Gradually and inexorably, baseball's best players make their ways north and east, chasing in this latter day gold rush-in-reverse not a pail full of gleaming nuggets panned from some murky California stream but the multi-year, above-market-value contracts that it now seems can only be dangled by franchises who play in cities served by Amtrak's Acela line.
It starts with the Yankees, of course, who before last season committed $423.5 million to
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,
The Phillies, already on the verge of becoming a National League dynasty, traded for the Blue Jays'
It is, however, out West that the true pioneering has almost always been done, and that has remained the case in baseball this offseason.
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
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 (
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
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 (
Zduriencik on Friday took a step toward addressing the issue by acquiring outfielder
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.