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January 19, 2010
Hot Stove U.
Jack Z's Old School and New School
There was a time, earlier in the decade, when the general manager position seemed to be reserved for the young. It was almost like the reverse of the US Presidency, where being under 35 years old makes one ineligible for the position. But at the end of 2008, coming off a 101-loss season, the Mariners went against the grain. They hired Brewers scouting executive Jack Zduriencik, a man in his late 50s, a baseball lifer who made his name by evaluating talent with his eyes as opposed to spreadsheets. Within a year, the Mariners had a winning record, and with even more aggressive moves this offseason, many see them as a long-term player in what has suddenly become a highly competitive American League West that includes the perennial powerhouse Angels and two rapidly improving franchises, via the youth movement, in the Rangers and Athletics. A victory for the scouting side? The end of an era for the whiz kids? As it turns out, it's a victory for neither as much as it says something about those that are willing to adapt and value all information, regardless of source.
Zduriencik had already been in baseball for nearly three decades when his name became more of a household one-at least for those who could spell-during the time he led the Brewers' drafts. Over a period of five years, from 2001-05, Zduriencik added a player to the organization through the draft who would not only become a starter in the big leagues but, for the most part, become the kind of young star a non-major market team needs to compete in today's economic environment.
2001: J.J. Hardy (second round)
2002: Prince Fielder (first round)
2003: Rickie Weeks (first round)
2004: Yovani Gallardo (second round)
2005: Ryan Braun (first round)
All were big prizes, but none more impressive than Fielder. Few expected him to hit 50 home runs in the big leagues at 23. In fact, much of the industry was shocked to see Fielder to be drafted seventh overall when most teams saw the high schooler, who was well over 300 pounds for much of his prep career, as a late first-round talent at best.
Still, Zduriencik's scouting acumen as a GM has yet to be really tested. In his first draft with the Mariners, he picked second, and his selection of North Carolina outfielder Dustin Ackley was a bit of a no-brainer. The most important thing Zduriencik did in Seattle was to improve something that no formula can measure and few scouts can quite put their finger on: he improved the team's makeup. The 2008 team that lost 101 games was certainly far better than that on a talent level, but it was a downright morose clubhouse atmosphere that fit the old saying about 25 players and 25 cabs. After bringing in an unproven manager in highly respected Rangers bench coach Don Wakamatsu, veterans Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr. were signed as a free agents. While bringing Griffey back to Seattle looked like a move designed solely to generate ticket sales from the outside, those inside the clubhouse insist he brought a direction-changing joie de vivre to the team, even bringing the normally reserved Ichiro out of his shell. Chemistry is impossible to prove as a factor, as a team doesn't need 25 good people as much it simply needs 25 players moving in the same direction. One competing team's executive put it best by saying, "Griffey added far more wins to that team than anything that showed up on the stat sheet."
The flurry of player moves made by Zduriencik in his year-plus with Seattle also shows a decision-making process that goes far beyond measuring a player's tools. His first major deal sent a group of spare parts and what was left of closer J.J. Putz away in return for Franklin Gutierrez, arguably the top defensive outfielder in the game. Zduriencik made a big free-agent splash this winter by signing third-baseman Chone Figgins, another defensive stalwart. "If you look at Figgins as a pure scout, he's not a great fit," said one National League executive. "He certainly doesn't fit a classic third-base profile, but guys like him and Gutierrez are both glove guys, and that shows Zduriencik cares about this new school of thinking, as defense is the new market efficiency for many."
Still others see an all-around approach that's bringing Seattle back into contention. "Jack made his mark in scouting, but a lot of these decisions he's making are based on some of the newer kind of information that's out there," said another veteran decision-maker. "He's getting guys who pass both tests now, and that's what all of the smart teams are doing."
That's just part of the new baseball executive, which is modeled by Zduriencik as much as the so-called "whiz kids" like recently-hired GM Jed Hoyer of the Padres. Both sides have something to learn from the other, and those that value any information available are those who are having the most success. Zduriencik leans on his right-hand man Tony Blengino, an experienced statistical analyst who broke form earlier in the decade by getting into scouting, for the new-age thinking to complement his decisions. Again, it goes both ways, as plenty of Ivy League graduates with GM aspirations have been getting dirty themselves, heading out to dusty fields in the middle of nowhere to watch baseball and learning from veteran talent evaluators in order to bring more value to what numbers already bring to the table.
Baseball is a highly cyclical game, and every time the pendulum swings too far, it always returns to the center. Every team looks at the numbers and employs hordes of scouts. Both provide invaluable information to bring future success. Earlier in the decade, there was much ado with the whole scouts-versus-stats debate, but much more in places like internet message boards than front offices. "The war is over, folks," said one executive. "In fact, there never really was one. Everyone just gets along."
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .Be sure to check back Thursday when Baseball Prospectus' David Laurila has a Prospectus Q&A with Jack Zduriencik