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Youth has Mariners moving in right direction

Zunino-Franklin-Miller rookie trio breathes new life into Seattle

SEATTLE -- Mariners manager Eric Wedge mentioned several times during Spring Training that all the hoopla over which players make the team out of camp is often overblown, since faces frequently change over the course of a six-month season.

Wedge didn't have a crystal ball on what changes were coming for his club, but he certainly was correct in anticipating a midseason makeover of sorts in his third year at Seattle's helm.

But even Wedge acknowledged he didn't expect quite as dramatic of a facelift so soon for the Mariners, who will open the second half in Houston on Friday with different starters at catcher, second base, shortstop and center field from the group that opened the season three and a half months ago in Oakland.

Mike Zunino has taken over behind the plate for Jesus Montero, who lost his job and then got injured after being sent to the Minors. Nick Franklin was promoted from Triple-A Tacoma in late May and breathed life into the second base position originally occupied by Dustin Ackley. Brad Miller got the call a month later and replaced Brendan Ryan at shortstop.

And Ackley, once one of the premier hitting prospects in baseball, now is trying to revive his career in center field, where he and Michael Saunders are sharing the job that Franklin Gutierrez hoped to handle coming out of camp.

Those up-the-middle changes have provided a spark in recent weeks to a club that hit the break with a 43-52 record after going 36-51 a year ago in the first half.

The season hasn't provided as much of a rise yet in the standings as anticipated by Wedge and others in the organization, but progress is being made via Seattle's long-anticipated youth movement.

"It gives you a little different look for your club," general manager Jack Zduriencik said. "When you broke Spring Training, you had one look. You're now looking at Ackley playing in the outfield, you're looking at a new middle of the infield and a catcher behind the plate. And we'll see some additions in the pitching staff going forward. So, it's a little bit of a different-look club, but it is guys we all thought we'd see at some point in time this year.

First-half awards
MVP: Raul Ibanez The veteran outfielder leads the Mariners with 24 HRs and 56 RBIs, not bad at 41 -- or any age.
Cy Young: Felix Hernandez Not only the best pitcher for the Mariners, the four-time All-Star has again been one of the best hurlers in all of baseball at 10-4 with a 2.53 ERA.
Rookie: Nick Franklin Since getting promoted in late May, the 22-year-old has been one of the club's better hitters and played an excellent second base, as well.
Top reliever: Oliver Perez The veteran lefty has reinvented himself as a bullpen ace and has been dominant all season with the team's lowest ERA at 1.75, not to mention 50 strikeouts in 36 innings.

"You could make a good argument that we probably saw them a little sooner than we should have. However, there are circumstances that happened that made that come to fruition. That said, I think you have to be proud of what these kids have done up here in a short time. They've shown things where you can look forward and say this has a chance to be a pretty good group of kids. And that bodes well for our future."

Zduriencik acknowledged that for this club to win big, a lot of things had to go right. And that certainly didn't happen in the first half as neither Montero nor Ackley took the expected steps forward and were sent to the Minors, Saunders has only recently shown signs of building on his 2012 breakthrough season, and Gutierrez, Stephen Pryor and Michael Morse spent much of the first half dealing with injuries.

"I think in our scenario, we're a club that's kind of in the balance and we really needed to be healthy to compete and I think it took its toll," Zduriencik said. "That said, it also created opportunities for guys. Between that and guys that struggled early on, which we had a few, it also created opportunities for some of these other guys to play. So, we are where we're at right now and we just have to see where it takes us."

With All-Stars Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma anchoring the rotation and veteran additions Raul Ibanez and Kendrys Morales solidifying the middle of the lineup along with second-year third baseman Kyle Seager, the club certainly has the ability to compete.

Players to watch in second half
Dustin Ackley The 2009 first-round Draft choice is getting a new shot in the outfield while looking to rediscover the hitting stroke he showed as a rookie in 2011.
Brad Miller The 23-year-old rookie made an instant impact upon his arrival in late June as an exciting leadoff hitter and solid shortstop, and could go a long way toward solidifying that position if he continues playing well in the second half.
Justin Smoak After another slow start, the big first baseman has greatly improved offensively in the past two months and could answer a lot of questions if he maintains that progress over the course of a full season.

If Morse can get healthy and return to the early-season form he flashed when he hit eight home runs in April, that would help. Continued improvement from Saunders and Justin Smoak will be another key, along with the development of the trio of rookie position players.

Starting pitching behind Hernandez and Iwakuma is a question mark, but veteran lefty Joe Saunders has looked like a very solid No. 3 starter in recent weeks and the club is hoping to see good things from Erasmo Ramirez after the 23-year-old missed the first three months while recovering from an elbow injury.

The bullpen has also proven erratic, with closer Tom Wilhelmsen hitting a rough patch in June, young Carter Capps getting sent down to find himself last week and Pryor still trying to come back from a torn muscle behind his shoulder that sidelined him after an outstanding start.

Everything added up to fewer wins than hoped for in the first half, though the glass seems to be tipping toward the half-full perspective with a strong first-half finish against tough competition.

"It's continuing to be a process, a learning experience," Zduriencik said. "There have been good things and there have been things I wish were better. So, we have the second half still to play and we'll go at it."

Greg Johns is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB as well as his Mariners Musings blog.
Read More: Seattle Mariners, Brad Miller, Michael Saunders, Nick Franklin, Mike Zunino, Dustin Ackley