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September 27, 2010 at 6:23 AM

Mariners future looks younger, but how much brighter will depend on several players upping their games

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Around the game, you see evidence of fan bases linking youth to improvement, though the two don’t always go hand-in-hand. Around these parts, the focus on the next Mariners youth movement always tends to bring a sense of optimism, given how dreary the present-day has often looked.
But an influx of youth does not always mean improvment. We can all look back to 2007, when Adam Jones, Wladimir Balentien, Brandon Morrow and Jeff Clement were being hailed as future saviors of the franchise. Jones brought back highly-touted pitcher Erik Bedard in a trade, of course, but has struggled since the first few months of 2009 and hasn’t exactly led the Orioles to the promised land. Morrow appears to be starting to find himself in Toronto.
Both Balentien and Clement were also trade and are inching closer to “bust” status. Can’t forget Carlos Triunfel, who is still quite young and still could have a promising future. But the hype surrounding him back in 2007 has died down considerably.
The point is, a youth movement is only as good as the players themselves, not their ages. This season, with everything going to pieces at the major league level, there has been a concerted effort by the Mariners to keep fans focused on the minor leagues. We’ve heard all about the playoff exploits of Seattle’s minor league affiliates from the Clinton Lumberkings, to the Everett AquaSox and higher.
And yes, the Tacoma Rainiers winning the PCL was a deal and something to be proud of. But the minor leagues are about developing players, not winning championships. The two accomplishments don’t always go hand-in-hand. Being a champion in AAA or AA does not always make a player major league-ready. And in the end, the success of Seattle’s minor league system and latest youth movement will be gauged by how well those guys perform.
For now, I’d say M’s fans should be a little more cautious with their optimism.

Not telling you to abandon all hope. Please, don’t take it that way. It’s been exciting to watch Dan Cortes strike out four of the first six batters he’s faced with uncanny control that has allowed him to be dominant without resorting yet to the 100 mph stuff he’s capable of.
And Matt Mangini has been a pleasant surprise, notching four hits already in his first three games. Whether he truly factors into this team’s plansor not remains to be seen.
But those two are not yet the difference between this team contending or simply being middle-of-the-pack in years to come.
Right now, Seattle seems destined to have a number of players pushing the door to the majors and who will start to arrive in 2011 and 2012. But their mere arrival won’t make the Mariners into a contender.
After all, Yuniesky Betancourt “arrived” years ago and many fans last season popped champagne corks when he finally departed.
Looking at the youth movement expected to infiltrate Seattle next season, we’ve seen little in the way of major league results so far to justify anything but cautious optimism at best.
The best that can be said about Adam Moore and Michael Saunders is that 2010 marked their first chance to play every day for prolonged periods.
Moore is hitting just .188 with a .489 on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS). Even catchers need to hit much better than that. Remember Rene Rivera? You do?
Saunders had a good month of July, but, after some injuries, is down to a .202 average and .645 OPS. That’s not going to cut it as an everyday corner outfielder.
We wrote back in July that the final two months of the season were going to be big for both players and neither has really stepped up to the point where anyone can consider them future locks. They may get more chances yet, but we’ll have to wait and see how the team responds to the results they’ve posted.
Let’s look at other players.
Justin Smoak had a pair of hits yesterday to boost his average to .178 with a .449 OPS. Clearly, the M’s expect more from their first baseman of the future.
Dustin Ackley will soon be playing in the Arizona Fall League and could be in the major league lineup at some point next season. In his first 52 games at AAA, he hit .274 with a .338 on-base percentage and .439 slugging percentage. Those are solid numbers but not yet game-changers.
It’s worth remembering this was merely Ackley’s first full season of professional ball and he’s handled it quite well. But the Mariners are counting on their No. 2 overall pick from 2009 to develop into a .300 hitter with extra-base gap power at the major league level. Not just in AAA. He’s not there yet. We’ll know a lot more about him next year.
Nick Franklin is being groomed as this team’s shortstop of the future. His first full season of Class A ball saw him hit .283 with an .841 OPS. He also went 2-for-4 in one AA game to cap a solid first pro season after being drafted 27th overall last year.
So, he’s another guy with potential. But he’s yet to play a real AA season yet and projecting him to contribute anything substantial to the major league team before 2013 seems a stretch.
Remember, Saunders broke into the majors last year and is hitting just .202 this season with a week to go. So, he won’t contribute anything substantial before 2011.
So, how long do the M’s wait on all these guys? Well, the guys in the majors will likely get more time to show something. Some hitting coaches say players need 1,500 to 2,000 plate appearances in the majors before their talent level can be seriously gauged.
But those numbers aren’t hard and fast. There has to be progress made each stop of the way. Teams aren’t going to keep a bunch of .200 hitters in the everyday lineup for three or four seasons until they reach that magical 1,500-to-2,000 mark.
So, in the cases of Saunders, Moore and Smoak, they are still at the very bottom of where they need to be and the team will be looking for marked improvement next season if all three are indeed brought back.
For plate appearances, you have:
Saunders — 432
Smoak — 368
Moore — 226
So, all three are well below the 1,500 minimum I’ve described. But again, for them to reach that minimum, they’ll have to elevate their games beyond the Mendoza-line type of stuff that’s been delivered. No one is saying they should be dropped now. Young players have to be given time to produce.
But it’s not unlimited time. This trio could well be taking up 33 percent of next year’s starting lineup and must up their game.
Because it’s not on the mound where this team has to improve in order to be anything close to a contender. Right now, it’s just impossible to see that happening to enough of a degree in 2011, and frankly, given what we’ve seen, 2012 seems a stretch if this team is truly going to build through youth.
Ackley and Franklin will both need time to mature, break into the bigs and then up their games as well.
So, by all means, get excited by some of what we’ve seen. But remember, being young and being young and great are two different things. We’re starting to see the youth arrive. We can be cautiously optimistic that some of those players will blossom into what’s expected.
But for me, it’s far too premature — based on the evidence at hand — to suggest the future looks “great” based on the youth movement we’re seeing. And until some of these players up their games, it’s far too soon to suggest this team truly is headed in the right direction.
Right now, the best we can say is it’s headed in a younger, cheaper direction. But a lot of stuff has to happen in the interim for this team to be a contender any time soon. Stuff that includes the players we’ve mentioned producing the minimum of what’s expected of major league hitters and then the team making the requisite trades and expenditures needed to fill in the gaps.
They don’t call it “rebuilding” for nothing. And this project, already two years in, could take a while yet.



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