Despite record, Mariners not ready to contend

Entering the Spring of 2011, the best hopes of even the boldest Mariners fans were win totals in the mid to high 70’s upon the conclusion of the season.

There were a number of problem areas on a team that finished the previous season dead last in the AL West division with a meager 61 wins. The bullpen, left and center field, third base, catcher and potentially second base as well.

Really, all the team had to count on was a strong starting rotation yet again and a lineup led by Justin Smoak and perennial All-Star Ichiro Suzuki.

And after 81 games, the official halfway point of the 162-game season, the Mariners were right on pace for the audacious high 70’s win total that only the bold could have hoped for.

Yet, the clamor for Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik to be aggressive at the trading deadline to improve this year’s squad is resounding. Whether it be the team’s beat writers, the radio personalities or even fans — the hope for contending this year, 2011, prevails strongly.

What neither of these groups understand is that the team is just not ready to be a contender. Let’s not forget this season was labeled a rebuilding season for a reason. Coming off a season of 101 losses, change was needed and Zduriencik brought it in.

Eric Wedge came in to manage a team that was progressively getting younger. Smoak, 24, was set to be the everyday first baseman in essentially his sophomore season. Michael Pineda, 22, claimed a spot in the starting rotation as a rookie. Michael Saunders, 24, became the starting left fielder. Josh Lueke, 25, was a closer candidate in the bullpen. Soon top prospect Dustin Ackley, 23, would take over second base.

Seven players have now made their major league debuts for the Mariners this season. Pineda, Lueke and Ackley join Tom Wilhelmsen, Carlos Peguero, Blake Beavan and Mike Wilson. Add that to the five players all under 25 who had already made their debuts in Smoak, Saunders, Greg Halman, Mike Carp, Aaron Laffey and you’ve got a team run by youth.

Hardly any players on the current Mariners 25-man roster (as of July 6, 2011) have playoff experience. Ichiro, Adam Kennedy, Brendan Ryan, Miguel Olivo and Chone Figgins are the only Mariners who have been in the postseason. The entire pitching staff and the majority of the starting lineup have zero experience in a pennant chase.

Because of this, it is important for all of us who follow and support the Seattle Mariners to remember that this is still a rebuilding season about the development of young players like Smoak, Ackley and Pineda who will be the cornerstones of this franchise for the next decade.

These players still need to develop, go through their individual peaks and valleys in their first professional seasons before we can count on them to lead the team deep into the postseason.

Bringing in a veteran by way of trade to try and speed up this process just won’t work. Adding a Carlos Beltran or Ryan Ludwick to take over left field (blocking a young player like Halman) isn’t going to help Smoak, Ackley or Pineda conquer their valleys any faster.

Those are individual experiences that each must go through to better themselves. And really, only until that happens can the Mariners think about contending.

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