Mariners zig where others zag

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It starts with the Yankees, of course, who before last season committed $423.5 million to CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Mark Teixeira and rode those players to a World Series title, and who have already this winter added center fielder Curtis Granderson (for whom they traded, yes, but to whom they'll pay at least $25.5 million over the next three seasons) and Nick Johnson, who was by many measures the best first baseman available on the free agent market and who in New York might not even be an everyday player.

The Red Sox now seem content to gobble up the choice pieces for which the Yankees, for whatever reason, deem themselves not to have room: the market's top free agent pitcher, John Lackey (five years, $82.5 million) and center fielder Mike Cameron (two years, $15.5 million), to start.

The Phillies, already on the verge of becoming a National League dynasty, traded for the Blue Jays' Roy Halladay, a top-five finisher in the A.L. Cy Young balloting in each of the past four seasons, and promptly signed him to a three-year, $60 million contract extension. The Mets have been quiet so far, but let's not kid ourselves: there is a Jason Bay or a Matt Holliday in their near future.

It is, however, out West that the true pioneering has almost always been done, and that has remained the case in baseball this offseason. Jack Zduriencik became the general manager of the Seattle Mariners on October 22, 2008, 24 days after the club had completed a miserable season in which it lost an AL-worst 101 games. He immediately set out to remake an organization that had been crippled by the enormous free agent contracts that his predecessor, Bill Bavasi, had doled out to severely underperforming players such as Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson and Carlos Silva. Bavasi tried to beat the Eastern powers at their own game by stocking his team with the highly compensated sluggers and pitchers that are normally the quarry of the Yankees and their ilk, and the results were disastrous. The Mariners, mid-market team that they are (the 13th most valuable franchise in the majors, according to Forbes), didn't have the financial wherewithal to acquire enough players of that type to compete, nor, more importantly, to sustain disappointing performances (of which there were several, as there almost always are) from the players that they did bring aboard.

Zduriencik, who had spent the previous nine years in the front office of the small-market Brewers, knew that the way to turn the Mariners into a viable competitor was not to attempt to build a club that looked like some poor facsimile of the Eastern powers -- stocked with players who can hit home runs, only not as many as those in the East, and free agent pitchers on whom the Easterners had passed -- but one that put increased value on talents that were fundamentally different from those on which the game's richest teams like to spend their money. To zig, in other words, where they zag.

There is, Zduriencik knew, more than one way to win a baseball game. One alternative way is to field better -- far better -- than your opponents do, and to that end Zduriencik last winter traded for center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, who had never managed to find a full-time role in four seasons in Cleveland, and last July traded for light-hitting Pirates shortstop Jack Wilson. According to the instructive Ultimate Zone Rating statistic, Gutierrez last season saved more than 10 more runs than did any other major league fielder (Gutierrez's individual UZR was 29.1; Rays third baseman Evan Longoria was second, at 18.5), and had an 18-run advantage on any other center fielder. Wilson finished the season as the majors' best-fielding shortstop, based on UZR. Those two players, along with stalwart defensive incumbents like Beltre and Ichiro, helped the '09 Mariners compile a cumulative UZR of 85.5, which is far and away the best single-season team UZR since the web site began tracking the stat in 2002 (the '08 Rays are second, at 74.2).

It is within the realm of possibility that the '09 Mariners were the best-fielding team ever to play in the major leagues. If you wonder why the club won 85 games in '09, 24 more than they did in '08, and why the Mariners did a lap around the field and conducted a beer-spraying celebration in the clubhouse at season's end, this is a good place to start.

Now, however, as Zduriencik sits just more than three months away from beginning his second season as the Mariners' G.M., an 85-win '10 seems a baseline expectation. In fact, Seattle, a laughingstock when Zduriencik took the helm 14 months ago, has suddenly emerged as a favorite in the A.L. West, the division on which the Angels have had a stranglehold for the better part of a decade. Zduriencik, a measured man, cautions against that type of thinking -- "There are a lot of free agents still out there," he said, "and anybody that would step out and make a prediction this early in the game would not be doing due diligence" -- but the fact is that, for at least the less diligent among us, his team appears to already have the pieces in place to make a run deep into the playoffs.

Seattle's fielding will, if anything, be better than it was in '09, due to the fact that they'll have a full season of Wilson's services (Yuniesky Betancourt, who started 71 games at shortstop for the Mariners before he was traded to the Royals, ranked dead last among shortstops in UZR), and because they signed third baseman Chone Figgins away from the Angels to replace Beltre -- and Figgins is, at the very least, Beltre's equal defensively. Figgins commanded just a four-year, $36 million from the Mariners -- not, in retrospect, an unreasonable price for a defensively sound base-stealer who led the AL in walks last season -- and he will combine with Ichiro to form what might be baseball's best top-of-the-order tandem.

Zduriencik's real coup this off-season, though, came just last week, when he participated in the four-team Halladay deal, trading three minor leaguers to Philadelphia for lefty Cliff Lee, the '08 A.L. Cy Young winner who pitched brilliantly for the Phillies during their recent playoff run. Lee will in the rotation follow Felix Hernandez, the staff ace who last season, at age 23, went 19-5 with a 2.49 ERA and finished second behind Zack Greinke in the A.L. Cy Young voting. His presence gives Seattle what is probably baseball's best one-two punch -- better than the Yankees' (Sabathia and Burnett), better than the Red Sox's (Josh Beckett and Lackey), better than the Phillies' (Halladay and Cole Hamels).

Zduriencik knows what he has -- and he knows that his team still has holes, as will any team without the financial resources that only baseball's richest teams possess. "I think we have an impressive top one and two pitchers, and I think the top of our lineup is impressive with our one and two, and I know we have a good defensive ballclub," he said. "That's an advantage, no question about it. Can you survive on it for a long period of time? Pitching is important, defense is important, but everybody would like to acquire three-and four-hole hitters."

Last year's Mariners succeeded despite a significant lack of power hitters -- they finished 11th in the A.L. in home runs (160) and last in runs scored (640) -- and this season's roster, as currently constituted, features just one returning player (Jose Lopez) who hit more than 20 homers in '09, and three others who hit more than 10.

Zduriencik on Friday took a step toward addressing the issue by acquiring outfielder Milton Bradley, who led the AL in OPS in '08, from the Cubs. Bradley's cantankerous nature and injury-riddled history scared most teams away from him, but he allowed Zduriencik to rid himself of Carlos Silva, the last vestige of Bavasi's ill-advised free-spending ways. More important, Bradley is a worthy gamble for a cohesive club that might just be a power hitter or two away from being a legitimate contender -- and he might not represent the last of Zduriencik's acquisitions this winter. "I would just say this: all of the names that are out there, we have had discussions with," Zduriencik says. "And we have also had some discussions in terms of trades. Where we finally end up, it remains to be seen."

Even if by opening day the Mariners end up looking just as they do now, they will be fearsome enough. They will, at the least, be a speedy, athletic club that fields better than any other, and that features two Cy Young-caliber starters atop its rotation. They will, in other words, be the team that no one else -- not the Yankees, not the Red Sox, not the Phillies, not the Mets -- will want to face once October's short series commence.