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Originally published Saturday, March 30, 2013 at 8:01 PM

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Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik likes to find hitters, let them develop power

Uncovering future power hitters is far from an exact science. The Mariners hope some of the young hitters in their farm system can become consistent sluggers in the major leagues.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Power hitting has become the scarcest, and thus most valuable, commodity in baseball. Scouts scour the country trying to project youngsters who will develop tape-measure potential. General managers thirst to draft the next Prince Fielder, or uncover the next Jose Bautista.

Power arms? Still highly coveted, but no longer such a rare find. While teenagers who can throw 95-mph plus have become increasingly prolific, those with light-tower power have dwindled. Blame steroids testing, blame other sports like football and soccer raiding the best athletes, but as home-run totals have declined in the major leagues since the insane levels of the 1990s and early 2000s, so have the number of power prospects in the minor-league pipeline.

It was why Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik was emboldened to trade an All-Star pitcher, Michael Pineda, to the Yankees for Jesus Montero, one of most highly touted power prospects in baseball. And it is why Carlos Peguero and Alex Liddi, strapping yet inconsistent would-be sluggers, are kept by the Mariners on the chance that the proverbial light goes on, and they can harness their strength and turn into late-blooming David Ortizes.

As the Mariners strive to increase their power at the major-league level, they hope that their minor-league system will soon churn out other legitimate candidates. Since the days of Alex Rodriguez and Ken Griffey Jr., the Mariners have not been particularly successful at developing power. The only 30-plus homer hitters to come out of their system since Rodriguez (No. 1 overall pick in 1993) were Jose Cruz Jr. (31 for the Blue Jays in 2000, 34 for the Blue Jays in 2001), Raul Ibanez (33 for the Mariners in 2006, 34 for the Phillies in 2009) and Adam Jones (32 for the Orioles last season).

Yes, four of those five seasons were for teams other than Seattle. Zduriencik aims to turn that around, and the key, he said, is to find hitters, then let the power develop later.

"Hitting is tough to find," he said. "Going back to my days in Milwaukee, one thing I was really big on was getting hitters, and we did get hitters. As important as pitching is, and it's enormously important, pitching does come from all over the board. You'll see low-round picks, or later-round picks, just come on, because of the nature of players developing.

"It's an interesting thing with hitters. There are guys who can hit the baseball, then there are your pure hitters. There aren't an enormous amount of really good pure hitters. When you find one and can secure one, it's worth a lot of value."

In 2002, when Zduriencik was Milwaukee's scouting director, he used his first-round pick, No. 7 overall, on a beefy high schooler named Prince Fielder. Many draft analysts thought it was a reach.

"I made the statement in the draft room: I did not take Prince because of Prince's power. I took Prince because I thought he was the best hitter in the country that year," Zduriencik said. "He just happened to have power.

"Young guys are hard to predict. I've always been of the belief that even when I would go out and scout, without a doubt, I'd always take a hitter over a power guy. We've all seen a tremendous numbers of players who can hit the ball as far as anybody, but they're never able to hit. Therefore, you take the hitter with the good swing, and they have a chance for the power to develop."

Zduriencik still believes that Montero, Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders can evolve into consistent power hitters. On the farm, the breakout candidates are harder to identify, because the development process is an inexact science.

Who knows if a tall, thin, raw teenager like Gabriel Guerrero, who has the blood lines of his uncle Vladimir, will be the one? Or how about Jesus Ugueto, just 21, who hit .388 last year in the Venezuelan Summer League with a .554 slugging percentage and was named the league's most valuable player? Numerous players have the physique, and the strength, but not yet the skill and/or experience — Joe Dunigan, Leon Landry, Taylor Ard, Steven Proscia, James Jones, Julio Morban and Danny Almonte.

Maybe it never will come, and they'll be modern-day versions of Wily Mo Pena, who put on the best batting-practice shows you'd ever want to see, but never could figure out how to hit the breaking ball. That's what the minor-leagues are for — trying to find the rare gems, and being patient in the weeding-out process.

"We may not have at this moment a 40-homer hitter staring us in the eyes," Zduriencik said. "But I do know guys develop."

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


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