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Development of young talent key for Mariners

Development of young talent key for Mariners

Development of young talent key for Mariners
TOKYO -- Manager Eric Wedge plans on things being different this year for his Mariners, a fact that will quickly be driven home the first time his team comes to bat in its season opener Wednesday against the A's in the Tokyo Dome.

Ichiro Suzuki, for 11 years a fixture as Seattle's leadoff man, instead will be batting third in a bold departure for a skipper who doesn't want to sit still and watch his club struggle to score runs the way it did last year in his first season in the Northwest.

The Mariners' offensive woes predate Wedge, given they've finished last in the American League in runs for three straight seasons. But if Wedge hates anything, it's spinning your wheels in the same rut, so he's set out to shake things up.

The 44-year-old skipper got help from general manager Jack Zduriencik, who shipped rookie pitching standout Michael Pineda to the Yankees for a right-handed thumper for the middle of the order, with Jesus Montero set to fill the designated hitter role and do some catching as a promising 22-year-old.

The Mariners are counting on Montero fitting in nicely with a growing core of youthful hitters, led by second baseman Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 Draft, who arrived with a flourish in midseason last year and quickly became the club's most consistent hitter.

They're also hopeful for a big step forward from first baseman Justin Smoak, the 11th overall pick of the '08 Draft by the Rangers, as well as continued improvement from left fielder Mike Carp, who arrived with a bang in the second half last year as well.

"It's day and night this year from where it was last year," said Smoak. "There are a lot of young guys here, but there are some pretty darn good young guys. We're not going to back down from anybody and that's the thing we've got going now.

"We have some young guys, but we know what we're capable of doing and if we put it all together at once, we're going to shock some people."

In front of that youth movement, at the top of the Mariners' lineup, will be veteran Chone Figgins, who Wedge hopes will be reignited by a return to the leadoff role he once owned so well for the Angels.

That is part of the reason for Ichiro's move to the third spot, as well as Wedge's belief that the 38-year-old can still be a premier hitter -- and thus a run producer -- if Figgins and Ackley consistently get on base ahead of him.

"It's a combination of things," Wedge said. "Ichiro is a hitter, first and foremost. I think he'll benefit being in the three hole. But most importantly, we'll benefit. It's also about getting Figgins back to the leadoff spot and getting him back on track and getting on base and scoring runs for us.

"And we've been putting Ackley in that two hole. The combination of those three guys with the big guys behind them should work for us."

It will help, of course, if 2010 Gold Glove center fielder Franklin Gutierrez can get healthy after a tough 2011 spilled over to this spring, when he suffered a partial tear of his pectoral muscle before Cactus League games even began.

And if veterans like Ichiro and Figgins can return to their expected production. And if the pitching staff can continue being one of the best in the league, even after trading away Pineda, Doug Fister and Erik Bedard since last July.

It doesn't hurt that Felix Hernandez still sits firmly atop the rotation. And the Mariners seem able to restock their arms, with a fleet of top youngsters waiting in the wings with Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton all ranked among the better prospects in baseball.

For now, returning lefty Jason Vargas works as the No. 2 starter, with newcomer Hector Noesi -- also acquired from the Yankees in the Pineda-Montero trade -- followed by young Blake Beavan and veteran Kevin Millwood, who earned a spot as a non-roster invitee with a strong spring.

Japanese free agent Hisashi Iwakuma will open the season in the bullpen, but has been a premier starter in Japan for the last decade and could work his way back into the rotation if needed. Erasmo Ramirez, a 21-year-old rookie, impressed the club enough to land a bullpen spot coming out of camp, but he's also a prospective starter.

It's only a matter of time before Hultzen, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 Draft, makes his way to the big club. Paxton, 23, could beat him there with a strong effort this season. And Walker, a talented 19-year-old, is regarded by some to have the highest upside of them all.

But the question remains: Can the Mariners hit enough to even think about competing in the AL West, where the Rangers and Angels have ratcheted up the competition?

There is hope among the youngsters, many of whom got their initiation last year when Wedge played 22 rookies in an effort to find out exactly what he had and to fast-forward the building process.

"Last year was an eye opener for a lot of us," said Michael Saunders, who has had a strong spring while replacing the injured Gutierrez in center field. "We know we're a young club, but we don't look at it like that. We expect a lot of ourselves.

"Experience is invaluable in baseball and a lot of guys got their feet wet last year and are going to be better for it. If we can get nine guys going the way we can go, we can compete with anybody. It starts with pitching and defense, which we're up there with the best in the game. We understand what happened last year, but this year that's unacceptable. We're excited to go. We've got talent in this clubhouse. There's no reason we can't go out and win this year."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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