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Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

February 7, 2011 at 1:05 PM

Five key players for Mariners in 2011

No, Alex Rodriguez is not a key player for the Mariners in 2011. This clip of Cameron DIaz feeding him popcorn at the Super Bowl just cracks me up every time. One more kernal of ammunition for his detractors.

Now that we have that pesky Super Bowl behind us — viewed by a mere 111 million people, making it the most watched show in television history — it’s time to turn full attention to the fast approaching spring training.

The American League West is still sorting itself out, with the Rangers finding itself in a real mess involving Michael Young. Squeezed out of a job by the acquisition of Adrian Beltre and Mike Napoli, Young apparently wants out, but the Rangers don’t want to accomodate him without getting fair value in return. We haven’t heard the last of this one, obviously. If Young stays around, with all this trade talk swirling, it’s going to be an awkward situation heading into camp.

The Mariners, meanwhile, seem to be more or less set, at least for now. Oh, they could still add some more non-roster players, along the lines of Adam Kennedy, Jody Gerut and Gabe Gross. But I would be surprised to see an impactful move prior to Sunday’s reporting date, now that the Chone Figgins to Oakland buzz seems to have expired, and with David Aardsma, a prime trade chip, out of commission following hip surgery.

The Mariners’ primary moves this winter have been low-key — signing catcher Miguel Olivo and DH Jack Cust as free agents, and trading for shortstop Brendan Ryan. They clearly are using this is a transition year — feel free to substitute “rebuilding” for “transition” — and relying on two factors for an upgrade over last year’s disaster: an infusion of young players, and vast improvement from all the players who under-achieved last year.

In that light, here is my list of five key players heading into 2011. If these guys come through, suddenly the Mariners can envision better times ahead — nothing crazy like a division title, mind you, but at least competitive baseball in 2011 and the prospect of realistic contention in the foreseeable future. It’s real easy to come up with a worst-case scenario for the Mariners that’s nearly as bleak as last year. But with enough turnarounds and breakthroughs, the situation can brighten considerably.

I didn’t put Felix Hernandez or Ichiro on this list, because I think we all know what they’re capable of doing. I’m looking at guys that for various reasons are question marks, players whom the Mariners need to have strong seasons. Obviously, there’s more than five of those, but these are the ones I feel are the most crucial.

1) Justin Smoak. Jack Zduriencik staked a considerable amount of reputation on Smoak as the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade in July. Just to add to the fun, Mariner fans will be able to compare Smoak’s progress with that of highly touted Yankee catcher Jesus Montero, whom Zduriencik could have had, but opted for the Smoak package instead.

Smoak was a mixed bag last year, looking overmatched when he first arrived, but returning from Tacoma as a totally different player in mid-September. Over the final 10 games of the season, Smoak put up a .444/.537/.794 slash line, with 15 hits in 34 at-bats, including three doubles, three homers and nine RBIs. Was it a mirage? Who knows? Multitudes of players have tantalized with September outbursts, only to flame out in April. But if Smoak, a switch-hitter, can provide a potent power bat in the middle of the order, well, the entire dynamic of the Mariners’ lineup changes. That’s a lot to put on someone who hasn’t even had a full season in the majors — 100 games, to be exact — but as their lineup is currently constructed, a smokin’ Smoak is essential.

2) Erik Bedard. Speaking of changing dynamics, imagine the Mariner rotation with a healthy and effective Bedard to compliment Hernandez. Suddenly, Jason Vargas and Doug Fister can be middle- to back-end guys, where they more logically fit, and there would be less pressure on a youngster like Michael Pineda to come through.

But counting on Bedard is iffy, as we’ve seen. He’s had three shoulder surgeries since being acquired by the Mariners, and didn’t throw a single pitch in the majors last year. All the reports on Bedard are encouraging, but until he shows he can step on a mound and pitch in game situations without having shoulder pain, it’s going to be hard to count on Bedard. Nevertheless, a healthy Bedard has shown he can be a dominating major-league pitcher. A Hernandez/Bedard combo atop the rotation would be formidable.

3) Michael Saunders. There’s no question Saunders has all the tools to be a solid major-league outfielder — and that might be selling his potential short. But at age 24, with parts of two seasons under his belt, it’s time for Saunders to show he deserves to play every day. So far, in 146 games over those two seasons, he’s hit just .214. But he’s shown enough flashes of power and athleticism to see the makings of a five-tool guy if he can put it together. Right now, left field looks like a potential headache for the Mariners if Saunders flops, with only non-roster guys like Ryan Langerhans, Gerut and Gross, or the problematic Milton Bradley, as fallbacks. But if Saunders can turn the position into a positive, the M’s fortunes will be much brighter.

4) Chone Figgins. Last year, was half a disaster for Figgins, who clashed with manager Don Wakamatsu, struggled in the transition to second base (and second in the batting order), and early on was far from the dynamic presence the Mariners envisioned when they gave him that four-year, $36 million contract.

But right about the time he and Wakamatsu got in their dugout row in late July, Figgins’ season transformed itself. From July 25 through the end of the season, he hit .302 with a .358 on-base percentage. If he can sustain that from the start in 2011, perhaps Figgins and Ichiro can be the instigators the M’s were counting on last year.

5) Dustin Ackley. I highly doubt we will even see Ackley in Seattle until around June. But if he can come up at that time and provide an instant impact, then not only will it energize this year’s lineup, but it will provide great hope for the future. The Mariners see Ackley as a star, a future batting title contender who will develop some pop as he gets older and stronger. They can kind of use one of those.

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