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Originally published October 3, 2012 at 8:02 PM | Page modified October 5, 2012 at 8:09 PM

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Are Mariners making progress? Depends how you measure it

The Mariners made slight improvements this season offensively and won 75 games, compared to 67 last season. Manager Eric Wedge says it's more than just the numbers, though, that matter when you try to measure the progress the team has made.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The late-August night when the Mariners honored Felix Hernandez at a raucous, nearly-full Safeco Field had shortstop Brendan Ryan musing aloud.

Ryan said he longed for a time when fan interest would always be as energetic as it felt that night, when the Mariners held a special "Supreme Court" promotion with discounted tickets and T-shirts commemorating Hernandez's perfect game.

"It would be great if it could be like this all the time," said Ryan, who once enjoyed such supportive home crowds playing in St. Louis. "As players, it just gets you pumped up to play when you've got the crowd behind you like that."

But Ryan quickly learned why that goal has remained elusive since the Mariners' glory years. The Mariners flew to Chicago two days later, saw an eight-game winning streak snapped and went 14-23 to end the season, finishing last in the American League West.

For fans desperately seeking progress in the team's fourth year under general manager Jack Zduriencik, the games surrounding that Hernandez night certainly raised expectations. But with the Mariners playing .378 ball the final six weeks of the season, the questions are again whether the "progress" of going from 67 wins in 2011 to 75 in 2012 is enough.

The Mariners can cite their marginally increased victories and runs scored. But they also insist it's about things that can't be measured.

"The toughest thing for people to understand is when you talk about the process, which I talk about a lot, most people have a hard time seeing that," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said. "And then you wake up one day and one of you (media) guys will ask 'Well, how did you get here?' Well, what the hell, man? You've been watching for two years. That's the process. I mean, you need to pay attention right now, because ... when we get there, then you'll understand it that much better."

And so, again, the Mariners are asking fans to trust their organic rebuilding process.

But judging by home attendance — down to 1.7 million from 1.9 million in 2011 and 2.2 million in Zduriencik's first season in 2009 — the rebuild is becoming a tougher sell. Adding to the team's woes, the rebuilding Oakland Athletics and Baltimore Orioles are playoff-bound while the Mariners were out of any race by June.

One problem selling the rebuild comes from the lack of a target date for when the team expects to realistically contend and adequately boost payroll to fill obvious holes.

Payroll declined from nearly $118 million in 2008 to the $60 million roster that is finishing this season. The Mariners began the year at $82 million but are now fielding a team worth less than half what the Rangers are spending.

In a playbook borrowed from small-market teams everywhere, the Mariners keep hinting they will spend when the time is "right." And yet, there is no definition given as to what that entails.

"I don't think it's a secret that if there was a bat that we were able to pursue that would be a good fit for us, we would pursue it," Zduriencik said this week.

But at the same time, he added, the free-agent market looks weak and might require teams "to get creative" in seeking upgrades.

Seattle has clearly improved over a historically awful 2010 team.

"They're tough and they're getting better with each day, each week, each month," Wedge said. "As we continue to get better, we'll be more consistent and less streaky, which is all part of it, too."

The Mariners can also claim to have young, cost-controlled players at most positions. But young and cheap doesn't automatically mean good — and numbers suggest the Mariners are still mostly bad.

One difference this year is that the Mariners were a little less bad than some AL squads. Indeed, going 23-4 against inferior AL opponents had fueled their 39-36 second-half revival. But they were just 16-32 against winning teams over that span, limiting their progress overall.

The Mariners hit better on the road, where their park-factored on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) was just 2 percent below league average and the best of any Zduriencik season.

Unfortunately, they've hit .220, with a .289 on-base-percentage and a .329 slugging mark, at Safeco Field, one of the weakest home performances in major-league history.

The Mariners were above average pitching during Zduriencik's first year in 2009, and team ERA has since stayed around the league average. But the offense remains among the worst in baseball.

The Mariners scored 63 more runs than last season and topped 600 for the first time since 2009. But 600 runs is hardly a successful benchmark and follows two of the worst offensive showings by any team in 40 years.

The Mariners likely will finish with the league's worst offense a third consecutive year and the second-worst in the majors behind Houston.

"We definitely are improved offensively if you look at different individuals, with where we feel like they're at in their development," Wedge said. "But the one area that we have to get better at is with runners in scoring position. That's usually the last thing to come."

Some of the young players Wedge describes are the reason the rebuild remains a tough sell. Going off tangible results, the Mariners have seen progress by only two regular position players: third baseman Kyle Seager and outfielder Michael Saunders.

They saw regression by second baseman Dustin Ackley, first baseman Justin Smoak and opening-day left fielder Mike Carp. This was also another season lost to injury for Franklin Gutierrez.

Jesus Montero had his moments as a rookie, but struggled against right-handed pitching and raised doubts about his ability to catch full-time.

John Jaso was arguably the team's best hitter, albeit in a part-time role. Casper Wells, Eric Thames, Carlos Peguero and Trayvon Robinson got playing time, but did not emerge as full-time outfielders.

"If you could bring the right person, or persons, in here that have a little bit of experience, to help the offense, that would be a top priority," Zduriencik said.

On the pitching front, the rotation was again led by Hernandez, with Jason Vargas a quality innings-eater. Hisashi Iwakuma had a strong second half, but he's a free agent. Kevin Millwood won't be back. Hector Noesi struggled badly, while Erasmo Ramirez and Blake Beavan should compete for back-end slots.

None of the team's top prospect trio of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton or Taijuan Walker made it to the big leagues yet as hoped.

The bullpen was anchored by new closer Tom Wilhelmsen and cost-controlled arms Charlie Furbush, Lucas Luetge, Shawn Kelley, Stephen Pryor, Josh Kinney and Carter Capps. The biggest upgrade was the left side, lacking in previous years and helped by pending free agent Oliver Perez.

But Zduriencik's bullpens have always been strong. The Mariners still appear to need additional corner infielders and outfielders. Miguel Olivo won't be back, so they also likely require a catcher to bridge the gap to recently-drafted Mike Zunino.

"I think a lot of young kids have gotten their feet wet," Zduriencik said of his team. "I still think there's work to be done, no question about it."

Some of the gains this year could enable the Mariners to take a shot at .500 in 2013, especially with Safeco Field modifications and 19 new divisional games against the Astros. But until major offensive upgrades are made, avoiding a fourth consecutive fourth-place finish looks like a challenge.

Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286 or gbaker@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @gbakermariners.

Read his daily blog at www.seattletimes.com/Mariners

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