The 2011 Seattle Mariners played promisingly for half of a season.
Through 82 games, they hovered around .500. The pitching dazzled as a struggling offense found ways to win games. Dustin Ackley made a spectacular major league debut in a weekend series against the Philadelphia Phillies in June, and Justin Smoak showed glimpses of his All-Star potential.
Just when it looked as if the consecutive losing seasons would stop, the Mariners dropped 17 consecutive games before meekly playing out the rest of the season.
However, there is finally reason for hope.
Ackley, Smoak and left fielder Mike Carp are three major league ready hitters the Mariners can lean on to produce runs for the next five years.
However, they will need help.
Seattle's offensive deficiencies won't be alleviated until upper management increases payroll and allows GM Jack Zduriencik to go after at least two free agents who can make an immediate impact.
The most desirable target in the 2012 free agent market is Prince Fielder. The .293 batting average, 35 home runs and 114 RBIs he has put up in 2011 would make the Mariners an immediate contender in the AL West.
Fielder could provide the type of left-handed power bat the Mariners have pined for since Ken Griffey Jr. packed up and left for Cincinatti more than a decade ago.
As a DH in the American League, Fielder would immediately win over Seattle fans who are fed up watching overvalued veterans hit .221 while making mindless fielding blunders (I'm talking to you, Chone Figgins).
If the Mariners, sticking to a history of front office incomptence, decide to not go after Fielder, they would be wise to at least give Giants outfielder Carlos Beltran a long look.
Because the fact is, Franklin Gutierrez is a major liability as this team's starting center fielder. Despite pure defensive greatness, Gutierrez has been a horrific hitter the past two years. Frankly, his swing looks unnatural. I've never seen a major league hitter who fails to use his lower half like Gutierrez does. It's surprising he can hit the ball out of the infield with a swing featuring nothing but arms.
In right field, it appears the Mariners are stuck with Ichiro for the rest of his slowly declining career. While some fans are undoubtedly fed up with the Japanese-born star, he has been the team's most consistent player the past decade.
Failing to reach 200 hits for the first time in 10 seasons is an indication of what is to come for Ichiro. His declining speed will rob him of the infield hits he has made into an art-form. Mariners fans will be best-served by appreciating Ichiro's sporadic brilliance and accepting him as a shade of his former self.
Heading into 2012, Zduriencik's job will be in jeopardy for the first time in his tenure. He should sign Mark Buehrle to shore up a rotation weakened by the departure of Doug Fister. With a formidable lineup and a rotation featuring Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda, Buehrle, Jason Vargas and Blake Beaven, Seattle doesn't need to rebuild for another five years.