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Hot Stone League

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

March 18, 2011 at 11:06 AM

Mariner youth movement might not be immediately visible

smoakscores.jpg

(Justin Smoak could be the only youthful member of the Mariners’ likely starting lineup. Photo by Associated Press).

The popular wisdom is that the Mariners are going with a youth movement in 2011. But it’s sure starting to look like the team they will trot out at the beginning of the season won’t be very youthful.

I expect things to change as the season progresses, but as it stands now, the Seattle starting lineup is going to be decidely veteran-laden. By all accounts, Milton Bradley (age 32) is close to winning the left-field job over Michael Saunders (age 24), who has struggled at the plate while making adjustments to his swing. Will Saunders make the team out of spring training? That’s still up in the air, but the Mariners might well decide he’s better off playing every day in Tacoma as he hones his stroke.

At catcher, Miguel Olivo (age 32) is healing rapidly from his groin injury and might even be ready for Opening Day. At any rate, it won’t be long before he’s healthy and getting the bulk of the playing time behind the plate. That leaves Adam Moore (age 26) in limbo. He’ll either be Olivo’s backup, or be the every-day catcher in Tacoma with Josh Bard or Chris Gimenez backing up Olivo. Neither can be called youthful or prospects.

The only place in the every-day lineup that youth will definitely be served is at first base, where Justin Smoak (age 24, with just 116 days in the big leagues) will be playing every day. But elsewhere, the Mariners will have players age 30 or over at six of the remaining eight positions, plus a 29-year-old and a 28-year-old. Here’s how they’ll line up, by age and experience:

C: Miguel Olivo, age 32. Service time: 7 years, 171 days

1B: Justin Smoak: age 24: Service time: 0 years, 116 days

2B: Brendan Ryan: age 29. Service time: 3 years, 82 days

SS: Jack Wilson: age 33. Service time: 9 years, 147 days.

3B: Chone Figgins: age 33. Service time: 7 years, 145 days.

LF: Milton Bradley: age 32. Service time: 9 years, 169 days.

CF: Franklin Gutierrez: age 28. Service time: 4 years, 80 days.

RF: Ichiro: age 37. Service time: 10 years, 0 days.

DH: Jack Cust: age 32. Service time: 4 years, 148 days.

The starting rotation could have one very youthful addition: 22-year-old Michael Pineda, who has yet to make his major-league debut. But it’s still also possible that Pineda will start the season in the minors. There is a school of thought that he needs more time on the farm to develop his off-speed pitches — not to mention the potential benefits the Mariners would get in terms of arbitration and free-agent eligibility by holding him back.

Felix Hernandez is definitely still young — he turns 25 on April 8 — but he’s already been around in the majors for five-plus years. Erik Bedard is a veteran of seven seasons. Jason Vargas is 28 and already has three-plus years under his belt. Doug Fister spent all of last season in the majors, while Luke French, who would likely be the No. 5 starter if Pineda goes down, is unlikely to be one of the guys the Mariners build their future around.

Here’s how the rotation stacks up in terms of age and experience:

Felix Hernandez: age 24. Service time: 5 years, 60 days.

Jason Vargas: age 28. Service time: 3 years, 114 days.

Doug Fister: age 27. Service time: 1 year, 58 days.

Erik Bedard: age 32. Service time: 7 years, 171 days.

Michael Pineda (age 22, no major-league service time) or Luke French (age 25. Service time: 1 year, 16 days).

How the bullpen will stack up to start the season is anyone’s guess at the moment, with Brandon League at closer just about the only sure thing. One shot of youth could come from Josh Lueke (age 26), who has pitched well in spring. But most of the other remaining candidates skew toward the veteran side. Same with the bench players.

Now, all this doesn’t mean the Mariners aren’t going to start injecting youth onto their roster in the near future. They truly believe that many players are on the verge of bursting upon the scene — including the unknown player they will be selecting in June with the No. 2 pick in a very deep draft. As of now, most analysts are torn between Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon and UCLA pitcher Gerrit Cole as the likely No. 1 pick by the Pittsburgh Pirates — but both are expected to be on the fast-track to major-league stardom. So if the Mariners get one of those two, the pick could move fairly quickly through the system.

Meanwhile, barring an injury or major setback, it’s clear that Dustin Ackley will be taking over second base at some point this season — probably in early June. And Pineda, even if he starts out in Tacoma, should crack the rotation eventually this year. In a perfect world, Saunders would develop to the point he’s ready to get another crack at left, and Moore would play his way back into the catching picture.

The M’s will tell you that all sorts of exciting things are happening in player development. But at least at the start of the season, it’s looking like they’ll be more veteran than youthful.

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