Zduriencik gets extension, but have Mariners really turned a corner?
If the season were to end today, the Mariners would occupy the second wild-card spot, qualifying them for the postseason for the first time since 2001. On the heels of four straight losing seasons, that's apparently enough to ensure the continued employment of general manager Jack Zduriencik. Via statement, team president and chief operating officer Kevin Mather announced the multiyear deal — whose terms were not disclosed — on Tuesday. It's a surprising turnaround for a GM whose regime has been marked by turmoil and embarrassing gaffes to the point that he appeared on the brink of unemployment less than a year ago.
"Jack Z" was hired in October 2008 after 25 seasons of working on the scouting and player development side for the Mets, Pirates, Dodgers and Brewers, the last nine of them as the latter's scouting director, capped by the team's first playoff appearance in 26 years. Under predecessor Bill Bavasi, the M's had managed just one winning season out of five, producing the AL's second-worst record (359-451, .443) in that 2004-08 span. The team won 85 games in Zduriencik's first year on the job, and while optimism reigned at the time, that season still stands as one of only two above .500 for the franchise during the entire 2004-13 decade. In fact, Zduriencik came into this year carrying the exact record of his predecessor, this time for the league's worst record, two wins shy of the Royals.
On his watch, Zduriencik’s Mariners put forth the Wild Card era's lowest and third-lowest-scoring offenses in 2010 and 2011 (513 and 556 runs, respectively). Managers Don Wakamatsu (2009-mid 2010) and Eric Wedge (2011-13) came and went prior to Lloyd McClendon’s hiring this past winter. Upon his departure last fall, Wedge described the organization’s "total dysfunction and a lack of leadership," a statement supported by current and former Mariners baseball operations employees, including special assistant to the GM Tony Blengino, who ridiculed the GM’s lack of understanding when it came to statistical analysis.
Understanding or no, Zduriencik's track record prior to this year was grim. His marquee free agent signing — Chone Figgins, who received a four-year, $36 million deal after the 2009 season — produced -0.9 WAR and a .227/.302/.283 line in three seasons before drawing his release. Many of his trades fell flat as well; acquisitions of veterans such as Bill Hall, Casey Kotchman and Milton Bradley did little to boost the offense, while Mike Morse (traded to Washington for Ryan Langerhans in June 2009), Doug Fister (traded to Detroit in July 2011 as part of a six-player deal) and John Jaso (traded to Oakland in a three-team deal that brought back a diminished Morse in January 2013) went on to flourish for playoff teams after being dealt.
Two of Zduriencik's deals were particularly embarrassing. First was the July 2010 deal that sent Cliff Lee to Texas. Seattle had acquired the 31-year-old pending free agent from the Phillies for three players in December 2009, none of whom (Phillippe Aumont, Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez) wound up panning out; at the time, it was a reasonable move that looked as though it might well help the previous year's 85-win team snag a playoff berth. But with Figgins, Kotchman and Bradley among those failing to produce, the team was 12 games under .500 (19-31) by the end of May, and 13 games under when Zduriencik shipped Lee and reliever Mark Lowe to the Rangers for four players: Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, Josh Lueke and Justin Smoak.
Lawson never made the majors, while Beavan, a 2007 first-round pick, has a career ERA+ of 82 with 1.5 WAR to his name. Meanwhile, allegations that Zduriencik was aware of Lueke's criminal past — 2008 charges of rape and non-consensual sodomy resulting in a no-contest plea to a lesser charge of false imprisonment — surfaced in the months following the trade and cast the GM and the organization in a particularly poor light.
As for Smoak, who had ranked 13th on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list in 2010 and was essentially the centerpiece of the return, he has hardly panned out either. In three-plus seasons as the team's regular first baseman, he has hit .227/.308/.386 across 1,929 plate appearances for all of 1.4 WAR, playing no small role in the Mariners' ongoing offensive ineptitude. Following an early June quad strain, he lost his job and is now a 27-year-old wiling away his time in Triple-A.
The other embarrassing deal was the January 2012 trade that sent Michael Pineda and pitching prospect Jose Campos to the Yankees in exchange for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. Cast as a catcher with considerable pop, Montero spent three years ranked among BA's top six prospects and had sparkled in a September 2011 cup of coffee with the Yankees, but the general consensus around the game was that his defense behind the plate merited a position change. Pineda, meanwhile, had just completed a solid rookie season with a second-half fade that overshadowed his first-half brilliance.
The move didn't go well for either side, but after missing two full seasons due to surgery to repair a torn labrum, Pineda has resurfaced to deliver a 1.95 ERA across seven starts for the Yankees this year, interrupted by yet another shoulder injury. Montero hit 15 homers as a rookie, he batted just .260/.298/.386 and produced -0.1 WAR, a figure that doesn't include his subpar pitch framing.
Since then, Montero has been banished to the minors, moved to first base, suspended 50 games due to his connections to the Biogenesis clinic and showed up at camp a reported 40 pounds overweight, at which time Zduriencik told reporters he had "zero expectations for Jesus Montero." Recalled earlier this year when Smoak hit the DL, he was the subject of a similarly caustic barb from McClendon, who told reporters, "I never said I had confidence. I said I need a first baseman. He’s available and that’s who we’re going to put out there."
