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Originally published March 30, 2013 at 5:29 PM | Page modified March 30, 2013 at 10:21 PM

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Mariners have arrived at winning time

Jack Zduriencik chooses words as carefully as a foodie picks ingredients. He won't be caught adding an unnecessary dash of hyperbole or...

Times staff columnist

Monday, season opener

Mariners @ Oakland, 7:05 p.m., ROOT Sports

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Jack Zduriencik chooses words as carefully as a foodie picks ingredients. He won't be caught adding an unnecessary dash of hyperbole or criticism. He's rarely too frank for his own good. It's like he has an editor serving as a middle man for his brain and tongue.

So when the Mariners general manager says something noteworthy, you can't miss it. And last month, amid an encouraging spring training from this ever-rebuilding franchise, Zduriencik did not hesitate to put some clear expectations on the 2013 Mariners.

"Now, we want to win," he said.

OK, so that's not exactly the Joe Namath Super Bowl guarantee, but we're talking about Zduriencik here. In his first four seasons, Jack Z did his best to manage, or even minimize, expectations. He didn't talk about winning now; he talked about building with the dream of winning big later. He talked about process. You understood, but who couldn't help an occasional eye roll?

Now, though, every indicator says the Mariners should present their best product since they finished 85-77 in 2009, Zduriencik's first season as the personnel honcho.

If they continue at the same rate of improvement they've had under field manager Eric Wedge, the Mariners will finish above .500. If their upgrades on offense (Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse chief among them) pan out, they could be even better. And if their young position players make major progress, too, it could be a special breakthrough season.

Yes, there are concerns with these Mariners, the most troubling being a largely unproven starting rotation. And if an optimist can make hopeful projections about this team, it's just as easy for a pessimist to make dreary ones. But isn't it about time for the Mariners to land closer to the best-case scenario?

"We know what kind of team we can be," Morse said. "And we're very confident we will get there."

When the Mariners begin another 162-game endurance test Monday in Oakland, expect to see a more refined product that can back up its legitimate confidence. The unflinching Felix Hernandez leads the Mariners now, and ever since he has become the face of the franchise, the Mariners have been a more united and passionate team.

You saw it during the closing months of the 2012 season, after Ichiro was traded and King Felix was truly put atop that throne. Then the Mariners gave Hernandez that $175 million contract to end questions about his future in Seattle. Hernandez has responded with gratitude and a sense of mission, and as a result, it's evident that the entire clubhouse is learning lessons about taking pride in wearing the Mariners uniform. He is the standard for all of these young players who want to grow up in Seattle and get rewarded for their success.

I haven't seen a Mariners team this invested in trying to play the right way since I arrived in Seattle seven years ago.

Of course, we'll see how that holds up through losing streaks and hitting slumps and criticism and roster tweaks. But right now, this is a serious baseball team with a chip on its shoulder and enough offensive weapons to transform its biggest weakness into something far more entertaining.

You can reference the Mariners' record-setting spring-training power numbers, but it's deeper than that. Spring-training stats aren't as important as observing the overall approach of hitters, deciphering whether they've worked on weaknesses and determining how the lineup fits together.

Undoubtedly, the Mariners will have a better offense this season. Morales and Morse aren't superstars, but they give the franchise legitimate power hitters and run producers in the Nos. 3 and 4 spots. The Mariners don't have a true leadoff hitter who will get on base regularly, which figures to be a problem and may contribute to offensive inconsistency. But from Nos. 5-8 in the lineup, the Mariners could be especially dangerous because there isn't as much pressure on the likes of Kyle Seager, Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero and Dustin Ackley.

The Mariners aren't exactly the 1927 Yankees. They won't strike fear in pitchers across baseball. But they will be able to capitalize on the new dimensions at Safeco Field, and the offense will be an upgrade over the epically bad showings of the past three years.

Will it be enough to win? Well, the starting rotation needs to be at least in the middle of the pack after Hernandez. But it's not like the Mariners don't have talent there.

The Mariners have walked every step of this rebuilding process. First, they had to acquire young talent and create a system based on player development. Next, they had to turn over the big-league roster and go young. Then, they had to endure the young players being in over their heads. Then, last season, they started to demand production from those players.

Now, with some added veterans, they want to win. Now, they have to win. We're not asking for 95 wins, but if they're progressing on schedule, 85 wins would look good.

Even Zduriencik won't couch those expectations. Well, not too much.

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

On Twitter @JerryBrewer

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