Well on their way to a fifth losing season in the last six years and a 14th consecutive finish outside of the postseason picture, the Mariners announced the firing of general manager Jack Zduriencik on Friday. In nearly seven seasons on the job, Zduriencik guided the team to just two winning records, and in retrospect, it's amazing that he lasted nearly so long given that his poor track record was accompanied by some embarrassing gaffes.
The team announced that Jeff Kingston, an assistant GM since 2009, will serve as interim GM for the remainder of the season, while club president and chief operating officer Kevin Mather will spend September evaluating candidates, in hopes of hiring a new GM by early October. The firing comes 366 days after Mather announced that Zdurencik had received a multi-year extension; at the time, Seattle was en route to an 87-75 season, their best since 2007, but one game short of a wild card spot that would have marked their first postseason berth since the 116-win juggernaut of 2001.
Still, that was something to build upon, and the Mariners had plenty of reasons for optimism this year. The addition of free agent Nelson Cruz via a four-year, $57 million deal, which helped to push payroll to a franchise-record $123.2 million, was supposed to shore up an offense that ranked 13th in scoring in 2014, while the full-season performances of highly touted young pitchers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton alongside Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma would make for a formidable rotation. Particularly in a division where the Astros were still rebuilding, the A's had cleaned house and the Rangers had so many question marks due to injuries, even a division title appeared to be in play.
It hasn't happened that way. At 59-69, Seattle is fourth in the AL West, 12 games out of first place and seven back in a crowded wild-card race. The M's haven't posted a record above .500 in any month; they were 14-14 in May and are 12-12 this month. Even with Cruz hitting an MLB-high 39 homers to go with his .320/.388/.612 line, the team's scoring has declined by .04 runs per game from last year (from 3.91 to 3.87) while the rest of the AL has risen (from 4.18 to 4.30). Robinson Cano, whom Zduriencik signed to a 10-year, $240 million deal in December 2013, has hit just .278/.324/.429 while battling stomach issues for nearly a year. High draft picks Dustin Ackley (second overall in 2009) and Mike Zunino (third overall in 2012) have been among the league's least productive hitters at their positions, and both the first base and DH spots have remained offensive black holes despite a multitude of options.
On the pitching side, Hernandez has uncharacteristically struggled to a 3.66 ERA, his worst since 2007, when he was 21. Walker (4.73 ERA, 4.05 FIP) has experienced no shortage of ups and downs, and both Iwakuma and Paxton have missed significant time due to injuries. Closer Fernando Rodney who was signed to a two-year, $14 million deal in February 2014, went from leading the league with 48 saves to posting a 5.68 ERA, getting designated for assignment and finally traded to the Cubs on Thursday.
The Mariners hired Zduriencik in October 2008 after he had spent 25 seasons on the scouting and player development side for the Mets, Pirates, Dodgers and Brewers; his nine-year tenure as Milwaukee's scouting director had just been capped by the team's first playoff appearance in 26 years. The Mariners won 85 games in his first year on the job, a marked improvement over the .448 winning percentage they posted in the five seasons (2004 to '08) under predecessor Bill Bavasi, but that stands as Seattle’s only other season above .500 aside from 2014. Their winning percentage under Zduriencik has been just .459, the game's fifth-lowest, which is even less impressive given that the teams below them—the Rockies, Cubs, Marlins and Astros—all formally embarked upon rebuilding programs in that timeframe.
Zduriencik's failures include building the Wild Card Era's lowest and third-lowest-scoring offenses in 2010 and '11 (513 and 556 runs, respectively), though some of that owes to Safeco Field's standing as the league's most pitcher-friendly park. He's wound up on the short end in numerous trades (more on which below), he's drafted poorly and he's been charged not only with poor leadership but also with being completely miscast. After manager Eric Wedge departed following the 2013 season, citing “total dysfunction and a lack of leadership,” a report by the Seattle Times' Geoff Baker highlighted the charges of former special assistant to the GM Tony Blengino that suggested the GM was well out of his depth. The analytically well-versed Blengino, who had worked under Zduriencik in Milwaukee and then in Seattle before being let go in August 2013, claimed to have written "virtually the entire job application package Zduriencik gave the Mariners in 2008, depicting a dual-threat candidate melding traditional scouting with advanced statistical analysis," according to Baker.
