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June 28, 2012 at 11:54 AM

Mariners losing a game of adjustments that will be critical to their rebuilding efforts

Plenty of talk about the Mariners last night during my one-hour show on Sports Radio KJR, which you can listen to above. We devoted much of the hour to discussing the need of the team’s younger players to start adjusting to what Major League pitchers are doing to them. And I’ll say it once more: the ability of these young players to make needed adjustments is going to go a long way towards determining whether they develop into the caliber of hitter needed to take this team beyond the AL West basement.
I’ve seen some positive development this year. I like what Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders have shown for a half-season on a mostly consistent basis. I am also impressed by what I’ve seen out of the bullpen from Tom Wilhelmsen and Charlie Furbush. There are some key pieces emerging that could form part of a good team down the road.
But it isn’t happening quickly enough. Not because I’m in a hurry to cover a contender, which matters not in any objective analysis. No, I’m saying it isn’t happening enough for this team to win something that matters while Felix Hernandez is still under contract through 2014.
That clock is ticking away quickly, whether or not Mariners fans are prepared to deal with it. If this team isn’t ready to contend by 2014, then the question of whether or not to trade Hernandez — who pitches tonight against the Boston Red Sox — has to begin in earnest by this off-season.
So, that’s the way I’m going to frame this. Sure, the Mariners can keep letting all of their players develop on a “natural” scale and spend the three or four years it took even Adam Jones in Baltimore to click in at an elite level.
The only thing is, if that is the route this team is going to take — without a major cash infusion from ownership to bring in top-level free agents to supplement the rebuild — then you’re looking at a team that probably won’t contend before 2015 or 2016 if everything goes right. Because some of the players we’re looking at right now who are not making the required adjustments, pre-dating this season, are Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley. These are two of the main cornerstones of this rebuilding plan, the foundation of this Jack Zduriencik blueprint.
And until we know where they’re headed, it’s foolish to start making assumptions about any contention over the next two years. So, they both have a critical second half coming up, not because I say so, but because this team has to figure out the Felix Hernandez dilemna and doesn’t have unlimited time to do it.
The other thing to consider when discussing any rebuilding plan and scenario for player development is the context in which it’s occuring. Again, because it doesn’t matter how it happened for the Milwaukee Brewers, or the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Mariners play in the AL West, not the NL West or NL Central.
In the AL West, you have two free-spending teams in the Rangers and Angels that are now running away and hiding in the division. As expected by many, the Rangers have the best record in the AL and the Angels are holding down the No. 1 wild-card position. That’s the reality of what the Mariners have to overcome to get to the post-season at some point. And those waiting for the Angels to collapse under the weight of their free-agent spending? Sorry, never bought into that. The Angels are en route to developing their own future young core — behind guys like Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo — who are arguably better than anything the Mariners have.
And they are doing this development by surrounding the young players with proven veterans who can take the heat off them and not make them the lone focal point of everything that’s going on. The Angels are doing the same development the Mariners are, only they’re trying to win something in the interim as well.
Again, don’t just take my word for it. There are plenty of people in and around the game who feel the same way.
One of them, former Mariners pitcher Mark Langston, now does color commentary work for the Angels radio broadcast crew. He was on 710 ESPN Seattle — the Mariners flagship station — the other day and had some similar observations when asked how to judge what the future looks like for the M’s.
“You have to look at which division you play in and who you’re playing against and your competition and how you’re going to size up against them,” Langston said. “The Texas Rangers are pretty danged powerful, the Angels have spent a lot of money. They are greatly increased in their abilities. The Mariners are a young team, they’re a team that’s growing. There are going to be a lot of growing pains with them. I might push the panic meter a little bit with the ballclub.”

Which pitching matchup scheduled for Thursday intrigues you more?

The panic meter? Why that, if this team is growing and not expected to contend this year? After all, the stated objective of so many proponents of this “play the kids” rebuild is that you have to wait through the growing pains and see the little seedlings bloom into flowers, or something like this.
And Langston admits he’s a fan of Seager and calls him “a future star”.
He also likes Ackley, but notes he’s underachieving. He likes Jesus Montero’s bat, but isn’t sure he’ll become the catcher the Mariners envision.
He’s a fan of the team’s bullpen and likes starters Hernandez and Jason Vargas.
“As I break it down, yes, they are I think better than what they’ve shown this year,” Langston said. “But when you look at the big scheme of things, what’s the ultimate goal? It’s to get to the post season and to get to the world championship and I think they’re far from that.”
One of the reasons, again, is the way the youngters are developing, not just in Seattle but elsewhere in the division. He compares Angels outfielder Trout to Ken Griffey Jr., a hitter Langston faced in the majors.
Langston goes on to discuss the need for young players to show they can adjust as we attempt to judge their development.
“It’s getting these guys to understand what these guys on the mound are trying to do to them,” he said. “So, when you start evaluating, you start to look and see that these guys are making these adjustments we just talked about. If they are not, then we’ve got problems.”
And what if they aren’t adjusting, as manager Eric Wedge suggested yesterday?
“That’s the big risk when you bring these young guys up to the big league level,” Langston said. “And if they don’t succeed, now if you try to make a move from a trade standpoint, you’ve lost serious value in a Dustin Ackley.”
Langston talked about how highly-touted young infield prospect Brandon Wood once was for the Angels, who had to let him go for nothing when he proved a big league bust.
“It’s just a hard scenario,” Langston said of the Mariners. “And unfortunately they’re in a division now with two teams that have really spent money and really have invested into trying to win. How long that goes, who knows?”
He’s not saying that Smoak and Ackley are automatically going to go the way of Wood or that all hope is now lost in Seattle. He’s just spelling out the challenge of what lies ahead and doing so, I believe, a bit more realistically than what some of the analysis I’ve seen locally had portrayed.
Again, doing analysis on a rebuilding plan involves more than repeatedly saying: “You have to let the young guys play!” Because the Mariners have let the young guys play and some of them are not showing anything close to what was expected. There are many ways to go about a rebuild and not all of them require five, six or seven years to pull off. Much of it depends on the willingness of ownership to speed things along through further financial investment in the product, especially if some of the building blocks to a rebuild don’t develop as expected.
That’s why, what Wedge said yesterday can’t be shrugged off as mere growing pains. There is an urgency to this situation if any of you out there are hoping this team can contend during the remaining time Felix Hernandez has with this ballclub.
Can the M’s pull it off? Sure they can. Smoak can turn around and have a monstrous second half, as can Ackley. If everything clicks, the Mariners could become a .500 team next year and maybe take a run at the top of the AL West by 2014.
But given what’s happened to this point, it’s bordering on somewhat foolish not to consider the alternative. That one of those guys, and possibly some others, including the young minor league pitchers, or Nick Franklin, won’t all gel together at once in time for Hernandez’s contract expiration date.
That the realistic contention date is 2015 and beyond. And if that’s the case, some radical changes are going to take place on this team before then, unless somebody can get Hernandez’s signature on a contract extension.
Believe me, all of this is going to play out within the next 13 months. It’s already started, which is why Wedge is running out of patience with the lack of adjustments seen throughout the lineup. No rebuilding plan has forever to take off. The Mariners are woefully underperforming even minimal expectations right now. That’s what is going to make the second half of the season so interesting.
We’re about to get some answers on guys. Perhaps more questions on others. And they may not be the ones some of us want to hear.

Comments | Topics: Jesus Montero


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