SEATTLE — Seattle general manager Jack Zduriencik remains extremely optimistic about the bounty of young talent the Mariners possess.
He also knows the abundance of youth means another challenging season lies ahead in the Pacific Northwest.
"I think we have some very talented young kids. I think this is going to be a challenging year at the big league level for us. Let's not kid ourselves," Zduriencik said during the Mariners' pre-spring training luncheon on Thursday. "We've got a young club no matter how you shake it. We've got young players. The positive is we've got a lot of young kids coming right behind them."
More than at any other point since Zduriencik took over as general manager before the 2009 season, the Mariners will rely almost entirely on their youth during the 2012 season. His first two seasons were filled with moves aimed at making Seattle competitive while at the same time Zduriencik was busy rebuilding a barren farm system.
Last year brought the arrival of manager Eric Wedge and a remaking of the Mariners clubhouse that featured 18 rookies getting their first major league experience at some point of the year while the veterans Seattle planned to rely on underperformed.
This year it's likely to be all about the young guys.
Seattle's current 40-man roster features 33 players with less than five years of major league experience — 31 of those have less than three years. If that number isn't stark enough, 40 of the Mariners' 65 current spring training invitees have less than one year of major league service.
It's why there is optimism for what the Mariners could be when these players mature. But they'll need time. Throw in what the remainder of the AL West did in the offseason — namely the additions in Texas and with the Angels — and it reinforces Zduriencik's belief that it could be a bumpy year.
"It's going to be a challenge because of the young kids. If you think about it, Dustin Ackley has half a year in the big leagues, Kyle Seager has half a year in the big leagues, Casper Wells ...," Zduriencik said. "You start looking around, looking around and start looking at these pieces ... and then you look at what happens in this division. No matter how you shake it, you can't ignore what (the Angels) did and you can't ignore what Texas did and those clubs were ahead of us prior to these moves. It's an uphill battle."
Many Mariners fans pegged the success of this offseason to the chances of bringing free-agent slugger Prince Fielder to the Pacific Northwest, largely making that connection due to Zduriencik's history with Fielder in Milwaukee. Fielder signed a $214 million, nine-year deal with Detroit on Thursday.
Zduriencik didn't go into details Thursday about his discussions with Fielder's agent, Scott Boras, other than noting Boras was upfront about what he thought it would take to sign Fielder.
"He had a vision of what the number was going to be. He openly shared that with me, and he got the number he certainly thought was going to begin with a 'two,' and it happened that way," Zduriencik said. "That's a large number and a large number of years. The best to him."
While Zduriencik was tempering any expectations for his ballclub, which opens spring training on Feb. 12 and begins the season in Japan, Wedge made it clear Thursday that the offensive ineptitude of recent seasons won't be tolerated. Seattle's biggest offseason move was solely to address its offensive problems when young All-Star pitcher Michael Pineda was traded to the New York Yankees in exchange for young slugging prospect Jesus Montero.
Wedge joked that his wife was proud of him last year for biting his tongue at times when he could have unleashed a verbal lashing on a more veteran team. Wedge made a point recently to bring in nine position players to Seattle to hold them accountable and make sure they were following through with their offseason programs. He let them know there would be less slack this season for not performing.
"It's unacceptable the amount of runs we've scored the last couple of years. Last year I sat back. I get it, believe me. I bit my tongue off more than once," Wedge said. "It was the right thing to do. My wife was proud of me. This year is going to be a little bit different. You don't go from zero to 60. We've got to let it out a little more this year, raise the bar a little bit."
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