For the past several years, the outcry among critics of the Mariners was that while the team could field viable rosters–think ’07 and ’09, of course–there was no home-grown talent outside of the dazzling Felix Hernandez.

AAA Tacoma was the breeding ground for players who would achieve little, if anything, at the major league level. Haunting memories of prospects who have failed to live up to their billing have come and gone with Rob Johnson, Matt Tuiasasosopo, Brandon Morrow, and Wladimir Balentien (some of you may go, ‘who?’).

The Jose Guillens and Russell Branyans of the M’s free agent signings have made their impact on the team, and so have the Carlos Silva’s and Miguel Batista’s. But the problem remained that while we could buy a few more expensive wins with a guy like Cliff Lee, we were left with Brandon Morrow while another team flourished with Tim Lincecum.

In order to win and to stay competitive for more than a couple years, a team needs to develop its own talent rather than relying on pricy free agents, and that was the issue with the Mariners. But today, I’m telling you that this era is coming to a close.

After watching Pineda bind the Kansas City Royals to one run in six innings and Justin Smoak go 2 for 4 to continue both of their remarkable seasons, it became clear to me that these two guys could be top contributors on the team for years to come.

First, let’s talk about every M’s fan’s current infatuation, Michael Pineda. He’s had less success facing left-handed batters and can get smacked around a bit if he gets behind in the count too much, but besides that, you couldn’t ask for a better start for Pineda.

In his first three starts, Pineda has combined for 19 1/3 innings pitched, striking out 16 and posting an extraordinary 2.33 ERA. Although Pineda will likely stumble at some point, all doubt has been removed whether the rookie can pitch at the major league level.

Said Toronto’s Jay Patterson of Pineda in an interview with Larry Stone (Seattle Times), “I think he has a chance to be something special, and I really don’t like complimenting pitchers that much”.

Pineda’s high 90’s fastball rivals that of King Felix and his breaking stuff is effective enough when paired with that fastball. His dominance and confidence exudes when he is on the mound and it seems to augment as a game wears on.

22-year-olds just don’t get this good, this fast. The Mariners struck gold when they signed him at the age of 17, and they are about to reap the immense rewards.

My prediction is that by the end of the season, Pineda and Felix will have become a formidable 1-2 punch that can anchor the rotation for the future and even draw fans to Safeco. When you talk about being a playoff contending team, you need those two studs who can give you a chance to win every outing, like Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum did with the 2010 World Champion Giants.

And next, we come to Justin Smoak. After being acquired in the Cliff Lee deal from the Rangers last year, Smoak disappointed and was even sent back down to the minors.

But this season, Smoak has hit for a .300 average, and to some that pales in comparison to some of the excellent campaigns other first basemen have been putting together around the league.

However, as a 25-year-old with limited experience in the majors and in a stagnant Mariners offense, Smoak has emerged as a top hitter in the lineup. His development since joining the M’s has been outstanding, especially his ability to stay patient at the plate which most young hitters don’t learn.

This is seen best by Smoak’s ability to work the count and draw a walk- Smoak has struck out ten times this season, but has walked eleven times. Those eleven walks are good for sixth in the AL and tied for 11th in all of baseball.

Even his defense has been showcased this season, best seen in the outstanding play made against the Blue Jays in which he caught a foul popup and gunned Corey Patterson out at home trying to tag-up from third by a wide margin, a throw equivalent to one which an outfielder would have to make.

Smoak hasn’t fully developed yet and I expect some more pop from his bat as the season wears on, but there’s no question that after Richie Sexson and Russell Branyan have come and gone, the first baseman spot will be Smoak’s to keep. He’s shown an ability to get on base consistently and with mediocre bats in so many other positions, first base may be locked up for years to come.

And with the farm system featuring prospects like Dustin Ackley, Carlos Peguero, Alex Liddi, Josh Lueke, and Carlos Triunfel all developing, it may be only a matter of time before the youth movement hits the majors.

Is this the start of a great influx of young talent? Only time will tell, but Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak are an encouraging beacon of hope in a desolate wasteland of second-rate players. 

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