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Banking on potential no longer an option for Mariners

Banking on potential no longer an option for Mariners
Seattle Mariners pitchers watch while fellow pitcher Joe Saunders throws during baseball spring training Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, in Peoria, Ariz. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
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SEATTLE (AP) - Banking on potential is no longer acceptable in the rebuilding of the Seattle Mariners.

General manager Jack Zduriencik knows this. So does manager Eric Wedge, as do the young players the Mariners are counting on to be the foundation in their effort to return the franchise to competitiveness.

Seattle will begin the 2013 season with expectations. Not expectations to win the AL West or even earn a playoff berth. This is the year Seattle needs to be competitive. Needs to improve the worst offense in baseball. Must prove that making Felix Hernandez the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history was a shrewd maneuver and that the surrounding pieces are in place for Seattle's ace to be the centerpiece for baseball revitalization in the Pacific Northwest.

That is the task for 2013, with the Mariners acutely aware of the talent on the farm, the moves made to bolster the offense and the changes to its home park that all point toward a team on the verge of returning to success.

"I know there are a lot of questions and that's a good thing. But in regard to how we see our future and where we see ourselves at right now, we feel we're in a very, very good place," Wedge said. "I get questions often in regard to the timetable of us being a championship team. The only thing I can tell you is we'll be better, we'll continue to get better. That's what happened the last couple years. And at some point in time sooner than later, we will be a championship team."

It's been a dozen years now since the Mariners last reached the postseason in 2001. They have just four winning seasons during the span and a fan base that was once among the best in baseball has eroded to where even Safeco Field - one of the gems in the game - isn't much of a draw anymore.

That's just one of the reasons why winning is so important in 2013. Seattle chose the right path in trying to correct the past problems of the franchise when Zduriencik arrived and the emphasis was placed on restocking the farm system to developed continued success from within.

But the situation far different now. Progress must be seen. Prospects must start developing into consistent players and no longer see their future based around potential.

"What we wanted to do, and we have accomplished, was to continue to let these kids grow, continue to keep this system where it's at, but augment it with middle of the lineup hitters as well as experience," Zduriencik said. "That's where it's at."

Seattle was among the busier teams last offseason, staying in the national conversation with its aggressive pursuit of offense and the signing of Hernandez to the richest contract for a pitcher in baseball history. The Mariners failed to lure Josh Hamilton to Seattle, but Zduriencik quickly responded by trading for Kendrys Morales and Michael Morse to give the Mariners a set of middle-of-the-order power hitters they have sorely lacked.

While the leadoff spot remains unsettled going into the season, the arrival of Morales and Morse will put hitters in more natural spots in the order. Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero no longer have to be cleanup hitters. Dustin Ackley can bat in the bottom of the order and Kyle Seager can slot into the No. 2 hole coming off a breakout season with 20 homers and 86 RBIs.

Couple the offensive upgrades with shorter porches at home - the fences at Safeco Field moving in from 4 to 17 feet in places - and a dynamic power surge during spring training that was hard not to notice, and it seems likely Seattle's offense should be drastically better.

"This is where I pretty much started out. This is where it all started for me. There are ties here. I love this city. I think the fans are amazing," said Morse, who came up in Seattle's farm system before blossoming in Washington. "Teams like this and cities like this you want to have a good team and you want them to win. With the whole trade I felt like this was a great opportunity to go over there and help the team be a championship ballclub."

The pitching staff beings with Hernandez and his new $175 million contract that includes a no-trade clause that will keep him in a Seattle uniform through the 2019 season. Beyond Hernandez and a bullpen led by closer Tom Wilhelmsen and some dynamic young arms, there are questions. Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders will hold down two spots in the rotation, but the final two starter roles could be in flux for the early part of the season with Blake Beavan and rising prospect Brandon Maurer likely getting the initial nods. Seattle has quality arms down on the farm in Taijuan Walker, James Paxton and Danny Hultzen, but they won't be ready for the majors until later in the summer.

"I believe in this team and I know we're going to win," Hernandez said.
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