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Mariners camp report: Better vibe, more power, big spring fuel hope

PEORIA, Ariz. – The Mariners are barely recognizable this spring. They keep mashing, and they aren't missing. Game after game, they are overpowering their spring foes. Dare they dream that they can carry this into the thick air of Seattle?

For now, they are definitely having fun. Every game they are knocking balls out of the thin-aired parks here, raising the spirits and expectations of the very team that's swung baseball's most limp, most ineffective bats over the past three seasons. Through 11 games (and the Mariners were riding a 10-game winning streak through Monday), the Mariners have hit an MLB-high 24 home runs.

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How far removed from their usual reality is this? Well, the Mariners increased their run output by an astounding 106 runs from 2010 to 2012 yet still managed to remain last in the American League in that category last season (619 runs). While they did manage to outscore the Astros and Marlins in 2012, Seattle still had the dishonor of having baseball's worst on-base percentage (.296) and slugging percentage (.369), which of course gave them the worst OPS (.665).

It's no wonder Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik kept his phone practically attached to his ear all winter while looking for hitters wherever he might find them. He wound up adding four potentially big bats: outfielders Michael Morse, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay plus first baseman/DH Kendrys Morales.

That's a nice but seemingly less-than-overwhelming quartet (let's not forget, Ibanez is 41 and Bay hit .165 last year), though you wouldn't know it by what's going on here. Monday's 16-6 win over the Rockies extended their win streak to double digits.

And the Mariners are doing it after the biggest and best hitters continued to avoid Seattle and Safeco. Zduriencik tried hard, but he failed to secure the winter's two biggest offensive prizes.

Josh Hamilton turned down Seattle's offer for four guaranteed years and about $90 million, plus two vesting options, to take a $125 million, five-year deal from the rival Angels. Meanwhile Justin Upton, as luck would have it, had Seattle as one of four teams on his no-trade list, enabling him to squash a trade to the Mariners.

The Upton call was a personal disappointment to Zduriencik, as he had gotten to know the entire Upton family when he was the Brewers' scouting director -- and Justin and B.J. Upton were two hot draft prospects. Zduriencik had offered the Mariners' top pitching prospect (Taijuan Walker), plus others in a package for a player he viewed as a game changer.

Instead, Zduriencik -- who has a year to go on his own contract -- settled for four veterans with one year left on their own deals. Together, they all have one year to turn things around before a few or more of them scatter after the year.

So far, these Mariners hitters, old and new, were making the Cactus League look like a string of bandboxes. All four of the new hitters had homers, with 11 Mariners homering already. "We'll be a much improved offensive team," manager Eric Wedge said.

These Mariners certainly can play in Peoria, but whether they can transfer their power Safeco, where pitchers feel safe, remains in question. After three years of studies, the left-field fence has been drastically lowered and all the fences have been moved in, which may be a bigger boon than any single new hitter. "All we wanted," Zduriencik said, "was to make it a fair ballpark."

The mood certainly has been more lively around camp this spring, and that isn't all about the offense. There's a better vibe in the clubhouse. "It's the happiest clubhouse I can remember -- no angst," said club president Chuck Armstrong, who has been around almost forever.

"There are no superstars, no prima donnas," Armstrong noted. "We do have one, but [Felix Hernandez] is just one of the guys."

This is finally King Felix's team, and that's a major plus. "He's a regular guy. And he's genuine," Wedge said of the ace right-hander. "I love the fact he wanted to be here, and the fact he wanted to be here for the right reasons."

King Felix has a new record $175 million, seven-year deal to stay where he wanted. Despite his stratospheric deal and ethereal nickname, the King's demeanor is a change for Seattle. Going on two decades, the Mariners had at least one superstar with a superstar-sized ego or air, from Randy Johnson to Ken Griffey Jr. to Ichiro, who had the pipeline to the owner and distrust of teammates. That sucked the life out of the clubhouse until a midseason trade to the Yankees loosened things up in a 24-and-1 clubhouse.

Many Mariners players are in a getting-acquainted stage and all seems copacetic so far. But more important, there finally appears to be enough bangers in the room to keep opposing pitchers honest. Morse and Ibanez are in their second and third go-rounds in Seattle (Ibanez has spent 10 of his 17 seasons in the Emerald City) and Bay, a Seattle resident, is coming home.

All are clubhouse pluses. But more important than the goodwill, they bring the big lumber.

Zduriencik said he set out this winter with three main goals: 1) add more bats, 2) add a veteran presence, and 3) hold onto the young guys. "We accomplished all three things," he said.

That's true, though technically, they get an asterisk for the third one since they kept Walker, perhaps their best of many excellent pitching prospects, thanks to the preference of a kid slugger who wanted to play in the east with his brother, avoid the Safeco air or both.

The Mariners retain what's occasionally known in these parts as their "big four" pitching prospects with Danny Hultzen, James Paxton and Brandon Maurer, a former 23rd-rounder who has risen into the upper prospect echelon. The right-handed Walker reminds King Felix of himself when he was a kid (Prince, if you will) but Hernandez picked Maurer as the one who looks most ready of the four.

Following Felix in the rotation will be Hisashi Iwakuma and late-signing veteran lefty Joe Saunders, with plenty of candidates to fill the final two spots from among 11-game winner Blake Beaven, hard-throwing youngster Erasmo Ramirez, veterans Jon Garland and Jeremy Bonderman plus the vaunted quartet of kids, who all remain long shots to make the opening day roster. Seattle has no shortage of young arms, as 100-mph throwing Carter Capps, strikeout-an-inning man Tom Wilhelmsen and resurrected left veteran Oliver Perez all contributed more than expected last season.

Pitching isn't the problem, as anyone within shouting distance of the Puget Sound well knows. Beyond the expected production of the incoming hitters, they're going to need better years from several holdover hitters, including youngsters Dustin Ackley, Michael Saunders, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak, who earned one last chance with a big September. Better health for center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and continued production from third baseman Kyle Seager, their best position player in 2012, wouldn't hurt, either.

The distant future looks bright, thanks to some bright drafts in recent years, including their top pick last year, University of Florida catcher Mike Zunino, who is generally considered the top catching prospect in the game. But to compete in one of baseball's best divisions, they are going to need immediate production out of the quartet of imports and others. They still appear to be in deep in the excellent AL West. But they aren't giving up.

"If they come and produce, who knows?" Zduriencik said.

If they keep looking and feeling like they have so far this spring, they can dream. And no one should stop them.

 
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