MLB Insider: Mariners' progress not easy to see

Posted Saturday, Aug. 31, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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More information Top five Braves: Best home record in the majors, but only .500 on the road. Dodgers: Yasiel Puig critics can’t deny turnaround started with him. Red Sox: Cooled off Dodgers, dealt blow to Orioles’ East title hopes. Rangers: Did what they had to do in August to get in September hunt. A’s: Were three outs away from sweeping Tigers’ top four starters. Bottom five Astros: Officially eliminated last week. Unofficially on April 2. Marlins: Owner Loria rejoices upon elimination, still bitter about Astros. Mariners: Sweep by Rangers understandable, but not sweep by Angels. Angels: Owner Moreno orders parking-lot press box after negative stories. Cubs: Took a dive Friday to give Ryne Sandberg a win in return to Wrigley.

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Mark down Friday as one of the biggest days of yet another losing Seattle Mariners season.

Michael Morse, the dreadful left fielder with diminishing power but with some appeal for playoff contenders, was finally dealt to another team, and rookie right-hander Taijuan Walker allowed only one unearned run on two hits over five innings of his major league debut.

Out with the old, and in with the new. That’s been the trend in Seattle since the Cliff Lee deal in 2010, and it was reinforced 13 months ago when Ichiro Suzuki was finally moved out, too.

The trend could continue this off-season with manager Eric Wedge, though he hasn’t been handed a robust veteran lineup during his tenure.

But the man responsible for building rosters that will have produced four consecutive losing seasons reportedly has received a one-year extension, though the club refuses to acknowledge it.

Many Mariners fans didn’t want general manager Jack Zduriencik back, and it seems like some in the front office don’t want him back either.

However, the feeling both inside the clubhouse and from baseball folks looking from the outside is that the Mariners might not be all that far away. That’s been their rallying cry the past few seasons, but it might actually come to fruition either next year or in 2015.

“It’s been one of those years,” first baseman Justin Smoak said. “But we definitely have a better team in here than we’ve had the past could years with some of the younger guys taking the next step forward.”

The Mariners might not be among the best again, as they were 12 years ago, but they have a chance to make some noise. The key is seeing all those high draft picks finally come in.

That’s how Tampa Bay got on the map, with young home-grown pitching and the development of a few key position players.

Seattle needs prospects Walker and Danny Hultzen to hit in order to fill out a rotation that, though headed by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, is hardly immune to long losing streaks.

Kyle Seager looks like a long-term fixture, especially when he plays the Rangers. But Nick Franklin and Brad Miller have to develop into dependable players up the middle, and Smoak has to continue to progress.

He hasn’t done so as quickly as was hoped after the Rangers put him in the Lee package in 2010, and he continues to insist on hitting right-handed, but he is improving. Even Mariners fans have stopped calling for his head.

“It’s definitely been a turnaround from the last couple seasons,” said Smoak, who is hitting .251 with 14 homers a season after being banished to Triple A for a month. “I’m getting closer to where I want to be.”

The kicker for the Mariners, as opposed to Tampa Bay five years ago, is they have payroll flexibility to plug in veterans along the way. Kendrys Morales could be back, even though dealing him in July as the best hitter available was the way to go.

There’s also absolutely no good reason why Oliver Perez remains tucked away in the Mariners’ bullpen when a contender would have coughed up a nice prospect to bolster its bullpen.

Neither of those players is a building block like Walker, Franklin and Smoak. But neither of those players is as important as catcher Mike Zunino.

The No. 3 overall pick in the 2012 draft, Zunino debuted this year but is currently rehabbing from a broken hamate bone in his left hand. He’s considered a strong defensive catcher, and while he might fall short of being an impact middle-of-the-order hitter, he could give the Mariners an edge at a position that is difficult to stock.

The process, though, is going to take at least another season or two. Zunino hit .238 at Triple A Tacoma this year before making his debut in June, and Hultzen, the second overall pick in 2011, has been limited to five starts this season because of shoulder injuries.

Zduriencik is going to get one more year, even though the club isn’t trumpeting his return. But Wedge could be in the unemployment line. There were, after all, expectations of finishing above .500 this season.

That’s not much, but it would have been tangible, crowd-pleasing progress. Instead, the progress the Mariners insist they’re making isn’t as easy to see. But it’s there, and the belief is that the Mariners are getting closer.

“You look at what we’ve got going, and we just want to get better,” Smoak said. “It’s not far away.”

Jeff Wilson, 817-390-7760 Twitter: @JeffWilson

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