Mariners bank on youth to revitalize rebuild

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In the giddy aftermath of Taijuan Walker’s excellent Class AAA debut on Tuesday, Tacoma manager John Stearns was asked, once he had finished his Walker raves, about Brad Miller. The young shortstop had gotten a late single in the Rainiers’ 1-0 win to extend his hitting streak to 21 games.

“There’s another story,’’ Stearns said, his eyes relighting up. “These guys keep coming up to Triple A, and they act like they’ve been here their whole life. No problem. That’s Walker now. Miller has come up here and shown he is a tremendous baseball player. He’s another young kid that’s not struggling at this level. Good things are in the near future for these kids.”

The Mariners, and specifically general manager Jack Zduriencik, are banking on it. While the dominant story line of the past year and a half has been the sputtering nature of the Mariners’ rebuilding project, the ballclub has continued to churn out a new crop of young players from Tacoma.

In fact, with the Mariners’ season all but a lost cause, the pace of promotions is accelerating, with more almost certain to come.

Call it the second wave of talent, with second baseman Nick Franklin (age 22) and catcher Mike Zunino (age 22) preceding the 23-year-old Miller to the big leagues — and right into the Mariners’ starting lineup — this season.

Following right behind is likely to be pitcher Erasmo Ramirez, whose progress has been slowed by arm problems after he appeared in 16 games (eight starts) last season. But Ramirez, still just 23, looks healthy again and has a 2.23 earned-run average in five Tacoma starts.

Left-hander Danny Hultzen (age 23), who made a dominant return to Tacoma’s rotation on Thursday (six scoreless innings, the same outcome as Walker two days earlier) after taking two months to let a rotator cuff strain heal, will jump right back on the fast track if his arm holds up. And Walker won’t be far behind, even if the Mariners opt to wait until next season to call upon the 20-year-old pitcher.

Other young players could soon fit into the mix as well, including left-hander James Paxton (24) and outfielder Stefen Romero (24; currently sidelined with a wrist injury). And if the Zunino timetable holds true, this year’s first-round pick, DJ Peterson, could be in the running for the first-base job by the middle of next year, though that’s unlikely.

It’s one final chance for Zduriencik to show that the Mariners, under his watch, can both identify and develop front-line talent. Faith has dimmed with the slow progress of, in particular, Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley, his three biggest acquisitions. Ackley is back in the majors after a monthlong stint in Tacoma to both rediscover his batting stroke and learn to play the outfield.

The Mariners now boast a plethora of homegrown talent acquired by Zduriencik either already in the majors or on the way. Ackley (first round in 2009), Franklin (first round in 2009), Walker (supplemental first round in 2010), Romero (12th round in 2010), Paxton (fourth round in 2010), Hultzen (first round in 2011), Miller (second round in 2011) and Zunino (first round in 2012) were all Zduriencik picks.

So was Kyle Seager (third round in 2009), who is firmly established at third base. In the bullpen, there’s Carter Capps (third round in 2011) and Stephen Pryor (fifth round in 2010; currently on the DL).

Having homegrown talent is great, and every GM will tell you that it’s an essential element of team building, helping to keep salaries down and enable, at least theoretically, bigger strikes in the free-agent market. But it’s only an effective strategy if the talent blossoms. And the second half of this season will largely be about getting an indication whether that’s going to happen with this wave.

It also marks a remarkable in-season shift for the Mariners, who have now phased out their opening-day catcher (Montero), second baseman (Ackley) and shortstop (Brendan Ryan), with opening day outfielder Franklin Gutierrez out indefinitely because of injury and Michael Saunders likely to see his playing time diminished with Ackley’s rebirth as an outfielder. The other opening-day outfielder, Michael Morse, is on the disabled list.

The Mariners’ pitching staff is also likely to be in flux, with their three starters behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma all working on one-year deals (with a 2014 option for Joe Saunders) and all candidates to be replaced and/or traded.

In fact, the Mariners have 10 of their current 25-man roster — 40 percent — who are in the final year of their contract (plus Morse) and in line for potential deadline trades.

It’s a fascinating detour — and one that will go a long way toward determining the fate of Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge.

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