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Tuesday, July 3, 2012 - Page updated at 08:00 p.m.

Jerry Brewer
Mariners' second half will define rebuilding plan

By Jerry Brewer
Seattle Times staff columnist

Halfway through this half-empty season, the Mariners are starting to induce more yawns than frustration. They're about as entertaining as an accountant comedy hour. They put the "un" in fun.

It's not a surprise — the franchise has been quite open about its intent to rebuild incrementally — yet it's still astonishing. The Mariners finally have a plan that they seem committed to, which you wanted. They have young players with praiseworthy talent and temperament. They have had games that seem like glimpses of a grand future. But their offensive shortcomings are so interminable and their lows are so inconceivable you're left to scream, then belittle, then snore.

This can't last much longer. In fact, the second half of this 2012 season should serve as a defining period for general manager Jack Zduriencik's plan.

The Mariners lost 95 games last season. Right now, they're on pace to lose 94. That's tortoise progress, at least on the surface. Problem is, under the surface, several prized youngsters continue to flail about in the big leagues, and though there's no standard timeline for baseball players to develop, this is troubling.

So here's the deal with the Mariners: If they don't show significant improvement in the second half, everything they're doing will come into question again. And detonation — which would ensure many more years of misery — will be an option.

Even if the Mariners do improve greatly, they can't afford to have another season of recess with the kids in 2013. They have to speed up things by making smart, strategic free-agent signings to help the franchise break out of its offensive ineptitude.

You've seen enough already to know that change is coming. The question over the final 81 games is how much.

Zduriencik needs progress the most. I still believe he's the right man for this rebuilding job because he and his staff know young talent. But pro sports are full of people who don't get to finish their work. The Mariners are about to endure their third straight season of 90-plus losses after a surprising 85-77 season during Year 1 under Zduriencik.

Overall, this would be the franchise's fourth season of at least 90 losses in the last five years and their sixth since 2004. And the Mariners haven't been to the playoffs since 2001. Of course, much of that isn't Zduriencik's fault. He is trying to get the franchise out of a hole. But this is his burden, and you fear that he could become a scapegoat because he doesn't have a magic wand.

Most key pieces of the Mariners' plan are struggling. First baseman Justin Smoak, who is supposed to be the franchise's next quality power hitter, is fighting to keep a .200 batting average. Second baseman Dustin Ackley, who is supposed to be a left-handed hitting machine, hasn't had a month in which he's posted at least a .280 batting average or a .750 on-base-plus-slugging percentage since last August. Catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero drove in one run in June.

For the Mariners to build a contender without major alterations, that trio must become the heart of the team. Right now, the Mariners are left to make excuses for why this is taking so long. Montero is understandable; he's essentially a rookie. Ackley is concerning, but this is his first full season. Smoak is in his third season of significant action, and his fuse is shorter.

If not for the hype of pitching prodigies Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, if not for the emergence of Kyle Seager and the improvement of Michael Saunders, the Mariners might have a grave forecast. It's way too soon to give in and try something else, but the progress report is worrisome. And oft-criticized Mariners chairman Howard Lincoln might do what the Mariners do best: ineffectual change.

"If everybody takes care of their backyard, the wins will take care of themselves," manager Eric Wedge said Sunday.

It's important to note that the Seahawks were in a similar position at midseason last year. They were 2-6 and a disaster on offense. Then, they responded by winning five of six games, and though they lost their last two and finished 7-9, the turnaround convinced fans of their potential. Now, the playoffs are realistic.

Baseball is a different sport, but the Mariners' young talent could show itself in a similar fashion. If they stay the same team that has hit under .240 since 2010, that's a major problem. But if they regress, that's a disaster.

"If myself and some others step it up, I think we will be a lot better," Ackley said.

Well, at least the Mariners play more at Safeco Field than on the road the rest of the way. Oh, wait: Entering Monday's game, they were hitting only .197 at home.

This period of infuriating patience ambles on, for now. But not much longer.

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

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