Mariners look to Ichiro, Hernandez

SEATTLE — When Eric Wedge walked into a rebuilding situation in Cleveland, he inherited a team that was going to take its lumps with youth in the hopes of a payoff in the future.

So when Wedge looks around the Seattle Mariners clubhouse and sees the reigning AL Cy Young winner in Felix Hernandez in one corner, the hit-machine that is Ichiro Suzuki in another and a starting lineup that doesn't feature a single rookie, Wedge doesn't see the project that he's taking on in Seattle as a true rebuilding job.

Instead, Wedge believes his first season in trying to bring Seattle back to even being in consideration for a postseason berth is a "bridge" between Seattle's troubled last five years, and the promise of what they could be in the future.

"It was a straight rebuild in Cleveland. They tore it all down and it was the right thing to do," Wedge said. "Here you have to start with Felix and Ichiro, two pillars, one on the pitching side, one on the position player side. That, in and of itself, tells you you're not rebuilding because you have those guys."

The Mariners begin finding out who they are on Friday night when they open the season at Oakland with Hernandez on the hill, and expectations nowhere near the hype that surrounded the club at this time a year ago.

Seattle was a popular pick to emerge from the AL West, led by a pitching staff anchored by Hernandez and Cliff Lee that provided enough potential to overlook the Mariners' questionable offense.

Even the marketing arm of the organization thought 2010 was going to mark Seattle's return to the postseason with the tag "Believe Big."

Instead, 2010 became an embarrassing thud of mistakes and missteps, from the Mariners' punchless offense, to the story about Ken Griffey Jr. sleeping in the clubhouse and his abrupt retirement, to the firing of manger Don Wakamatsu — the first Japanese-American manager in baseball — on Japanese heritage day at the ballpark.

Coming off a second 101-loss season in the last three years, the Mariners were hamstrung by costly contracts that limited what Zduriencik could do in the offseason to bring immediate changes while trying to keep payroll around the level of a year ago.

Hence, the bridge notion for the 2011 season.

Milton Bradley will start in left field and will likely be the Mariners' No. 3 hitter as long as his spring training performance carries into the regular season. But his $12 million contract comes off the books after the 2011 season.

Same goes for Jack Wilson and his $5 million deal. Seattle moved Wilson from shortstop to second base, providing a strong defensive infield, but also making clear that Brendan Ryan is likely the Mariners' shortstop of the future and Wilson's time in Seattle could be running out with top prospect Dustin Ackley sitting at Triple-A.

Others, like left-handed pitcher Erik Bedard and designated hitter Jack Cust, are playing on one-year contracts as well.

The Mariners also hope those they have locked up for a number of years can either continue their growth or rebound from disappointing 2010 seasons.

Young first baseman Justin Smoak closed 2010 strong after a demotion to the minors. New catcher Miguel Olivo should bring leadership behind the dish, but will need to add a little offensive pop. Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez continues to be bothered by stomach problems that have affected his game, while Seattle believes Chone Figgins' move back to third base will lead to a more productive season at the plate.

Still, there are major offensive questions that may again overshadow what could be a strong pitching staff.

"You'd love to have two more big power bats, but we don't," Zduriencik said. "We have what we have and we're relying on guys to have bounce back years or some guys to grow into big league players and play the game the right way."

Hernandez is clearly the starring attraction for the Mariners, making it worth showing up every five days to see what the righty can do a year after winning his first Cy Young award despite just a 13-12 record.

The rest of Seattle's rotation will be filled out by lefty Jason Vargas and righty Doug Fister, a pair of pitchers for whom 2011 will be an opportunity to prove the promise they showed a year ago wasn't a one-year fluke.

Bedard's comeback from shoulder surgery will be closely watched, but his strong spring is giving Seattle hope he can finally be the pitcher they traded for three years ago.

The fifth starter spot will go to rookie Michael Pineda, who is an intimidating presence on the mound at 6-foot-7 and 260 pounds, and at 22 years old gives Seattle dreams of a Hernandez-Pineda top of the rotation in the near future.

Seattle's bullpen will need someone to fill in for closer David Aardsma until he returns from offseason hip surgery. Seattle's relief is much like the rest of its team with a mix of vets like Jamey Wright and Brandon League and newcomers like Tom Wilhelmsen and Josh Lueke.

It's all part of a mix that Wedge believes is the first step in.

"I think that mix is good because what we're trying to do here, what we're trying to stand for, what to expect of themselves, what I expect every day for everybody to get that we're not missing anything. We're covering every genre. There isn't a void in that locker room."

Share This Story