Jack Zduriencik understands how fickle baseball can be after spending a lifetime in the game. He was reminded of that this season as he went from being hailed as a genius in his first season as the Mariners' general manager in 2009 to being rumored that his job was in jeopardy in 2010.
The Mariners improved by 24 wins in Zduriencik's first season, going from 61-101 to 85-77. However, they dropped back to 61-101 this year in a turbulent season that saw designated hitter/franchise icon/future Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. retire after word leaked that he was sleeping in the clubhouse during a game; left-hander Cliff Lee get traded to the Rangers in July, just eight months after he was acquired in hopes of pushing the Mariners to their first World Series; manager Don Wakamatsu get fired not long after a dugout skirmish with second baseman Chone Figgins; well-respected professional scouting director Carmen Fusco made the sacrificial lamb and get fired because Zduriencik claimed he didn't know that pitching prospect Josh Lueke, acquired in the Lee trade, did jail time for sexual assault while in the Rangers' farm system.
All in all, it's not the greatest situation. With that in mind, here is what I would do if I were the Mariners' GM:
The first thing the Mariners have to do is not delude themselves into thinking that 2010 was an aberration and their talent level is closer to their 2009 record. Finishing eight games over .500 that season was a fluke, as the Mariners gave up more runs than they scored.
The Mariners, in many respects, have wasted the last two seasons. Because they lacked quality young players, the Mariners patched their roster with veterans in 2009 and wound up catching lighting in a bottle. Thus, they decided to go for it all in 2010 by signing Figgins as a free agent for four years and $36 million, and trading for Lee, Milton Bradley, and Casey Kotchman.
The results were disastrous, especially hitting-wise, as the Mariners were last in the major leagues with an average of 3.17 runs per game. Just four players with at least 125 plate appearances had a positive VORP.
The Mariners need to go young and build for the future. They should do so by continuing their plan of building around pitching and defense, which makes sense since they call Safeco Field, a pitcher's park, home. Even in a horrible season, the Mariners ranked fourth in the American League with a .706 Defensive Efficiency and sixth in runs allowed with 4.31 per game.
To be sure, many teams will come hard after right-hander Felix Hernandez this winter, offering packages of prospects that could be alluring to the Mariners. However, Hernandez is the man to build around, a true ace who had a career-high 7.9 WARP this season, is just 24 years old, and is signed through 2014. Simply put, he is a keeper and can anchor a solid young rotation in 2011 that would include left-hander Jason Vargas and right-handers Doug Fister and Michael Pineda, who will be ready to make his major league debut and should eventually settle in as the second starter behind King Felix.
Certainly, you don't have to be Branch Rickey Jr. to understand that the Mariners' offense needs a major overhaul, but it's going to be hard to do so in one offseason, especially with the payroll expected to be trimmed from $91 million to at least $85 million. The Mariners took a look at three rookies this season in catcher Adam Moore, first baseman Justin Smoak, and left fielder Michael Saunders. All showed flashes of being solid everyday players or better, but none can be considered can't-miss guys.
Considering that the Mariners have no realistic chance to compete in 2011, they would be best served to continue to play that trio next season along with center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and right fielder Ichiro Suzuki to determine if the kids are part of the future. Beyond that foursome, the Mariners should be willing to trade second baseman Figgins and shortstop Jack Wilson and Bradley while declining the option on arbitration-eligible third baseman Jose Lopez's contract, then non-tendering him and Kotchman, and letting designated hitter Russell Branyan walk.
The Mariners will have to eat salary in any trades involving Figgins, Wilson, and Bradley, but it would be for the best. Figgins was clearly unhappy in his first season with the Mariners as he was shifted from third base to second base in a flip-flop with Lopez during the early days of spring training and forced to bat second in deference to Ichiro leading off. Wilson can no longer be counted on after suffering a spate of injuries in recent seasons. Bradley is so volatile that the distractions he causes outweigh his production.
The downside to cleaning house is that the Mariners don't have ready-made replacements, though utility infielder Josh Wilson would be solid at shortstop and it wouldn't hurt to try rookie Mike Carp at DH to see if he is part of the long-term solution. The Rockies' Clint Barmes and Dodgers' Ryan Theriot could be non-tendered and can play both middle-infield spots, perhaps holding the Mariners over at second base until prospect Dustin Ackley arrives later in the season. If a trade partner cannot be found for Figgins, putting him back at third base would seemingly improve his attitude.
The Mariners also have an interesting trading chip in closer David Aardsma to try to acquire some young infield talent, as set-up reliever Brandon League is ready to move up in the bullpen hierarchy. Beyond Branyan, the Mariners have three other free agents in reliever Jamey Wright, backup catcher Josh Bard, and infielder Chris Woodward. All are non-essential, but Bard could be a useful guy to keep around at a low price to help in Moore's development as a catcher.
There are eight arbitration-eligible players and deciding to tender Vargas, Aardsma, League, and Josh Wilson is easy, as is deciding not to tender Kotchman and outfielder Ryan Langerhans. The merits of left-hander Ryan Rowland-Smith and right-hander Ryan White can be debated, but both have shown in the past that they can help a club and are worth bringing back for bullpen help in 2011.
Before making player personnel decisions, the Mariners must find a permanent replacement for Wakamatsu since interim manager Daren Brown isn't a long-term answer. Among the names being floated as possibilities are ESPN analyst Bobby Valentine, Royals bench coach John Gibbons, Mariners bench coach Ted Simmons, White Sox bench coach Joey Cora, and Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon.
It seems a stretch to think Valentine would leave ESPN to take over a club that needs to be rebuilt. Simmons would be a bold choice as he is 60 years old and has no managerial experience. However, he was an All-Star player and a GM, and is a free thinker who would bring a fresh perspective to the job. Gibbons, Cora, and McClendon would also lend an air of toughness to a clubhouse where discipline was lax as evidenced by Griffey's Napgate. The Mariners seemingly couldn't go wrong with any of the four, and McClendon really deserves a second chance to manage in the big leagues. Yet it would be fascinating to see how Simmons would fare.