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April 8, 2013 at 5:02 AM

This season will be a big test for Mariners vaunted ‘young core’ of players

The Mariners have imported several veterans to help the team improve, but it could all go for naught without the "young core" from past seasons continuing to develop.

The Mariners have imported several veterans to help the team improve, but it could all go for naught without the “young core” from past seasons continuing to develop.

ADDITIONAL NOTE 8:45 a.m. PT: If you missed my Talkin’ Baseball segment on Sports Radio KJR with host Mitch Levy this morning, you can hear it by clicking on the box below. We discussed the Mariners’ young core and other first-week observations.

Last night on the blog, one of the readers astutely pointed out that while I wrote that the team’s two top-of-the-order guys, Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez, have been getting on-base at a .333 clip, the lineup as a whole is only at .299.

Indeed, this early in the season, these numbers will fluctuate from game-to-game, but I decided to look into it further, since it seemed to me that the key elements of the lineup had been getting on and hitting for the power promised.

Two things on that:

No. 1, the older parts of the everyday lineup have been producing. This includes Michael Morse and Kendrys Morales, as well as the aforementioned Gutierrez and even Brendan Ryan.

The part that hasn’t produced up to now, with the exception of Saunders, is the team’s much-vaunted “young core” of players that has taken four-plus seasons to manufacture. Now again, I write this with the caveat that, clearly, it is far too early to make any type of call on anybody and I am not doing so today.

But just as clearly, in the fifth year of this rebuilding plan, those young players have to start delivering. This really isn’t a response to the 3-4 road trip, one in which I felt the Mariners fought hard and could have won every game in Chicago. It’s really just an early outline of what my own expectations are for the team this season beyond the predictions given a week ago.

There are no two ways about it. This young core has to make some definitive strides in 2013, both to help this team stay relevant in any playoff hunt and also to justify — yes, it’s been long enough into “The Plan” that we can use that word — what the last several seasons of utterly boring, irrelevant baseball have been about.

Anybody can embark on a 10-year rebuilding plan. That takes zero skill.

As far as an eight-or-nine-year plan, that’s also a recipe for disaster when it comes to the risk of potentially losing a generation of fans. Teams can’t just vanish into the ether for nearly a decade at a time under the guise of “rebuilding” while franchises hoard yearly profits and build long-term value while ignoring the season-ticket base and expecting them to watch mediocre-to-awful baseball.

There has been very little about the Mariners worth watching since the rebuilding plan began in 2009, other than one artificial 85-win season in which the 2008 core was gutted by GM Jack Zduriencik. That blew up in the team’s face in 2010 and the Mariners have been pretty horrible ever since while waiting for the “young core” to take shape. Well, this year, after the team turned a $6 million profit in 2012 with more last-place baseball, the Mariners finally brought some veterans in who actually knew how to hit and are putting a more MLB-looking lineup out there.

Payroll is still below where it was even two years ago, On-field payroll remains worse than last year, pegged by USA Today at $72 million for the Opening Day roster — 24th out of 30 in baseball. Now, that excludes $9 million still owed to Chone Figgins, a buyout on Miguel Olivo, plus major league salary pledged to Danny Hultzen and a bunch of incentive clauses that could take season ending payroll up over $90 million.

But let’s get real. The Mariners right now are spending much less for their on-field product than the majority of teams in baseball. Fans going to tonight’s home opener won’t be watching Figgins, or Olivo, or Hultzen (and some may be glad about the first two). They’ll be watching what the Mariners chose to spend on their 25-man squad. The team continues to turn a yearly profit — the only time they haven’t is when they spent it on sprucing up the ballpark and upping franchise value even more — and appeared to pass on some key free agents this winter that could have helped this team.

I have picked the Mariners to finish third in the AL West and said I would not be shocked if they finish higher than Texas in second place. This is a good team.

But to do that, some of this much-talked-about young core has to start living up to the backs of their baseball cards. I am assuming some of them will.

But if I am wrong and they do not, it will be time to start once again asking how long this team will wait to kickstart this “Plan” into gear. Maybe some of those who have backed this Plan from its beginnings can tell us how long it’s supposed to last before ownership and the front office has to display some accountability for it. I don’t have the answer to that. For me, five years is a long time for any team with the resources the Mariners have to be playing irrelevant baseball.

So, again, the pressure should be on this young core and the people who put it together.

Reasons for the current team’s OBP being so low after one week? The young core of regulars.

Batting average:

Jesus Montero — .182

Justin Smoak — .190

Kyle Seager — .192

Dustin Ackley — .050

On-base-percentage:

Ackley — .136

Montero — .182

Seager — .300

Smoak — .320

Good thing those guys aren’t still hitting in the middle and top of the order, or this could be a 1-6 team opening against Houston tonight. Anyhow, take those stats and throw them out. This blog post isn’t about a week’s worth of results. It’s about the next 25 weeks to come.

Yes, it’s very early and at least two of those OBP numbers are at .300 and above which tells you the approach might be a lot better than the results are showing. But clearly, all four players have to do more this entire season. And if they do, then great. We’ll have little to talk about regarding them in terms of criticism.

This is merely a statement of fact. All of those players could be putting up acceptable numbers after this Houston series, so we’ll have to wait and see. But it’s a fact that they have to do more than they’ve done so far.

Some veteran role players are also dragging the numbers down, but the future of this team doesn’t hinge on Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Robert Andino, though the fate of this year’s club just might. In the end, though, I’m a lot more worried about the full-time guys.

Right now, without Morse, Morales, Gutierrez and Brendan Ryan around as older veterans this team would be in bad shape. If the middle of the order had been left entirely to the young core with those Week 1 stats, well, this home opener would likely have a funeral pall hanging over it.

So, while we can’t take any results too seriously for at least a month, this young core has to produce in 2013. Without it making contributions, the team will go nowhere. And if some of these guys aren’t the real deal, it may go nowhere in 2014 and 2015 unless team owners start spending more money to bring in players who can get the job done.

Right now, that isn’t a concern. We’re still only one week in. Nobody is giving up on these younger guys. I still like what I’ve seen from Smoak this first week and have every reason to believe his numbers will improve.

But the “young core” does not get a free pass in 2013.

Here in Seattle, we sometimes love to worship our prospects and covet our young players to the point of untouchable status — I’m thinking Carlos TriunfelĀ back in 2007, or “The Big 3” right now — before they have actually ever really done anything. There has to be some expectation placed at some point once these guys reach the majors. That core has to start developing into something that can help this franchise win. If not, we can all rip our collective hair out debating every veteran move and criticizing every player signing over age 28 and it won’t make one lick of difference. It will be missing the big picture.

Every team has some young core in the development process. That’s nothing new and the fact that a cottage industry of websites and publications has been created to track their every move won’t change that. They are all unproven. It’s up to the Mariners and their young core to differentiate themselves in something other than meaningless prospect rankings. All that matters is how those prospects perform in MLB. Rankings are a dime a dozen.

I am not writing off Seattle’s young core. I see a bunch of potentially talented players. I expect this team to win more than it loses and to stay in the thick of things through the summr months. But talk and predictions are cheap. Now, they have to prove it.

We can already see the Mariners have brought in regulars who make the team better. Now, it’s up to the homegrowns and future talents to earn their keep and ensure the team doesn’t get worse.

Comments | More in young core | Topics: dustin ackley; justin smoak; jesus montero; talkin' baseball


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