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September 9, 2011

Prospectus Perspective

The New Jack Zoo Review

by Bradley Ankrom

Last week, the Seattle Mariners announced a multi-year contract extension for general manager Jack Zduriencik, putting to rest the speculation that a second-consecutive losing season would put his job in jeopardy. Keeping Zduriencik in charge of the rebuilding effort for at least two more years seems like a wise decision on the surface, but how much has he really accomplished in his time with the Mariners?

Zduriencik came to Seattle after a disastrous 2008 season that saw the Mariners finish last in the American League West, and second-to-last in all of baseball, with a 61-101 record. His appointment signaled a fresh start for an organization that had endured four losing seasons out of the previous five and a general manager in Bill Bavasi whose poor decisions had driven his popularity rating among Seattleites down into Howard Schultz and Courtney Love territory.

Zduriencik had been given much of the credit for the Milwaukee Brewers’ transformation from National League Central also-rans to consistent division contenders, mostly due to his drafting of Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, and Ryan Braun in the top seven picks of the amateur draft between 2002-2005. The success of those three players earned Zduriencik a reputation as an evaluator with a keen eye for developing bats, but outside of the first round his discernment was less conspicuous. Only centerfielder Corey Hart (11th round, 2000) and shortstop J.J. Hardy (second round, 2001) have compiled career WARP totals above 2.4.

Things were even worse on the mound for Zduriencik in Milwaukee. Despite utilizing three top-16 picks on pitchers from 2001-2006, the Brewers have only managed to produce one above-average pitcher, Yovani Gallardo (second round, 2004), whose 15.4 career WARP is more than quadruple that of Milwaukee’s second most productive pitcher, Dane Eveland (3.7 career WARP).

After being appointed Seattle’s general manager, Zduriencik’s first significant move was shipping out All-Star closer J.J. Putz, reliever Sean Green, and outfielder Jeremy Reed in a three-team trade that netted the Mariners Aaron Heilman, Jason Vargas, Endy Chavez, and Mike Carp from the Mets and outfielder Franklin Gutierrez from Cleveland. Five weeks later, Zduriencik turned minor league pitcher Fabian Williamson into reliever David Aardsma, who had been designated for assignment by Boston. At the end of January, Zduriencik flipped Heilman to the Cubs for shortstop Ronny Cedeno.

The Mariners started hot in 2009, sitting atop the AL West on May 1, and staying in the division race through mid-July. This surprising success deluded fans and Zduriencik into thinking that the Mariners were closer to contention than they actually were, leading to series of moves the following offseason that set the organization back to the same place they were when Zduriencik began in 2008.

In November 2009, the Mariners resigned franchise icon Ken Griffey Jr. to be its primary designated hitter the following year. In 2009, Griffey managed to play in 117 games, his highest total since 2007, but he struggled through one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, managing just a .214/.324/.411 line in 454 at bats.

Next, Seattle signed third baseman Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract after he posted a .298/.395/.394 line with 42 steals for the Angels. Figgins was expected to provide on-base ability and speed at the top of the lineup. Shortly thereafter, Zduriencik traded right-handers Phillippe Aumont , the Mariners’ first round draft pick in 2007, and J.C. Ramirez along with outfielder Tyson Gillies to the Philadelphia Phillies for 2008 AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. The following day, Zduriencik and Cubs GM Jim Hendry consummated the ideal “your problem for my problem” trade, sending Carlos Silva and $9 million to Chicago in exchange for volatile outfielder Milton Bradley. On  December 23, Zduriencik sent another former first-round pick, righthander Brandon Morrow, to Toronto for righty reliever Brandon League and minor league outfielder Johermyn Chavez.

Zduriencik saved what would prove to be his best decision of the winter for after the new year, signing right-hander Felix Hernandez to a five-year, $78 million contract extension that secured the star pitcher’s services in Seattle through his age-28 season.

Cliff Lee began the 2010 season on the disabled list with a lower abdominal strain, but the Mariners were still within half a game of first place when he returned on April 30. By May 30, they’d fallen seven games behind division-leading Oakland.

In early June, Ken Griffey Jr. abruptly announced his retirement from baseball. His struggles at the plate (.184/.250/.204) had carried over from 2009 and there was mounting media scrutiny over a report that earlier in the season he had fallen asleep in the clubhouse during a game.

By the end of June, the Mariners were staring at a 14-game deficit. On July 9, with his club 16 games out of first place, Zduriencik shipped Cliff Lee and right-handed reliever Mark Lowe to the division-leading Texas Rangers in exchange for top first base prospect Justin Smoak, second baseman Matt Lawson, and right-handers Blake Beavan and Josh Lueke.

It could be argued that the Mariners actually came out ahead, prospects-wise, in the two Lee trades. Phillippe Aumont, while possessing an electric arm, has struggled with injuries and is now a reliever for the Phillies. Gillies has missed most of the year with an injury, and J.C. Ramirez just finished his second season at Double-A Reading, posting a 4.50 ERA with 89 strikeouts in 144 innings as a 22-year old.

Smoak was the centerpiece of the bounty the Mariners acquired for Lee, but the Seattle media soon became more interested in the felonious past of the hard-throwing Lueke. In November 2009, Lueke pleaded no contest to a lesser charge in a felony case in which he was accused of raping and sodomizing a young woman who had attended a Bakersfield Blaze game with friends. Seattle officials insisted they knew nothing of Lueke’s criminal history, but former Mariners pitching coach Rick Adair stated publicly that he had in fact informed the club of Lueke's transgressions. When Zduriencik also claimed there was nothing he could do to return Lueke to the Rangers, Texas GM Jon Daniels said he would be willing to reacquire Lueke in a separate transaction. The Mariners held on to Lueke and he’s now working out of the major league club’s bullpen after spending most of the season in at Triple-A Tacoma.

