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Originally published Saturday, March 19, 2011 at 7:44 PM

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Larry Stone

Mariners still have many questions to be answered

Mariners show some signs of improvement but plenty to be worried about as well

Seattle Times baseball reporter

After two weeks in the glorious Arizona sun, I can't say I came away infused with pennant fever when it comes to the Mariners.

There were some positive signs, but there were more worrisome signs. It doesn't take Bill James to recognize that this team is still going to be offensively challenged, though I don't think it will reach the epic ineptitude of last year.

On the bright side, Chone Figgins is swinging the bat well and looking very comfortable at third base. There's a chance that the one-two punch of Ichiro and Figgins the Mariners envisioned last year atop the order could be more viable this year.

Jack Wilson, such a big disappointment since being acquired from Pittsburgh, looks like a different player. Healthy again, at least for now, he was hitting with much more authority than we ever saw last year. He's not ever going to be Cal Ripken, but at least there's a chance shortstop won't be the offensive black hole it was last year. And whatever combination manager Eric Wedge decides to use with Wilson and Brendan Ryan — they were flip-flopping between short and second base the entire time I was there — they will be strong defensively up the middle.

Justin Smoak remains, for me, a huge key to the Mariners' success. After a very slow start at the plate, he was starting to pick it up noticeably. But scouts continue to say privately there are holes in his swing to be exploited. Smoak will bat fifth, it appears, behind Milton Bradley and Jack Cust, and they really need him to emerge as a bona fide run producer.

I left Arizona with no idea who is going to be in the bullpen beyond Brandon League, who will close while David Aardsma continues to recover from hip surgery. How they unscramble that jumble will be very important, particularly with a rotation that, beyond Felix Hernandez and perhaps Jason Vargas, figures to need plenty of relief help.

Here are some other impressions:

Biggest positive surprise: Unquestionably, Erik Bedard. He's gone out to the mound four times now, with an increasing pitch count each time. And he's pitched well, if not dominantly, each time. Most important, he says he has felt absolutely no shoulder problems after three surgeries. If Bedard can rejoin the rotation from the start of the season — and barring any setbacks over the final two weeks, he will — that's a major and unexpected upgrade.

Biggest disappointment: I'd have to say Michael Saunders, who hasn't gotten on track offensively and is now undergoing some swing modifications, which are never easy. What looked to be a left-field battle between Saunders and Bradley is looking more and more like Bradley's job. Speaking of which ...

Biggest mystery: What exactly can the Mariners expect from Bradley this season? I honestly never thought Bradley would get this far with them after his January arrest, but he's behaved well throughout camp, and his legal issues don't appear to be as serious as once thought. He's hustled, seems healthy again, been good in the clubhouse and shown signs that his bat, subpar the past two years, could provide much-needed production. But with Bradley, you just never know when distractions might crop up.

Biggest unanswered question: Will Michael Pineda be the fifth starter? Pineda has been easily the most intriguing performer of the spring, at times dominant enough with his 98 mph fastball to tantalize the Mariners with his potential. But there's definitely a school of thought that he needs more minor-league seasoning to hone his secondary pitches. And that, conveniently enough, would allow the Mariners to keep him down long enough to ensure that he will have to wait an extra year to be eligible for free agency. But the M's say that won't be a factor in their decision.

Biggest nagging concern: Franklin Gutierrez has had something of a disrupted camp, first flying to Seattle to undergo tests for his stomach problems (the M's now think they have it under control) and then flying to Florida to be with father-in-law Luis Salazar, the Braves' minor-league manager seriously injured by a batted ball. And now Gutierrez is hampered by back problems. Everything should be OK by opening day, but the M's have to hope Gutierrez is able to get himself sufficiently prepared for the season.

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Biggest misnomer: That the M's are undergoing a youth movement. It's going to be an understated youth movement, at least to start the season, with only Smoak and possibly Pineda and rookie reliever Josh Lueke likely to start the year in significant roles. But barring unforeseen setbacks, Dustin Ackley will take over at second base at some point this year, Pineda will be up later if not now, and there's still hope for contributions from Saunders and catcher Adam Moore.

The M's will tell you that great things are happening in their farm system, with burgeoning talent that will be the core of future success. But on opening day, it's still going to be a veteran-laden team that trots out to the field — one with plenty of questions still to be answered.

Notes and quotes

Miguel Cabrera, arrested for DUI a month ago last Thursday, began the spring in a 4-for-23 funk. But then he caught fire with an 11-for-19 stretch that included three homers and five doubles. Despite his personal issues, he appears primed for another huge season.

• Former Mariner Matt Thornton looks like the front-runner to replace Bobby Jenks as the White Sox closer, beating out Chris Sale. Sale, a 21-year-old lefty, was drafted last June and wound up pitching 21 games in the majors with a 1.93 earned-run average. He has nine strikeouts and one walk this spring.

"We have to be patient with this kid," manager Ozzie Guillen told reporters. "A lot of people think he's Sandy Koufax, 30 years in the big leagues. This kid just came out of college (last June). It's a learning process ... But I don't have any worries about him."

• Young Cubs pitcher Andrew Cashner got some sage advice from Greg Maddux, who has been in camp all spring.

"I talked to Maddux about my outing, and he said, 'You know, sometimes you walk guys,' " Cashner told the Chicago Tribune after a strong start Tuesday against the A's. "Maddux (says) to me, 'Three years in a row, Tom Glavine led the league in walks and he's a 20-game winner.' So he goes, 'Walks are overrated.' "

I checked, and Glavine never actually led the league in walks, but it was still a good message.

Brian Wilson to the San Francisco Chronicle on why he didn't dye his beard for St. Patrick's Day: "It would have taken away from the game of baseball if I colored it green, but it would have been festive."

Wilson instead wore green cleats, which he will auction to raise money for Japan earthquake relief.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146

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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

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