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Originally published March 30, 2013 at 8:06 PM | Page modified April 2, 2013 at 12:41 PM

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Mariners' hopes built on power, veteran leadership

Mariners newcomers say they like the attitude in the clubhouse. They're optimistic about helping the team reverse its low-scoring, losing ways of recent seasons.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Home runs on downward trend in majors

The Mariners hope their decision to swing for the (moved-in) fences produces more home runs this season. In the major leagues, home runs have topped 5,000 only once since 2006. Total home runs reached 5,000 for the first time in 1998, the year Mark McGwire hit 70, and topped out at 5,693 in 2000. There were 4,934 home runs hit last season, 13.3 percent fewer than in 2000.

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Veteran outfielder Raul Ibanez was with the Mariners for the best and worst of times during a four-team career that seems destined to end where it all began.

And those worst of times don't even include the 2010 season. Ibanez had already left when the Mariners were racked by 101 losses, a historic offensive collapse and internal strife that resulted in a housecleaning of coaches and players. That housecleaning — only part of it involved a rebuilding process still ongoing — finally appears done and it's a spanking new abode in which Ibanez and other veterans have unpacked their bags.

For some, the stopover might be brief. There's no denying a good deal of the team's new look was achieved with players here on only one-year deals.

But it's also tough to deny that the Mariners will head into the 2013 season with a power-fueled look and positive clubhouse vibe vastly different from previous years. And to hear Ibanez and others, there's no reason this Mariners group can't hang with the bigger boys deep into the summer months.

"I wasn't here the past few years, obviously, but there's a really good feeling in here now," said Ibanez, who spent the past four seasons with playoff-bound Phillies and Yankees squads. "I've been other places where teams have had success, so I know some of what goes into that. I know what it feels like to be in a good environment. I think we have a lot of that right here, right now."

The most evident change should come in the power department, with the Safeco Field fences moving in, primarily in left-center field. If veteran imports produce to their norms and young players show even moderate development, this lineup could sport several 20-homer guys.

The Mariners haven't had six players hit 20 home runs in the same season since the playoff-bound 1997 Mariners lit up the Kingdome behind Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Alex Rodriguez and Jay Buhner. (Trivia answer: Paul Sorrento and Russ Davis were the others who hit at least 20 home runs that year).

But the quieter changes beyond long-awaited offensive fireworks will likely come, as Ibanez suggested, through a new environment. The Mariners arguably created this franchise's most competitive spring camp in a decade, with players young and old pushed to win jobs and elevate their games.

Ibanez isn't the only newcomer with playoff experience. The slugger directly opposite him all spring in the clubhouse, Michael Morse, came from the National League East champion Washington Nationals.

A few feet to Morse's left, there's Kendrys Morales, groomed with a perennially-contending Los Angeles Angels squad. Across from him, there's Robert Andino, whose wild-card winning Baltimore Orioles gave Ibanez and his Yankees fits in last year's AL Division Series before finally succumbing.

That cluster of players has had conversations about shared winning experiences. And while none will flat-out predict an Orioles, or Oakland Athletics-style playoff run out of nowhere, they advise not to rule it out.

"We went out there last year and we had nothing to lose," Andino said of his Orioles. "Because everybody already had us finishing last. And it's the same thing over here. I was over there talking to Ibanez, (Michael) Saunders and (Justin) Smoak and over here, it's almost the same thing as we (the Orioles) had last year.

"Why not us? Because actually, we've got a pretty good team. Why not? The ball's still round. The base is still 90 feet away."

The optimism is similar to 2009, when the Mariners brought in Griffey and Mike Sweeney after a 101-loss debacle in 2008. They fostered a team-oriented atmosphere, bridged gaps between Latin American and U.S.-born players and made Ichiro feel more included, just as Felix Hernandez was taking off as an elite pitcher.

That team opened 5-2 on the road the first week, contended through July and won 85 games.

The difference between that Griffey-Sweeney-fueled renaissance and now is the talent level of those altering the dynamic. Griffey was winding down as a productive player and he and Sweeney exited baseball the following season as the goodwill they'd fostered collapsed around them.

This year's new, playoff-seasoned veteran imports are still largely in their primes. Morse is 31, Morales is 29, and both put up solid totals last year despite one being hurt and the other slowly coming back from injury.

Andino, 28, was also hurt part of last year but seems a big improvement over Munenori Kawasaki as a utility infielder. His versatility will allow the Mariners to carry just one backup infielder and use another roster spot on a bigger outfield bat.

Even Ibanez, who turns 41 in June, had an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .828 last season facing the right-handed pitchers he'll again be primarily used against. In 2009, Griffey had a .718 OPS in his primary role facing right-handers.

And unlike Griffey, Ibanez seems at ease with a scaled-back role. A pervasive theme in recent years has been an uncomfortable mood surrounding veterans in the final stages of their careers.

While angst-ridden veterans weren't always as high maintenance as Milton Bradley, younger players were still forced into some tiptoeing around them. The Mariners have shed Ichiro, Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo, whose need to salvage their careers was becoming incompatible with goals of a rebuilding squad.

This year's veteran cast doesn't have quite that feel of desperation.

The offensive changes are all about jump-starting production. After historically bad totals in 2010 and 2011, then league-worst numbers last year, the team's offense should no longer be a laughingstock.

Morse and Morales have hit 30-plus homers in a season and showed this spring they are still mid-order threats. By hitting them third and fourth, the team hopes they'll guide younger players like Smoak, Jesus Montero, Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager.

Montero could be helped most by the incoming fences because he's a right-handed batter and his deepest hits go to left and left-center. He hit 15 homers last year — only six at home — at age 22.

Long balls aside, the Mariners hope Safeco Field's changes make their hitters better overall. The Mariners had an OPS of .703 on the road last year, .623 at home.

The flip side, of course, is that opposing hitters should do better in Seattle as well.

In bolstering their offense, the Mariners had little money left for pitching upgrades, or a true leadoff hitter. They likely sacrificed outfield defense as well.

There's also the temporary nature of the imports. Even with improvement from youngsters, the Mariners would breathe easier if they can keep some veterans beyond this year.

For now, 2013 does appear to hold changes. How big they become will likely depend on the team starting off strong — as it did in 2009 — and consistently maintaining that higher level of play.

"We're all happy, we're all working together and we're all united," Morales said. "So, we're just going to see what happens out on the field. But it does make a difference that we're all together. I'm not familiar with the other teams of the past. But we've got a good group."

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


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