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Originally published Tuesday, March 6, 2012 at 10:00 PM

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Mariners' camp is full of young talent, but it needs time to blossom

General manager Jack Zduriencik, using same formula that worked in Milwaukee, preaches patience.

Seattle Times staff columnist


Mariners vs. Angels, 7 p.m.,

Ch. 407 (Comcast)

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PEORIA, Ariz. — The young talent in this Mariners camp is undeniable. There are more live arms, more young power hitters, more speedsters, more athletes.

Look around the practice fields any morning in March and you see more playmakers, quicker bats, harder workers. The future here seems real. This spring training has more talent than any since the Mariners of the late 1980s.

This camp isn't really about 2012. This season for the Mariners should be six months of flickering hope.

If everything falls correctly, if Justin Smoak arrives at first base, if Hector Noesi can become a solid No. 3 starter, if Franklin Gutierrez gets and stays healthy, if Chone Figgins is resurrected in the leadoff spot and Ichiro finds comfort and production hitting third, the Mariners could have a winning season.

But those are too many ifs.

Spring training 2012 is more about 2014 and 2015 than it is about 2012. The kids are generating the excitement.

"I wish they were all All-Stars already," general manager Jack Zduriencik said, standing on one of the practice fields this week, watching some of his bright, young prospects.

This is the camp for the kids. Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp and Jesus Montero look ready, but most are several seasons away from making an impact in Seattle.

"All of us are getting an opportunity to see everything we've been talking about for the last couple of years," Zduriencik said. "The young kids are coming in here and getting an opportunity to hold their own.

"This is exciting. They're getting a chance to compete and watch what's going to be and see your dreams and your future in this organization right before your eyes."

You see it when Francisco Martinez, the young third baseman acquired from the Detroit Tigers, lasers a hit late in a spring-training game. And when Danny Hultzen battles out of a bases-loaded jam in a morning B game.

You see it when Vinnie Catricala launches a bomb in an intrasquad game and when Ackley and Carp and Montero go about their business every morning like seasoned veterans.

Zduriencik has seen all of this before, when he was an assistant general manager during the long rebuilding program in Milwaukee that produced six National League All-Stars. It took seven years to build the Brewers into a pennant contender.

In Seattle, he took over a difficult job after the 2008 season. Zduriencik has expertly refilled the Mariners' barren farm system. He has made mistakes — signing Figgins, extending Jack Wilson, keeping Jarrod Washburn too long — but mistakes are inevitable when the team was as bad as the one he inherited.

He also has been hamstrung by an ownership group that is afraid of its own shadow and unable to spend real money to make it competitive with the best teams in their division.

Zduriencik has vision, but his bosses wear blindfolds.

If the kids develop, will the owners allow Zduriencik to spend money to fill in the gaps the way the Texas Rangers, the Los Angeles Angels and Philadelphia Phillies have done? That question won't have an answer for several years.

Teams rarely win with just their own prospects. Cleveland came close, Milwaukee came close, but you need to supplement your roster with veterans who have deep résumés.

In the meantime, believe in what Zduriencik is trying to do, under trying circumstances, with a franchise that has been down so long it's hard to remember how up feels.

"The pace of this thing is tough, because you want to win yesterday," Zduriencik said. "There's no fast track of doing it. But most of these kids take about five years to get to the big leagues. You have to take a step back sometimes and say, 'There's nothing I can do about this process to speed it up.' The realism now is, 'Let's back it up a second. Let's produce our own players.'

"As we move forward, if there comes a point in time when we see the need to do something special, I think we're going to be able to do that. But you can't run away from building the organization the way it's supposed to be built."

Doing it the right way takes time, at least two more years. And then the owners have to remove the blindfolds, spend some money and make all of the promise feel real.

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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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