“Jack portrayed himself as a scouting/stats hybrid because that’s what he needed to get the job,” Blengino told the Times. “But Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him. But he knew he needed it to get in the door.”
What's been particularly frustrating for the Mariners is their failures in the amateur draft on Zduriencik’s watch. Ackley produced just 8.1 WAR over parts of five seasons, 3.8 of which came as a rookie in 2011; in late July, he was traded to the Yankees for minor leaguers Ramon Flores and Jose Ramirez, whom Baseball America ranked as New York's 26th- and 27th-best prospects this spring. Kyle Seager, taken in the third round that year, has been the team's most valuable position player since debuting in 2011, but he's produced just 2.6 WAR this year compared to 5.8 last year, an ominous sign given that he's in the first year of a seven-year, $100 million extension. Beyond that, incumbent shortstop Brad Miller (2nd round 2011, 5.1 WAR), Paxton (fourth round 2010, 3.2 WAR), Walker (supplemental first round 2010, 1.6 WAR) and reliever Carson Smith (eighth round 2011, 1.6 WAR) are the most productive draftees on Zduriencik's watch, and that's not saying much. Zunino, demoted to Triple A Tacoma on Friday, has produced just 0.8 WAR, though to be fair, Baseball Prospectus’s catcher framing metrics suggest he's been 41 runs above average in parts of three seasons, value not fully accounted for in that total. Danny Hultzen, the No. 2 pick in 2011 and a top prospect as recently as the spring of 2013, has had his career derailed by a torn labrum, rotator cuff and anterior capsule. He made just three appearances this season at Double A Jackson, his first since 2013, before further shoulder problems arose and has since been shut down for the season.
It's not as though Seattle's farm system is brimming with young talent, either, in part because the team lost first-round picks for signing Chone Figgins after the 2009 season, and then Cruz this past winter. BA ranked the Mariners organization 25th this year (after they were 24 last year), while Baseball Prospectus placed them 23rd. Only 2013 first-round pick D.J. Peterson, a corner infielder, and 2014 first-round pick Alex Jackson, an outfielder, made dents on the major prospect lists. Both have struggled. The former has hit .223/.287/.344 mostly in Double A but with a taste of Triple A; and the latter has managed .209/.304/.357, though he at least made BA's midseason top 50 list, at number 43. Shortstop Ketel Marte, a 21-year-old non-drafted free agent out of the Dominican Republic, placed 50th on that list, and is now with the big club.
Zduriencik's record on the trade front is highlighted by two particularly dismal deals: The July 2010 trade that sent Cliff Lee to the Rangers, and the January 2012 trade that sent Michael Pineda to the Yankees. Zduriencik had acquired Lee, a 31-year-old pending free agent, from the Phillies for three players in December 2009. None have panned out. The Mariners then stumbled out of the gate, as Figgins (who would deliver -0.9 WAR for his $36 million over three seasons before being released) and other off-season acquisitions such as Milton Bradley failed to produce. On July 9, Lee and reliever Mark Lowe were sent to Texas for Blake Beavan, Matt Lawson, Josh Lueke and Justin Smoak. Lawson never made the majors, while Beaven, a 2007 first-round pick, contributed 1.5 WAR and a career 82 ERA+. Smoak, the centerpiece of the return, gave Seattle just 0.9 WAR over the course of 1,943 PA. Most damning, however, was that Zduriencik apparently ignored Lueke's criminal past, namely 2008 charges of rape and non-consensual sodomy resulting in a no contest plea to a lesser charge of false imprisonment.
Pineda, fresh off a promising rookie season in 2011, was traded to New York with prospect Jose Campos for catcher Jesus Montero and pitcher Hector Noesi. Montero had spent three years ranked among BA's top-10 prospects, capped by an outstanding September 2011 stint in the majors, but few around the game were sold on his merits behind the plate. While Pineda wound up missing the next two years due to surgery to repair a torn labrum and has struggled to remain healthy since, Montero has hit just .247/.286/.376 with 21 homers but -0.8 WAR in parts of four seasons, and he has played just 59 games in the majors over the last three. He was banished to the minors, moved to first base, suspended 50 games via his connections to the Biogenesis clinic in 2013, and in 2014 showed up at camp a reported 40 pounds overweight.