Meanwhile, Zduriencik's drafts have produced several touted prospects, though only 2009 fourth-round pick Kyle Seager has truly flourished. Dustin Ackley, the second overall pick in 2009, enjoyed a strong rookie season in 2011 (3.8 WAR) but his bat has never lived up to expectations, and most of his value has come from his defense; he's now a light-hitting leftfielder with a plus glove. Catcher Mike Zunino, the third overall pick in 2012, has struggled to keep his batting average above the Mendoza Line.
Pitchers Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen and James Paxton — all of whom landed on the major prospect lists in the spring of 2012, with the first two 20th and 21st, respectively — are the organization's crown jewels, but all have been slowed by a variety of arm problems while totaling less than 100 innings at the major league level. Of that trio, Hultzen hasn't pitched this year in the wake of surgery to repair his rotator cuff, labrum and shoulder capsule, while Walker missed nearly three months due to bursitis and is currently scuffling at Triple-A Tacoma. Paxton has sparkled when available, putting up a 1.83 ERA in seven starts for the big club, but missed nearly four months due to a lat strain.
Since trading away the iconic but declining Ichiro Suzuki in July 2012, Zduriencik has benefited from ownership's willingness to open its checkbook, though the team's Opening Day payroll ($90.2 million) was actually just the fourth-highest of the GM's six seasons at the helm, still below his inaugural year's $98.9 million. In February 2013, the M's gave ace Felix Hernandez a record-setting seven-year, $175 million extension; he's currently pitching to a 2.07 ERA, 2.22 FIP and 6.1 WAR, quite likely bound for his second AL Cy Young. In December 2013, they signed Robinson Cano to a jaw-dropping 10-year, $240 million deal; while's hit only 12 homers — down from an average of 29 over his previous four seasons — his 147 OPS+ (on a .326/.394/.469 line) is just one point off his 2012 and 2013 career highs, set in the much more hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium, and his 5.5 WAR ranks fifth in the league.
Even after moving in the fences following the 2012 season, the current model of the Mariners is still characterized by a shaky offense; the team's 4.0 runs-per-game figure ranks 10th in the league, their 94 OPS+ (on .247/.304/.375 hitting) tied for 11th. Among the regulars, only Cano, Seager (131 OPS+), Ackley (100 OPS+) and the injured Michael Saunders (116 OPS+) have produced at a league-average clip or better. The low-stakes free agent signings of Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, as well as the midseason re-acquisition of Kendrys Morales, haven't paid off; the team's first basemen (including Smoak) have hit .246/.304/.384 en route to an 80 OPS+, and their DHs have hit .188/.267/.283 en route to a 51 OPS+, not only the worst in the league but also the second-worst in history. Centerfield, manned by James Jones, the departed Abe Almonte and the recently acquired Austin Jackson, has been a sinkhole as well, producing a 61 OPS+ via a .240/.278/.301 line.
What this year's M's have in abundance is pitching. Aided by their ballpark, the team's 3.17 runs allowed per game is the league's lowest by 0.38 per game, and their 128 ERA+ is 13 points better than the number two club, the Athletics. In addition to Hernandez's award-worthy campaign, Hisashi Iwakuma (2.83 ERA, 3.03 FIP) and Chris Young (3.17 ERA, 4.62 FIP) have been stellar as well as inexpensive; the former is making $6.5 million in the second year of a two-year, $14 million deal, while the latter is making $1.25 million plus incentives as a 35-year-old reclamation project whose 150 1/3 inning workload and 3.0 WAR are already his highest since 2007.
Rookie Roenis Elias, signed as an amateur in 2011 after defecting from Cuba, has been a respectable back-end filler (4.01 ERA, 8.3 K/9) while the team has withstood the sporadic availability of Paxton and Walker. Meanwhile, the bullpen has the league's lowest ERA (2.36) by nearly half a run, with closer Fernando Rodney — who signed a two-year, $14 million deal in February — converting 38 of 41 save opportunities and delivering a 2.19 ERA and getting ample support from righty setup men Yoervis Medina, Danny Farquhar and lefty Charlie Furbush.
In all, Seattle's +109 run differential is the majors' second-best behind only Oakland's (+164). At 72-59, they're six games behind the division-leading Angels and five behind the Wild Card-leading A's; while they still have six games apiece against their two rivals, the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds Report gives them just a 1.2 percent chance of capturing the division flag. Those same odds give them a 50.8 percent chance of staving off the Tigers (whom they lead by half a game), Yankees (whom they lead by 3 1/2) and Indians (whom they lead by 4 1/2) for a wild card spot.
For a team that hasn't reached the postseason in well over a decade, that qualifies as a turnaround. Given that Zduriencik was in his final year under contract, having very quietly received a one-year extension last spring, it makes sense that this contending run has bought him more time. In the wake of so many false starts, however, the jury is still out on whether the Mariners have truly turned a corner and can consistently compete in a division occupied by the big-spending Angels and Rangers, as well as the incredibly resourceful A's. But for the moment and the foreseeable future, it's Jack Z in the catbird seat.