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Originally published Saturday, March 31, 2012 at 8:03 PM

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Mariners' 2012 lineup should be better — but that isn't saying much

The Mariners need young players Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Mike Carp to deliver this season. The lineup should be better than the historically-bad offense of the past two seasons but it still doesn't look like the lineup of a contender.

Seattle Times staff columnist

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You would have thought that after a team had lost 196 games in two years, every job would have been open for competition this spring. Nobody should have felt secure.

Camp should have been as tense as the dog days of the regular season. Mariners manager Eric Wedge should have been juggling nine different names on almost every Cactus League lineup.

But the most striking aspect of this spring in Peoria was the real lack of competition for starting positions.

This team that has lost so many games the past couple of seasons and obviously is building for 2013 and beyond, has a lineup that seemed chiseled on tablets long before the players reported for duty.

No competition? What would Seahawks coach Pete Carroll think?

Since the day Wedge took some of the early drama out of the camp and announced he was moving leadoff hitter Ichiro to the third spot in the order and installing embattled third baseman Chone Figgins in the leadoff role, the Mariners' early April, everyday lineup has looked something like this:

3B Chone Figgins

2B Dustin Ackley

RF Ichiro

1B Justin Smoak

DH Jesus Montero

LF Mike Carp

C Miguel Olivo

CF Michael Saunders

SS Brendan Ryan

There they are, your Seattle Mariners — at least for most of April.

Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez's torn pectoral muscle briefly opened one spot in the order. But it seems as if that has been Saunders' job to lose, and he hasn't lost it.

Ryan still is nagged by injuries the way his predecessor, Jack Wilson, was. That has given effervescent Munenori Kawasaki more spring flings at shortstop. But the job still belongs to Ryan, as long as Ryan stays healthy.

There's a little too much déjà vu to this season's lineup; a little too much wait 'til next year.

It is obvious this is Figgins' last hurrah. My guess is the Mariners are hoping he can play just well enough to interest some borderline pennant contenders to make a trade in July.

Third base, which has been a dark hole since Lou Piniella mistakenly lost faith in David Bell and made a deal for Jeff Cirillo, is rich with talent that is on the rise. Figgins, at best, is just a placeholder.

I would put Figgins on a very short leash. He hit .188 last season and really hasn't earned this last chance the Mariners are giving him this season.

There is too much good, young talent in back of Figgins. Kyle Seager, Vinnie Catricala and Francisco Martinez are among the Mariners' best-looking prospects. If Figgins is hovering around the Mendoza line by the end of April, the job should be given to Seager.

Watching Ichiro might be one of the most intriguing aspects of the early season. Can he get comfortable with his new swing and new spot in the order? (In the early Cactus League games, Kawasaki's swing looked more like Ichiro's than Ichiro's).

Will Ichiro be more productive hitting third? And just exactly how much does he have left after seeing his average drop from .315 to .272 last year? He's in the last year of his contract. Will we see Ichiro make a salary drive in 2012?

Probably nobody is feeling more pressure than Smoak. He is the key to this lineup. He needs to show the organization that he can be great, not just good. The Mariners need him to break out, hit 30-plus home runs, drive in 80-plus runs. Fairly or unfairly, it's a boom-or-bust season for him.

This season, this batting order, really belongs to three players — Ackley, Carp and Montero. They are the closest the Mariners have to sure things.

Ackley is the total package. He's what a high first-round pick is supposed to be. He has a quick and lethal stroke, soft second baseman hands and is as tough as a chaw of chewing tobacco.

Carp is finally getting rewarded for doing everything the franchise asked him to do. He is leaner, stronger and more consistent than he was when he arrived from the Mets in 2009. He is part of the young pop this team has been missing.

And Montero is simply the most impressive-looking player to come into a Mariners' camp since, who knows, it's been so long it's hard to think of anyone. Epic poems could be written about his batting-practice home runs.

This lineup was written in February. It's a batting order that is better than last season's. There should be fewer droughts and more home runs this summer.

These Mariners will score more runs and be more fun to watch. But this certainly isn't the lineup of a contender.

So this is the way it starts for the Mariners; baby steps and question marks on the way to 2013 and beyond.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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