The Seattle Mariners will be reporting for Spring Training in just under two weeks, and while every season brings new hope, the realistic expectations for this club that last saw the playoffs 11 years ago is probably a third place finish. In a very competitive and suddenly rich division, a roster filled with players still trying to prove that they belong at the big league level while waiting for a few more of their "can't-miss" prospects to join the fray faces a tall task: play well enough to keep the fan base interested and generate some buzz.
The Mariners have lost 93 or more games in five of the last eight seasons and have finished out of the cellar only one of the last four. That's not to say that the club isn't moving in the right direction. The organization is now flush with talent at virtually every level of the minor leagues and the big league club ran 18 rookies out in 2011, including 14 players (six position players and eight pitchers) who made their major league debuts. Players like second baseman Dustin Ackley -- who entrenched himself in the middle of the lineup in the second half last year -- and Justin Smoak look like they will be staples of the team for years to come. And while 2012 will be his seventh full season in the big leagues, ace right-hander Felix Hernandez won't turn 26 until just before the team has its home opener and has expressed his desire to stay with the club even past the 2014 end of his current contract.
The team didn't make the huge free agent splash that many fans were hoping for this winter, but in the long run, they may have actually done something even better. They acquired catching prospect Jesus Montero from the Yankees via trade and plan on having the 22-year-old hitting in the meat of their order in this, his rookie season. And while Montero did come at a hefty price (2011 rookie All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda), he fills an organizational need in being a legitimate middle of the order bat. And he is a talented right-handed power hitter while at the same time being a cheap, team controlled asset for at least six years. Of course, he also has less major league service time under his belt than outfielder Mike Wilson, who was one of those 14 who made his big league debut last year following 10 seasons in the minors with Seattle. So the club is certainly betting on the come with Montero.
Add to those players more young names like Mike Carp, Kyle Seager, Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi, Chance Ruffin and Tom Wilhelmsen and it is very clear where the core is and what the focus of this club is heading into 2012. General Manager Jack Zduriencik and his staff have done a very good job of drafting and acquiring young talent over the last three-plus seasons, but building a contender from the ground up takes time. Last week Zduriencik again told a large crowd at the Media Luncheon event that, "I've said that we're going to build through our minor league system. But we're not here to just have a really good minor league system; we're here to create a minor league system so that the byproduct becomes good major league players. We've put a plan in place, we've stuck to the plan and we're building this so that it can sustain itself."
For many fans, this process is a grueling, frustrating time. And from all accounts I've heard, the same can be said for the way it is seen by the Mariners front office. But building a franchise to be self-sufficient takes time. Especially when it has never been at that point. At least not in the last decade. But the talented names that head the organization at this point are more than the usual players that a club pins its hopes on. The one benefit of losing is that this team has had its choice of the top five or so prospects in many of the most recent drafts. And they'll get that opportunity again in 2012 as the Mariners have the 3rd pick.
That means another highly talented player to add to the likes of Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Nick Franklin, Taijuan Walker, Vinnie Catricala and Francisco Martinez that will continue to set the Seattle Mariners up for a sustained run of success at the big league level in pretty short order. At least three of the above players should make their MLB debuts at some point in 2012. The 19-year-old Walker told me that one of his goals this season is to make it to the big leagues. That likely won't happen, but the talent in the system that is knocking down the door is real.
Does any of this mean that we should expect them to compete for a playoff berth in 2012? Not likely. But it does mean that the club should be much better than it has the past few seasons, with an offense that should certainly be more watchable. And -- judging by the 65 players invited to camp -- it will be a much younger club. One with an average age much more reflective of the actual state of the team; a team that has the ability to play well enough to generate some buzz. But that doesn't mean that fans should completely punt their expectations until 2015 as some have suggested.
The 2012 Mariners -- with or without Prince Fielder and with or without Michael Pineda -- were not going to pose a serious threat to Anaheim or Texas without a few miracles happening. Nothing has changed on that front. But if you are of the belief that Pineda, after one MLB season, had turned into a legitimate number two starter, then there is nothing about the make-up of this team and its prospects that should lead you to believe that Hultzen or Paxton or Walker -- or all three -- can't be his equal prior to 2015 rolling around. There have even been scouts that have opined that Noesi, who also came to Seattle in that trade, isn't far off from Pineda's level himself. And Montero's addition unarguably upgraded the offense. This Mariners team should easily avoid 100 losses. It should avoid 90 losses. And playing .500 ball or better -- even in what many are now calling the best division in baseball -- isn't out of the question.
Unlike Mariners teams of the past, this team already has its identity. For the first time since the 90s, the club has young players with superstar potential both at the plate and on the mound. And while some of those youngsters will certainly experience some growing pains, they can also learn how to win together. The kids taking their lumps is all a part of the process for the Mariners.