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December 31, 2008

On the Beat

New Helmsmen for the Mariners

by John Perrotto

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The question is one that has been posed countless times during job interviews, yet when Mariners chairman Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong asked Jack Zduriencik to tell them something about himself that they didn't already know while interviewing for their club's vacant general manager's job, he left them laughing. "I told them that Joe Namath, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, and Jack Zduriencik all had one thing common," Zduriencik said. "We were all quarterbacks from Western Pennsylvania."

While the first four guys are all enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Zduriencik never went beyond calling the signals for his hometown New Castle High Red Hurricanes. Zduriencik gravitated to baseball and became well regarded in scouting circles, particularly for the job he did running the Brewers' drafts and helping that organization undergo a renaissance by adding such talented players as Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, J.J. Hardy, Corey Hart, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo, and Manny Parra.

Zduriencik now takes on a challenge akin to the one that Namath faced when he led the underdog New York Jets into Super Bowl III against the Baltimore Colts. Zduriencik was hired as the Mariners' GM in November, and will try to turn around a franchise that finished 61-101 last season.

True to his blue-collar roots as the son of a Polish immigrant steelworker, Zduriencik is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work. If Namath could beat the Colts, Zduriencik figures he can beat the American League West. "It's a challenge, but I certainly don't think that this is an impossible challenge by any means," Zduriencik said. "This is a great situation. We don't have to totally rebuild the team; there is talent here. We have a great ballpark in a great city. We have ownership that is committed to winning. I'm excited about the possibilities. It's going to take some hard work to get this thing turned around, but I'm confident we can."

Despite his great success in scouting, the 55-year-old Zduriencik had never been a hot GM commodity, nor had he ever actively sought the position until the Pirates' job came open last year when Dave Littlefield was fired. Though Zduriencik wanted very much to return to his Pittsburgh-area roots and attempt to restore the tarnished franchise, he lost out to Indians special assistant to the GM Neal Huntington, so when the Mariners called and asked him to interview at the end of last season, Zduriencik decided to try again. "Being a GM has really become a young man's game in recent years, and I did wonder if my times might have already passed," Zduriencik said. "That's why I'm so excited to get this chance. I really appreciate the Mariners giving me the opportunity."

When it came time to selecting a manager, Zduriencik interviewed seven candidates before settling on Athletics bench coach Don Wakamatsu. None of the seven had ever managed in the major leagues before, a group that included White Sox bench coach Joey Cora, Red Sox third base coach DeMarlo Hale and bench coach Brad Mills, Cardinals third base coach Jose Oquendo, and Padres Triple-A manager Randy Ready. "On my original list, I had guys with major league experience, guys who I felt would be good for our situation," Zduriencik said. "The more I thought about it though, the more it seemed that hiring a first-time manager was the right choice. Ownership had given me a break by hiring me as the GM, and I felt the time was right to give someone else a break to be a major league manager. Every great manager had to get his start somewhere."

Whether Wakamatsu will turn out to be a great manager or not remains to be seen, but he has been given high marks for his work as a bench coach with the Rangers and Athletics and as a minor league manager and coordinator with the Angels. "Don is going to do a nice job in Seattle," Athletics manager Bob Geren said. "He's been around the game a long time and definitely knows the American League West. He's a good guy, and it would be hard to meet anybody that doesn't like him. I really feel he has everything it takes to be a successful manager."

"Wak is terrific," said Angels manager Mike Scioscia. "He's got a very creative baseball mind. He understands the things that are important in not only building a team, but in winning games. He's great with people, too. He's going to be great."

Like Zduriencik, Wakamatsu does not have a high profile, and is perhaps best known for being teammates with Barry Bonds while attending Arizona State. Wakamatsu played in just 18 major league games as a catcher, all with the White Sox in 1991. "Donnie is a not a big-name guy, but people inside the game know who he is and have great respect for him," said Zduriencik. "I had never met him until interviewing him, but I had started putting a mental list of potential managers together over the last five years or so in case I ever had the chance to be a GM. Donnie's name repeatedly came up in conversations with various people in the game. After talking to him, I knew he was the right fit."

Wakamatsu, whose father was born to Japanese-American parents in an internment camp during World War II, becomes the first manager of Asian-American descent, and is walking into a tough situation as there were various reports of clubhouse friction last season. "It's not fair for me to even try to comment on what happened last season, because I wasn't there," said Wakamatsu. "The way I look at it is that everything starts fresh now. I genuinely like players and do everything I can to make them better. That's why I enjoyed coaching and had hoped to get the chance to manage in the major leagues. I think the important thing is that every player, whether he admits it or not, wants to feel loved. They want to feel important. They want to feel special. Hopefully, we'll be able to generate that feeling in our clubhouse right away."

Like Zduriencik, Wakamatsu does not feel that the Mariners are hopeless. He also believes that the Mariners' first trade, a three-team, 12-player extravaganza with the Mets and Indians at the winter meetings in Las Vegas earlier this month, made his roster stronger by adding right-hander Aaron Heilman and center fielder Franklin Gutierrez. "Jack is willing to take chances to make this club better, and the fact that he took a chance on hiring someone without major league managerial experience shows how much guts he has," Wakamatsu said. "I think we can be competitive right away. I'm not making any guarantees, but I think we have the potential to be a pretty good club. I've talked to a lot of our guys and they're excited. I can't wait to get to spring training, put that uniform on, and get going."

