SEATTLE -- Jack Zduriencik didn't try to sugarcoat anything at Thursday's pre-Spring Training media luncheon at Safeco Field. The Mariners general manager, entering his fourth season with the club, doesn't have a Prince Fielder or Albert Pujols to sell to his fans like the Tigers and Angels. He's not coming off back-to-back World Series appearances like the American League West-rival Rangers. What he does have is a strong core of up-and-coming talent that might surprise people this season, but more than likely will require patience and a long-term view of the progress being made.
Contending in the AL West figures to be a large hurdle with a roster that plans to put young players again in so many key places, with Seattle's biggest offseason move being the acquisition of promising 22-year-old catcher Jesus Montero from the Yankees for Michael Pineda. "It's going to be a challenge, because of the young kids," Zduriencik said. "Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager have half a season in the big leagues. Casper Wells ... you start looking around at the pieces and some of the young pitchers, Tom Wilhelmsen, for example. Then you look at what happens in this division. No matter how you shake it, you can't ignore what Texas and Anaheim did, and those clubs were ahead of us prior to these moves. So it's an uphill battle. We've got a real challenge before us. "The positive is we're going to know real quick," he said. "We've got two of the best clubs in all of baseball in our division and we're going to compete against those guys and find out what we're all about." Zduriencik admits he "doesn't have a magic wand" for instant success, but he believes the Mariners are taking the right path by building around young, premier talent that will sustain success for years to come once it all matriculates to the Major League club. Seattle has three of the top 18 prospects in baseball in the latest MLB.com rankings and five in the top 100, a sign of things to come when those youngsters merge with the recently arrived Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, Justin Smoak and others. "In a relatively short time, there have been some good things happen here," Zduriencik said. "Any good organization builds from the ground up, and we're doing that. I like where we're at as an organization. I'm not satisfied or content, but given all the issues, we're in a pretty good place. We're climbing up the ladder." Eric Wedge, the manager in charge of holding that ladder in place, doesn't plan to accept anything less than a pretty rapid ascension. He said his message will change in this, his second season, to be more about "expectations, performance and production. And that leads to wins." Don't tell Wedge the Mariners aren't ready to compete for the division title. "I come into every Spring Training and have seen too many crazy things happen not to feel that way," Wedge said. "It might be pie in the sky because everybody tells me the two best teams in baseball are in our division now. Maybe they're right, and maybe they're not. But my expectation is to come in here and try to win every ballgame, and I want our players to understand that the expectation for our club is to come out here and work hard to win every ballgame. "If you've got 25 guys coming to the park every day expecting great things from themselves, then we're going to be a pretty good ballclub. And that's what we're going to get to." Fans would have loved to speed that process by adding someone like Fielder to the offense, but the big first baseman signed with the Tigers for $214 million over nine seasons. Zduriencik said agent Scott Boras told him early in the process he was looking for "a number that began with a 2, and that certainly happened." Zduriencik said he may still add a "little chip" in free agency, but doesn't see anything imminent remaining on the trade front and the club is close to being set heading into camp, which begins with pitchers and catchers reporting on Feb. 11. The Mariners hope to get better offensive seasons from key returnees Ichiro and Franklin Gutierrez and solid steps forward from youngsters like Ackley, Smoak, Seager, Wells and now Montero. Wedge said veteran Miguel Olivo remains the starting catcher, but Montero will be in the lineup virtually every day either at catcher or designated hitter as he develops behind the plate. "I'm sticking my neck out, but I think this should be a year we take a significant leap forward offensively and I'll be disappointed if we don't," said Wedge. "That's how confident I am in this plan and in our young kids."