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As the season nears the midway point, the Mariners’ master plan has proved to be a mirage. Or, to put it more bluntly, a bust.

The young core of Dustin Ackley, Jesus Montero and Justin Smoak did not take the next step. If steps were taken, they were mostly in a backward direction.

The veteran hitters they brought in for both thump and leadership did not revitalize the Mariners’ offense, nor has moving in the fences at Safeco Field. Though Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay have all met or exceeded expectations – and Michael Morse was hitting well until stymied by a series of injuries – the Mariners are actually scoring at a lower pace than last year. And we all know what a juggernaut the 2012 Mariners were.

Two aces were not enough to carry the rotation, and the bullpen has crumpled as Tom Wilhelmsen’s struggles forced manager Eric Wedge to back him off the closer’s role indefinitely. Meanwhile, the Mariners rank 28th in the majors in bullpen earned-run average.

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Throw in injuries to such key players as Franklin Gutierrez and Stephen Pryor, and it’s no wonder that the Mariners came home after Thursday’s crushing loss in Anaheim 10 games under .500 and on pace for 92 losses. Since May 15, the Mariners had four fewer wins than the Astros, whose presence in the AL West was supposed to provide assurance of enough easy victories to reach the elusive .500 mark.

Instead, barring a stunning reversal of fortune of which there are no visible warning signs, the Mariners face another second half with pennant races off the agenda (except in a spoiler’s role).

Even if they didn’t contend, it was supposed to be a stepping-stone season, one in which the Mariners made the requisite improvements to set themselves up for legitimate contention next year.

And that’s the most troubling aspect of this season. They are well-positioned at the top of their rotation with the enviable presence of two aces in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma (who won’t be traded at the July 31 deadline despite the considerable speculation you can be expected to hear). And they are set at third base with the steady improvement of Kyle Seager, who has developed into one of the league’s best at the position.

Beyond that, however, the Mariners have an unsettling amount of question marks. Few doubt that Mike Zunino is the long-term answer behind the plate, but in a perfect world he would have been allowed to stay longer in Tacoma.

Second base looks to be in good hands in young Nick Franklin, but his stats after his first 20 games (.299/.382/.522 for a .904 OPS) closely mirror those of Ackley (.304/.364/.536 for a .900 OPS), who proved unable to sustain his impressive start.

First base is wide open, moving forward. So is shortstop, all three outfield spots (with the prolonged slump by Michael Saunders creating new concerns at what had seemed to be a solved spot), designated hitter, the rest of the rotation after Hernandez and Iwakuma, and now the closer’s job as well. It’s hard to view that as progress.

The prime focus of the second half will be two-fold (and all too familiar). The Mariner will almost certainly continue to insert young players onto the major-league roster – Brad Miller at shortstop, Erasmo Ramirez into the rotation, perhaps Stefen Romero, a hitter who can play a number of positions.

Dustin Ackley, reinvented as an outfielder, will get a chance to show if his flirtation with .400 in Tacoma is the result of real changes, or a PCL illusion. Depending on health, Danny Hultzen (who has been out since late April with a shoulder injury) might get an audition. Taijuan Walker, promoted to Tacoma on Friday, is now just one step away.

Watching the kids can be compelling stuff, but it can also lead to inconsistent play and inevitable struggles, as we’ve seen under similar circumstances in recent years. And that tends to play havoc with the win-loss record.

The July 31 trade deadline also looms large this year, with the Mariners possessing the classic trappings of a seller: a poor record, and a bunch of veteran players in the final year of their contract. That list, some of whom have 2014 options, includes Morales, Morse, Bay, Ibanez, Brendan Ryan, Gutierrez, Joe Saunders, Aaron Harang, Jeremy Bonderman and Oliver Perez.

Unfortunately, none of those are the sort of players that contenders will be salivating to have. That’s not to say they won’t be desired, but not in exchange for blue-chip prospects. Of course, you don’t always know which prospects are going to turn out to be blue chip. Case in point: a seemingly innocuous deal on July 30, 2011, in which Texas acquired reliever Koji Uehara from the Orioles to shore up their bullpen, sending off an inconsistent young first baseman named Chris Davis. Now Davis is one of the top sluggers in baseball.

One can dream, right? You can also dream of the Mariners making a bid for Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton (along with 28 other teams). But while the industry consensus is that the Marlins will indeed eventually trade Stanton, there is no indication they will do so midseason.

If the Mariners wind up dealing many of their veterans, then the roster will get that much younger and inexperienced. It’s a story line we’ve seen played out before – one that we had hoped the Mariners were beyond this year.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or

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