The public relations nightmare surrounding the Lueke acquisition would have cost many other general managers working in more high-pressure media cities their jobs. In Seattle, it only cost a scouting director. Carmen Fusco, hired shortly after Zduriencik came to Seattle in 2008 and a veteran of 35 years in baseball, did not have his contract renewed after the 2010 seasons, largely due to the fracas caused by the Lueke acquisition.

Things hadn’t gone well on the field in 2010, either, as the Mariners slumped to another 101-loss season and last place in the AL West. Figgins, in the first year of his four-year deal with the Mariners, slumped to .259/.340/.308. As a whole, the team finished dead last in the AL in nearly every offensive category, including batting average (.236), on-base percentage (.298), slugging average (.339), runs (513), hits (1,274), doubles (227), triples (16), home runs (101), and total bases (1,836).

After the mirage of contention in 2009, the reality that the Mariners roster was devoid of the requisite talent to compete became obvious in 2010. That winter, there were no Cliff Lee acquisitions. There were no big free agency splashes. The biggest bat Zduriencik acquired was Jack Cust, who agreed to a one-year, $2.5 million contract in December. The organization recommitted to building a consistent contender from within, through scouting and player development.

As in 2009, the 2011 Mariners got off to a strong start, and in early July found themselves within three games of first place. The woebegone offense was threatening to approach historic records for futility, but strong pitching performances from Felix Hernandez and a precocious Michael Pineda kept the club in contention. Erik Bedard continued to prove the axiom that he is still a more than capable pitcher when he’s healthy, and Brandon League solidified the back of the bullpen with David Aardsma on the disabled list.

Though everyone knew that the plan was to trade away veterans, most notably Bedard, over the summer, how could a team in contention sell rebuilding to a fan base when a playoff berth was within reach? It isn’t very often an organization can be thankful for a 17-game losing streak, but without the one the Mariners endured from July 6-26, the decision to be sellers at the trade deadline could have been more difficult.

On July 31, the Mariners made a pair of trades, sending Erik Bedard to Boston in a three-team deal that brought outfielder Trayvon Robinson to Seattle and acquiring lefthander Charlie Furbush, righthander Chance Ruffin, outfielder Casper Wells, and third baseman Fernando Martinez from Detroit in exchange for pitchers Doug Fister and David Pauley. Robinson and Wells soon became regulars in the Mariners lineup while Furbush took Fister’s vacated turn in the rotation.

The offense has started to pick things up, mustering a .273/.327/.409 slash line in August after three consecutive months no higher than ..228/.289/.354. Second baseman Dustin Ackley and his former North Carolina teammate, third baseman Kyle Seager, along with first baseman Mike Carp, led the offensive resurgence, batting a combined .310 with eight home runs in August.

Ackley, Pineda, and Seager are evidence that the farm system has started to produce useable talent for the major league club, but there is still a long way to go before the organization can call itself sustainable. Zduriencik has emphasized a desire to build through the draft and player development, but the three drafts he has overseen as Mariners GM haven’t produced a lot of top talent.

In 2009, the club selected Ackley with the second overall pick and found success again with Seager (third round, 82nd overall).  Shortstop Nick Franklin started the year as a 20-year old in the California League, where he hit .271/.353/.407 before a late-season promotion to Double-A Jackson. Catcher Steve Baron, taken in the supplemental first round, hit just .196/.263/.318 this year, playing most of the season in the Midwest League. The Mariners’ second-round selection, Georgia first baseman Rich Poythress, played all year at Jackson, but only managed an unimpressive .264/.346/.407. Beyond those early round selections, the organization found some useful organizational filler and possible major league role players, but very little impact talent.

The Mariners hit on Taijuan Walker (supplemental first round, 43rd overall) and James Paxton (fourth round, 132nd overall) in the 2010 draft, but, as with the previous year’s draft haul, the rest of the class looks underwhelming. This year, the Mariners again held the second overall pick and were projected by many to have their eye on an impact bat such as Rice third baseman Anthony Rendon or Kansas high school outfielder Bubba Starling. Instead, they went with Virginia lefthander Danny Hultzen, viewed by scouts as one of the safest bets in the draft but also possessing a limited ceiling. Hultzen projects as a mid-rotation starter in the majors, a nice piece to have but not the kind of talent you target at the top of the draft, especially when you own the second pick in one of the deepest draft classes in recent memory. Because of their home ballpark, it isn’t especially difficult for the Mariners to produce average starting pitchers (a la Doug Fister and Jason Vargas) to fill out the back of their rotation. It is difficult, however, to produce impact bats, and Seattle blew an opportunity to land one of the best bats to come out of the college ranks in Rendon by playing it safe and going with mid-rotation starting pitcher.

It is difficult for any organization to completely recover from a disaster of the magnitude of the Bill Bavasi-era Mariners in the span of three years, but the Zduriencik-led M's have taken some steps in the right direction. The contract extension for Zduriencik made sense because it served as a signal to fans that ownership believes in the progress Zduriencik has made. However, the next two seasons are critical to the long-term health of the franchise. Zduriencik must be aggressive in his pursuit to add quality talent to all levels of the organization if the Mariners are going to have any chance at a postseason berth before the expiration of Felix Hernandez’s contract after the 2014 season.

10 comments have been left for this article.

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