At that point, Zduriencik told reporters he had “zero expectations for Jesus Montero.” When he was recalled later that year after Smoak hit the DL, manager Lloyd McClendon 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.” Shortly after the Mariners announced Zduriencik's extension, Montero was involved in a bizarre incident during which he threw an ice cream sandwich at a team scout who was heckling him over his weight problem and had the snack sent to the dugout. The scout was dismissed, but Montero's season was over. While he tore up the Pacific Coast League this season, it took until late July before the team grew desperate enough to replace the struggling Logan Morrison as the regular first baseman.
Those weren't the only deals that went south for Zduriencik. His trades of Mike Morse (to Washington for Ryan Langerhans in June 2009), Doug Fister (to Detroit as part of a six-player deal to acquire Charlie Furbush and Casper Wells in July 2011) and John Jaso (to Oakland in a three-team deal that landed Seattle a much diminished Morse in January 2013) brought back little in return while those ex-Mariners helped their teams reach the postseason. His deal of Carlos Silva (an overpriced, disastrous Bavasi signing) to the Cubs for Bradley not only didn't pan out on the field, it also marked the final stop in the tumultuous career of a serial domestic abuser whose violent actions towards his now-deceased wife continued while in Seattle.
Add it up, and it's an abysmal record, particularly when one contrasts it against those of the last two GMs to lose their jobs: the Tigers' Dave Dombrowski, who turned the franchise around and built two pennant winners during his 14-year run in Detroit; and the Red Sox Ben Cherington, who built a World Series winner amid three other last-place teams, and who had been part of Boston's braintrust when they won championships in 2004 and '07 as well. Dombrowski was hired in Boston as Cherington's replacement.
Mather's stated preference is for an experienced GM, and he certainly sounds as though he wants one who's more analytically inclined.
"We're not going to take three years to learn on the job,” Mather MLB.com's Greg Johns. “Our nucleus is too close to making this work. It really isn't about 2015. As disappointed as the entire Seattle region is, it's about 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and beyond, and do we have the right leader to get us there? That means drafts, development, sabermetrics and analytics and minor league coaching staff.”
Those criteria suggest that the Mariners are unlikely to turn to a rising front office star such as the Rangers’ Thad Levine, the Yankees’ Billy Eppler or the Braves’ John Coppolella, to name a few. Cherington would figure to be one potential candidate for Seattle's opening, and likewise for Jerry Dipoto, the former Angels GM who resigned in July. Among the names that have surfaced via various reports are those of former Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd, current White Sox club president Kenny Williams, current Marlins GM-turned-manager Dan Jennings, ex-Padres and Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers, and ex-Marlins GM Larry Beinfest, who spent 1991-99 in Seattle's front office in a variety of player development capacities before ascending to vice president of baseball operations.
Whoever takes over the job will inherit a downtrodden farm system but will at least have young, club-controlled pitching to build. Hernandez is signed through 2019, and Walker, Paxton (who’s working his way back from a middle finger strain) and Mike Montgomery, a former Royals and Rays prospect whom Zduriencik acquired in the spring, aren't anywhere near free agency. The team has about $79 million in 2016 payroll commitments to Hernandez, Cano, Cruz, Seager and Seth Smith, with Morrison and Mark Trumbo in their third years of arbitration eligibility. Iwakuma and Austin Jackson will be the most prominent free agents.
Via the Seattle Times’ Larry Stone, Mather said that it would be the new GM’s call as to whether to retain McClendon, who’s 146-144 thus far in Seattle, but that he would be encouraged to do so.
All of that should give the incoming GM some flexibility, though it may be a tall order to expect the team to contend in 2016, particularly with the Astros’ rebuilding coming to fruition and the Rangers re-arming even amid the loss of Yu Darvish to Tommy John surgery. But for better or worse, the new guy won’t have to do all that much to surpass Zduriencik, who simply shouldn’t have been allowed to steer this team aground for so long.