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Originally published Friday, May 30, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Advice for Mariners: Take a strong dose of youth

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column calling for the Mariners to take a hard look at themselves and decide if this season was still salvageable...

Seattle Times baseball reporter

Today

Detroit @ Mariners, 7:10 p.m., FSN

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column calling for the Mariners to take a hard look at themselves and decide if this season was still salvageable.

Since I wrote that, they've gone 4-8, and fallen from eight to 11 ½ games out of first place. At the precise one-third point of the season, they are on pace for 102 losses.

I'd say the question has been asked, and answered.

Just to reach .500, they'd have to go 61-47 the rest of the year — a higher winning percentage than the M's had in winning 88 games last year. To achieve 90 wins, they'd have to play .648 ball (70-38). For 94 wins (which is the Angels' current pace), they'd have to play at a .685 clip (74-34).

Does anyone still see that potential in them? This is a team that, since moving one game behind the Angels last Aug. 24 with two wins in Texas, is 35-55 (.389) over a 90-game stretch.

Sorry, it's just not going to happen, even though manager John McLaren said on Wednesday, "We've by no means given up on this season at all."

He has to say that, and I'm sure he even believes it. But the Mariners should start operating right now with an eye — two eyes, in fact, plus a nose, mouth, two ears, and a brain — on 2009, when they have a chance to be a contender from April 1.

If they want to cling to minuscule hopes of matching the 2005 Astros as the only team in baseball history to make the playoffs after falling 15 games under .500, fine. But it shouldn't detract from the moves that have to be made.

For starters, and most obviously, they need to look at some of their kids. This is not tantamount to a concession; more and more teams are coming to the conclusion that the greatest commodity in the game is reasonably priced young talent (as opposed to overpriced older talent).

The Mariners need to identify what they have in the system that can help them in the near future. If they're worrying about alienating fans, they shouldn't. I guarantee the majority of people would be behind a modified youth movement at this stage of a lost 2008 season. It would be vastly preferable to what they've seen so far.

This means, of course, another chance, this time an extended one, for Jeff Clement, who is once again tearing up the Pacific Coast League (although he left Tuesday's game and is day to day after fouling a ball off his right shin).

The inexplicable three-year contract given to Kenji Johjima complicates matters, of course, because Clement seemed to struggle offensively when serving as the designated hitter. But between catching and DH, with perhaps some work at first base, there should be enough playing time for Clement. Because Johjima's not going anywhere, and Clement is a big part of Seattle's immediate future, it's obvious that either he or Johjima is going to have to do something other than catch to make it work.

Speaking of which, for those who are concerned with Jose Vidro's contract vesting for next year: according to a source with knowledge of Vidro's contract, his 2009 option (for $6 million) kicks in at 625 plate appearances in 2008, or 1,150 plate appearances in 2007-08, of which 600 of those plate appearances are in 2008.

Vidro had exactly 625 plate appearances last year (leaving him 525 short of 1,150), which means he needs 600 plate appearances this year for his 2009 option to vest (and if it doesn't, the Mariners can buy him out for $500,000). Vidro has 159 plate appearances so far this year, on pace for 477, well short of 600, especially with Clement getting DH at-bats.

Wladimir Balentien, struggles and all, should get the rest of the season to acclimate to the major leagues. When he's healthy again, let's look at lefty Ryan Feierabend, who was 4-1 with a 2.15 earned-run average in eight starts at Tacoma before going on the disabled list on May 17 with a sore elbow.

And Brandon Morrow, who has been eye-popping in recent outings as he gets his arm strength back, should begin the process of transitioning to the rotation.

As a contender, the Mariners could justify using Morrow in setup relief, but at 14 games under .500, it's the perfect time to make him a starter. When the Mariners spent an invaluable No. 5 overall draft pick on Morrow in 2006 — ahead of Tim Lincecum — they envisioned him as a starter, not an eighth-inning specialist. Why wait any longer?

I have no problem with doing it the same way the Yankees are doing with Joba Chamberlain, by keeping Morrow in the majors and gradually stretching out his bullpen stints. The prospect of a Felix Hernandez-Erik Bedard-Brandon Morrow starting nucleus, with Phillippe Aumont hopefully not far behind, should whet the appetite of any disgruntled Mariners fan.

The Mariners must also deal with the Richie Sexson issue. When McLaren says the team gets a jolt of energy from playing 34-year-old, .186-hitting Miguel Cairo at first base, there are fundamental problems.

Sexson, at the end of his four-year deal, is clearly not going to be back in 2009. If 2008 is a lost cause, then the post-Sexson era needs to begin. Whether this means a trade or a release, it would actually be a favor to Sexson to get him out of a situation where he is viewed, probably unfairly, as the crux of the problem. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Sexson thriving on a new team, without all the baggage and the pressure he seems to put on himself at Safeco.

There are, of course, far more layers to the complicated dilemma in which the Mariners find themselves, and no easy fixes. There's also the essential question of whether McLaren and general manager Bill Bavasi are the right people, moving forward. Since management appears, for now, to have no plans to remove them, we've tabled that discussion.

Today is the first day of the rest of the season. Dismal as things are now, the Mariners should make the most of it.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Larry Stone
Larry Stone gives an inside look at the national baseball scene every Sunday. Look for his weekly power rankings during the season.
lstone@seattletimes.com

UPDATE - 10:00 PM
Larry Stone: Young pitcher Michael Pineda offers glimpse of exciting future for Mariners

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