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Originally published August 30, 2009 at 7:52 PM | Page modified August 30, 2009 at 8:57 PM

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Steve Kelley

Mariners have built foundation but improvements needed to be true contender

As far as the Mariners have come this season, they still have miles to go and promises to keep.

Seattle Times staff columnist

The wondrous way this season has gone, you half-expected something special Sunday from the who's-he lineup manager Don Wakamatsu stitched together to face Kansas City's Zack Greinke.

Wakamatsu has become a puzzle master of a manager, piecing together improbable lineups out of suspicious spare parts and winning games that defied baseball's holy laws of average.

In this game against the Royals, only four of the nine players in the lineup were on the opening day roster.

Josh Wilson, who has played in Reno, Phoenix, San Diego, Tacoma and Seattle this season, started at third. And Jack Wilson, formerly the Pittsburgh Pirates' longtime, everyday infielder, played shortstop.

Bill Hall, who was the Milwaukee Brewers' opening-day third baseman, was in right field. Jack Hannahan, a third baseman from the Oakland Athletics, played first. And 22-year-old Michael Saunders, who spent most of the season in Tacoma, was in left field.

It felt like spring training in August at Safeco Field, but unlike so many days and nights here this year, there were no miracles coming from this Band-Aid batting order against Cy Young candidate Greinke.

The Mariners were one-hit in their 3-0 loss to Kansas City, and as the team enters the final five weeks of this surprise season, it still seems as if the unanswered questions still outweigh the ones that have been answered.

First-year manager Wakamatsu has brought the Mariners a long way from the 102-loss funk of '08. Despite all of the injuries and the midseason trades, the team has stayed on the periphery of the playoff race and above .500.

At the beginning of the season, I thought the city should throw a parade if the team won 82 games. I still believe there should be some sort of celebration for this season.

Important changes have been made.

• The broken bullpen has been fixed.

• Wakamatsu has established a right way to play: disciplined at-bats, aggressive baserunning, aggressive pitching, attention to detail. He has developed what he often calls "a belief system."


• A center fielder for the future, Franklin Gutierrez, has been found.

• Second baseman Jose Lopez has had his most consistent and smart season.

• The M's traded for a veteran shortstop, Jack Wilson, who can be the bridge to the future, when 19-year-old Carlos Triunfel will be ready to realize his vast potential.

• They found their catcher for 2010, Adam Moore, hitting .291 in Tacoma.

• Most important, general manager Jack Zduriencik began the slow process of restocking the farm system.

He got 20-year-old starter Mauricio Robles from Detroit for Jarrod Washburn. Robles is 2-2 with a 2.96 earned-run average since joining Class A High Desert.

And Zduriencik traded Yuniesky Betancourt to Kansas City for 22-year-old Dan Cortes, the best pitching prospect in the Royals' system. He has been erratic, going 1-4 with a 5.48 ERA in nine starts at AA West Tennessee, but he has 48 strikeouts in 47-2/3 innings.

Teammate Ezequiel Carrera, 22, an outfielder acquired from the Mets in the J.J. Putz trade, was hitting .341 in 84 games and was a Southern League All-Star.

And Seattle's No. 1 draft pick, Dustin Ackley, who will take batting practice with the big club today, reminds people of the Phillies' Chase Utley. He will be fast-tracked to the majors.

But the surprises this season can't mask the mounds of work remaining. As far as the Mariners have come this season, they still have miles to go and promises to keep.

• They probably will go into the offseason looking for an everyday third baseman, a left fielder and a designated hitter.

• All kinds of questions remain about the rotation:

What do they do with All-Star pitcher Felix Hernandez, who becomes a free agent in two seasons and could make $10 million if he goes to arbitration this winter? Are the Mariners willing to offer him CC Sabathia money ($161 million) when the time comes? Or should they aggressively shop him this winter?

Did Brandon Morrow find himself in his 5-0 August in Tacoma? Is some combination of Morrow, Luke French, Ian Snell and Doug Fister good enough for the back of next year's rotation? Can the M's really expect anything from $40 million bust Carlos Silva?

Sunday's starter, Ryan Rowland-Smith, is establishing himself as a dependable force in the rotation, but Seattle needs to find a No. 2 guy in the offseason.

And more than anything, the Mariners need to find a Ryan Howard, an Albert Pujols or a Prince Fielder before they can consider themselves legitimate, every-season contenders.

There has been so much to celebrate this season. A foundation has been poured. But look around and understand the enormity of the remodeling job still ahead.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or

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Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation. | 206-464-2176

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