---

No one could have foreseen the Reds trying to become a team centered on pitching and defense, but that's the direction the Reds say they are headed. It became clear that the Reds were going to take on a new look late last season after they traded away two of their top sluggers, right fielder Ken Griffey Jr. and left fielder Adam Dunn. Now they've signed Willy Taveras to a two-year contract to play center field-a move that will force Jay Bruce to right-just two weeks after the speedster was non-tendered by the Rockies to avoid a potential salary arbitration hearing. The Reds are also looking to replace Dunn with another non-slugger; they've backed off trying to sign free-agent Pat Burrell, and are instead focused on re-signing Jerry Hairston Jr.

The Reds feel they have the makings of a top-flight starting rotation in right-handers Bronson Arroyo, Johnny Cueto, Aaron Harang, and Edinson Volquez, and they think they can build a strong bullpen around closer Francisco Cordero and left-hander Bill Bray. Looking to support their pitching staff, they have decided to focus on speed to shore up the outfield defense. Taveras had 10 FRAA last season, a good figure, but down from 14 in 2007 with the Rockies and 23 in 2006 with the Astros. Hairston, primarily a second baseman, handled just 56 chances in the outfield last season for the Reds, and had a -1 FRAA, though he was a positive contributor on offense in 2008 with a .305 EqA and .392 on-base percentage in 297 plate appearances.

While Taveras led the major leagues with 68 stolen bases in 75 attempts last season, his EqA was just .239 in 538 plate appearances, and his OBP of .306, poor for any player, is simply atrocious for someone whose game revolves around speed.

Reds general manager Walt Jocketty, however, is optimistic that Taveras can do better next year. Jocketty bases that opinion on the word of Jamie Quirk, who was hired by the Reds as a special assistant to the GM after being fired as the Rockies' bench coach at the end of last season. "Jamie believes Willy got away from his game plan," Jocketty told Hal McCoy of the Dayton Daily News. "He needs to bunt more, keep the ball on the ground, and get some infield hits. I don't know if he tried to hit home runs or what, but Jamie thinks he changed his approach and we can get him back to where he was in 2007."

Taveras had a .268 EqA and .357 OBP in 408 plate appearances in 2007 as the Rockies won the National League pennant. He downplays the idea that he became too power-happy playing in his second season with Coors Field as his home park. "It's just that things didn't work out," Taveras said. "I know I can do better, and I will do better."

---

MLB Network goes on-line Thursday at 6 p.m. EDT with a one-hour version of the show "Hot Stove." That will be followed at 7 p.m. by the first full televised replay of Don Larsen's perfect game from the 1956 World Series, which has been digitized and colorized to go with the original commercials and play-by-play call of Red Barber and Vin Scully.

MLB Network will be seen in 50 million homes, making it the biggest launch in cable history. It easily surpasses the 35 million homes that received Fox Business Channel when it debuted last year.

Among the carriers of MLB Network will be Cablevision, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Time Warner, Verizon FIOS, and DirecTV. Fans can see if the network is available in their area by going to MLBNetwork.com and inputting their ZIP Code into the area called "Channel Locator."

"We give fans a 24/7 home," MLB Network president and CEO Tony Petitti told Paul White of USA Today. "That's very obvious but very important."

---

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Dodgers have reportedly backed away from trying to re-sign free-agent outfielder Manny Ramirez, who can forget about his dream of a five-year contract, and they instead are now targeting Dunn and fellow outfielder Bobby Abreu on the open market. ... The Mets continue their search for starting pitching and plan to make bids on four free agents: left-handers Oliver Perez and Randy Wolf, and right-handers Derek Lowe and Tim Redding. ... The Rockies have a trade in place to acquire starting pitcher Jason Marquis from the Cubs for reliever Luis Vizcaino. ... The Padres are keeping open the possibility of trading ace pitcher Jake Peavy with hopes that talks might reignite with the Braves or Cubs when clubs return from their holiday break next Monday. ... The Marlins and Pirates appear to be in the lead to sign free-agent reliever Derrick Turnbow.

AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Orioles have interest in signing free-agent catcher Ivan Rodriguez, who is finding slim pickings on the open market. ... Right-hander Jason Jennings, a free agent after being limited to six starts with the Rangers last season, says he is recovered from August elbow surgery and should be ready for the start of spring training. ... Corner infielder Jose Fernandez, last seen in the major leagues with the Angels in 2001, is hopeful of landing a job stateside after hitting 159 home runs in six seasons in Japan.

---

Since this marks the final day of 2008, I would like to take the opportunity to thank the BP readers. I appreciate all of your feedback, both positive and negative, and continue to be amazed at how well received both this column and my "Every Given Sunday" column have become during my two years with BP. Please continue to send ideas and suggestions, and I will do my best to respond, though certain times of the year can become rather hectic.

Here's wishing everyone a healthy, happy, and prosperous 2009.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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