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Mariners have the blocks to build a winner
SEATTLE -- As the calendar turns to 2013, it brings renewed expectations for a Mariners franchise looking to climb the tough American League West ladder.

Manager Eric Wedge has had two seasons cultivating a club of young players, and the pieces are now largely in place as Seattle looks to make significant progress. The Mariners have one of the premier pitchers in the game in Felix Hernandez, and they have been building behind him by adding some of baseball's top prospects in Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero, Danny Hultzen and Mike Zunino over the last few years.

Not all those players are quite ready -- indeed, recent first-round Draft picks Hultzen and Zunino may not even crack the roster coming out of Spring Training -- but baseball insiders are well aware of the talent knocking on the Mariners door. And with Ackley and Montero heading into their second full Major League seasons, along with 2012 breakout players Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders, newly acquired slugger Kendrys Morales, a stable of power arms in the bullpen led by Tom Wilhelmsen, Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps and a rotation topped by The King, there are reasons for optimism.

The club won 67 games in Wedge's first year, a six-win improvement from 2010. That record climbed to 75-87 last season. And while nobody is making grandiose predictions in a rugged division in which the high-rolling Rangers and Angels wound up getting beat by the upstart A's in 2012, it's reasonable to believe the Mariners will continue to progress.

How far they can climb in 2013 remains to be seen, but count the Mariners' hard-driving manager among those who firmly believe the future is bright.

"Fans in Seattle should be excited about it," said Wedge. "Are we there today? No. Are we much further down the line? Yes. Is it real what we're building? If you look from our system to our scouting to our player development to what we're doing at the big league level and how we're doing it, without a doubt.

"Where you get into trouble is when you lose that discipline, where you become impatient, where you push a deal. What we're going to do is continue to develop our young players, make sure we're playing the way we're supposed to play, and then continue to add veteran players or other players that make sense. And then just keep going."

Where exactly they wind up this year will be interesting to see. Certainly critical questions remain. How they are answered will go a long way toward determining just how quickly the rebuilding process takes place.

Here are 10 questions worth pondering for 2013:

1. Where will the improved offense come from?

Seattle has scored more runs in each of the last two seasons under Wedge, but still ranked at the bottom of the AL last year. General manager Jack Zduriencik's hunt for a veteran thumper in the middle of the lineup led to the acquisition of Morales, who figures to slot nicely into the cleanup role. The search won't stop there, but some of the answer is going to have to come from the continued development of young returners who helped the club finish fifth in the league in runs and home runs on the road last year, but couldn't translate that success over to Safeco Field.

2. How much will the shortened fences at Safeco Field help?

After 12 seasons in one of the toughest parks for hitters in baseball, the Mariners are bringing the Safeco fences in between four and 17 feet in left field, left-center and the right-center gap. The difference won't be drastic and obviously will impact opposing teams as well, but the club hopes the move can help its own hitters relax a little and not feel they have to muscle up as much over the course of 81 home games. Studies of previous seasons indicated the Mariners and their opponents would have combined for 30-40 more home runs per season, a welcome indicator for a Mariners squad that totaled 56 homers at home in 2012.

3. Can Franklin Gutierrez finally get healthy?

For all the talk of adding a key veteran free agent, Gutierrez would be just as impactful if he can simply stay healthy and productive for a full season. Of course, the Mariners were saying the same thing a year ago, and the 2010 Gold Glove center fielder wound up playing just 40 games due to several new health problems even after showing up to Spring Training in outstanding shape.

4. Can Justin Smoak be more than Mr. September?

The Mariners entered 2012 hoping to see Smoak become a critical part of their lineup as a switch-hitter with power, but the big first baseman struggled for five months before finally turning things around by hitting .394 with five home runs in his final 18 games. That late sign of life followed a familiar trend. In three seasons in the Majors, Smoak has hit .327 in September and October, but just .202 from April through August. If he can build on last season's finish, Smoak would be a big part of the Mariners' offensive revival. If not, Morales can play first base as well as DH.

