult for a lot of big-league clubs to get to where they want to be because they don't truly commit to anything. That's the discipline of the discipline. Your natural instinct is to want it now. We can get there quicker, but if we did that, we're not going to get there and stay there. We want to sustain it."

He's basically saying the Mariners won't trade young players they deem special to acquire a slightly-above-average veteran just because they're tired of waiting. But they will need to acquire better veterans than they currently have. As long as those players are in their prime, they'll jibe with the Mariners' direction.

Development is a tricky, fluid thing. But if the Mariners want to do more than just win in theory, they have to master this phase of their rebuilding.

The cute kids are getting older. The Mariners can't expect people to giggle through their mistakes forever.

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

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