5. Who will fill out the rotation?

You can safely pencil in the top of the rotation with Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, but the trade of Jason Vargas to the Angels creates an opening for another veteran and Zduriencik is certainly looking to add an experienced arm. Even before Vargas was dealt, the last two spots were up for grabs heading to Spring Training. Returners Blake Beavan and Erasmo Ramirez gained valuable experience last year, but both are still very young -- younger than top prospects Hultzen and James Paxton -- and will be strongly challenged by that duo this spring. Taijuan Walker might turn out to be the best of the bunch, but he just turned 20. Walker and Brendan Maurer, 22, will also get looks this spring, but are longer shots given they've yet to pitch above Double-A ball. Hector Noesi is also a year older. If he's wiser, after a tough 2012, he might fit in the mix somewhere.

6. Can the sophomores succeed?

Second baseman Ackley and catcher Montero were two of the premier offensive prospects in baseball heading into their first full season in the Majors last year. Both got their feet wet in 2011, but were counted on for the first time in '12 as key members of the Mariners lineup from start to finish. Ackley wound up hitting .226 with 12 homers and 50 RBIs, scoring a team-leading 84 runs while playing much of the season with bone spurs in his left ankle. Montero batted .260 with 15 homers and 62 RBIs while batting in the middle of the order much of the year as a 22-year-old. The Mariners feel there's a lot more there for both players and if they take solid steps forward, that will be a big positive for the offense.

7. Is there another Saunders waiting to jump up?

Wedge likes to say that at this time last year, nobody was talking about Saunders, which is a fair point, given he was coming off a .149 season and far from a lock to make the roster with Gutierrez returning. Instead, Saunders put together a strong campaign and now is viewed as an integral part of the club as a five-tool player who hit 19 home runs, stole 21 bases and played an excellent center field. It seems like somebody surprises every year with a breakout campaign when they get a chance and finally take advantage. Could it be Mike Carp again? Casper Wells? Alex Liddi? Carlos Peguero? Or is free-agent signee Jason Bay the most logical candidate after three rough years with the Mets?

8. Does Ryan bury Mr. Mendoza?

Without question, Brendan Ryan is one of the premier defensive shortstops in baseball. But his season-long battle with the Mendoza Line wound up a losing proposition as he hit just .194. The 30-year-old is a better hitter than that. He batted .248 the previous year for Seattle and owned a career .256 average, having hit .292 for the Cardinals in 2009, before his 2012 struggles. Ryan never will be confused with Cal Ripken or Derek Jeter, but he should gravitate back toward his norm this year. If not, former Orioles infielder Robert Andino will be waiting in the wings.

9. Who fills Ichiro's shoes?

For the first time in 13 years, Ichiro Suzuki won't be Seattle's starting right fielder heading into the season. The Mariners got used to that notion after trading the Japanese standout to the Yankees last July, but the transition will become complete when Spring Training opens without the usual -- or unusual -- Ichiro routines that marked every camp and campaign since 2001. Right field seemed the logical place to add a power bat and the Mariners took a big swing at Josh Hamilton. But as of now, if Gutierrez comes back healthy in center and newly signed Raul Ibanez can split time in left with Casper Wells or Bay, that would appear to leave the right corner in the capable hands of Saunders.

10. How do you top perfection?

Hernandez was very motivated last year, intent on improving on a 14-14 season with a 3.47 ERA in 2011 that didn't live up to his standards in the wake of his 2010 Cy Young campaign. And, indeed, he fashioned an impressive 2012 that included a Major League-leading five shutouts and the first perfect game in Mariners history. The King became the first Seattle pitcher with four consecutive seasons with 200-plus innings and 200-plus strikeouts. He's been as durable and productive as any pitcher in baseball over the past seven years. And he's still just 26. Can he be better? The Mariners would be plenty happy if he just keeps doing his thing, while the rest of the club gets better around him.

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.

Seattle Mariners, Dustin Ackley, Felix Hernandez, Jesus Montero, Kendrys Morales, Michael Saunders, Justin Smoak