He has only recently become a household name, but people within the game have known Jack Zduriencik for quite some time. Long regarded as one of baseball’s best talent evaluators, the personable “Jack Z” started out as an area scout in 1983 and since that time has worn multiple hats for five different organizations, most notably the Brewers from 1999-2008. Named as the eighth general manager in Seattle Mariners‘ history in October, 2008, the 59-year-old native of New Castle, Pennsylvania has wasted little time in turning a seemingly backwards-thinking franchise into one that deftly melds old-school scouting and statistical analysis. From rebuilding the organization’s infrastructure to executing an array of trades and free-agent signings, Zduriencik has been more than a little busy. The result is music to the ears of Mariners fans: In just 15 months, Jack Z has built a contender.
David Laurila: Is it fun being a big-league general manager?
Jack Zduriencik: Well, I don’t know if I look at it quite like that, but I enjoy my job. I’ve always enjoyed my jobs, so I’ve been fortunate in that respect. Whether it was as an area scout, when I started out, or as a national crosschecker or a farm director or a scouting director or even an international director, I’ve enjoyed every position that I’ve had. When you’re in this game, you go where it takes you, but you’re always curious about this position. You have faith in your abilities, and when you’re given a new job it’s, “OK, here is the next challenge.” So, I’m enjoying it and I’m very happy to be here in Seattle.
DL: Prior to getting the job, did you ever think to yourself, “If I ever become a general manager, I’m going to earn a reputation as a real wheeler and dealer”?
JZ: No, I never looked at it like that. I think that you just do the job the best that you know how to do the job. When I was a minor-league director, years ago with the Mets, we did a lot of things in a short period of time, a lot of significant things that helped the major-league club. I think there was a two-year span where 11 guys we signed, or traded for at the minor-league level, got to the big leagues. Rick Reed and Brian Bohanon were two of them and at one point in time they were two-fifths of the rotation. And there were other guys. We traded for Matt Franco. We signed Andy Tomberlin. We brought in Todd Pratt, who hit one of the remarkable home runs in Mets’ history, a historic home run that got us into (the National League Championship Series). So really, you just think about doing your job and about what you can do to get better.
DL: You’re not in any way surprised at how active you’ve been since taking over?
JZ: Once again, I don’t look at my job that way. I don’t sit and evaluate myself and think about what I have to do to be effective in terms of wheeling and dealing, as you put it. I just come to work every day with the idea of, “How do we get better?” How do we make our ball club better? What are our options? What are our opportunities? We go forward from that with any deal that we make, or with any free agent signing. And with any trade, I always hope that it helps both clubs. I hope that the guy on the other end is getting a deal that helps his club, just as it helps ours, so that we’ve met each other’s needs. I’ve never tried to be in a position where I “won” a deal. I don’t like that and when I deal with people who have that approach I think that it’s self-serving. At the end of the day, we’re all professionals, and when you sit and talk to someone your credibility is on the line. You obviously may see things differently, and that’s OK, but when we’re making a deal it’s because the other team has a certain need and we have a certain need. And sometimes clubs go in different directions and that makes things come together. Take the deal we just made with Philadelphia. We think that we probably gave them three very nice young players who are going to be big leaguers for a long time. That serves what they were looking to do and we, in turn, got a pretty good pitcher (Cliff Lee) that fits nicely in our rotation. So, at the end of the day when I sit down with Ruben (Amaro), we can say that we met each other’s needs and let’s talk again in the future. I think that is how deals come together.
DL: You’ve obviously made some attention-grabbing deals. What about moves that have mostly flown under the radar but you see as having a notable impact on your ball club? Do any stand out?
JZ: So much gets written about a deal at the major-league level, but there are other things, such as the people that you bring in to work with you, including at the minor-league level. I think that we’ve made some significant moves in the minor leagues this year, which no one talks about. We hired Carl Willis as our pitching coordinator. This guy has seven years as a big-league pitching coach and had CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee under his tutelage in Cleveland. We brought in Tim Laker as our Double-A manager. And we’ve done some things in other areas. We’ve brought statistical analysis to life here in Seattle, if you will. I’m sure that other people have done it here in the past, but I think that we’ve taken it to a different level, at least in terms of meeting our needs, with someone like Tony Blengino. Things like that sometimes fly under the radar. We hired Andy Stankiewicz as our minor-league field coordinator and I think he’s going to be terrific. Moves like those go unstated because people don’t really know them but we think they’re big moves. And hiring a guy like Don Wakamatsu-as far as any moves, that might be at the top of the charts because of what Don did last year. He was simply a good fit, and at the end of the day, you’re just trying to have the best fit for your organization, for your city, for your club. There are a lot of nice pieces that are helping us a lot and those would be some of the top ones.
DL: One of your recent hires was Jeff Kingston, who replaced Lee Pelekoudas as assistant general manager. Can you talk a little about that?
JZ: Lee is very qualified and had a tremendous amount of experience. He had been here forever. But with Jeff … every time you’re in this chair, you want to make sure that everything around you meets your comfort level. With Jeff, there was a real bonding if you will. I’ve known him for awhile, and when the position became available, I interviewed a bunch of guys, a great group of guys, and Jeff was someone who just really fit the criteria I was looking for. He’s young, he’s smart, and he’s done a lot of things in a short period of time. There was simply a great comfort level and I think that’s important. And that’s nothing against anybody. We made a lot of changes when I came in. We changed the farm director. We changed the scouting director. There is just a natural progression, when new people come in, where you’re going to have changes. That’s just how baseball works.
DL: One year ago, your statistical analysis department consisted of Tony Blengino and a handful of consultants. What does it look like now?
JZ: We’ve brought in a couple of people. Jeff has a good background in that. Andrew Percival, who does a lot of advance work for us, helps in that regard. We’ve kept Tom Tango on board, which is good. We have another gentleman on board who we brought in. Matt Olkin is no longer with us; he was a consultant for us a year ago. We’ve also hired a few of our interns, who are some pretty bright people. We brought them on board and they’re kind of getting their feet wet doing some leg work for Tony. So, it’s expanding a little bit and we’re real happy. We’ve also hired Dave Lawson to work with us. He’s done that work in the past. It’s ongoing, it’s very informational and it’s helped us a lot.
DL: When he talked to Baseball Prospectus last winter, Blengino said “defense is kind of the final frontier, with a few teams coming at it from different perspectives.” How would you define the Mariners’ perspective?
JZ: Well, we’ve emphasized it. I don’t think there’s any question about that. And I think the one thing you always need to look at is the availability of what is out there when you’re making a move. And when you do make a move, how does it fit your ball club, and how does it fit your ballpark and how does it fit your philosophy? What kind of product are you trying to put on the field? And when you’re looking at defense, which has obviously been an emphasis this winter for a few clubs-Boston being one that has really stretched out to improve its defense-it does come down to pretty simple things. If you’re really good in center field, and you’re really good at shortstop, and you can be really good behind the plate, there’s one defensive statistic that gets overlooked. What is the No. 1 defensive position on the field? It’s pitching. I mean, that guy holds the ball and controls everything that goes on in the course of a ballgame. But, we talk about defensive zone ratings and all those things, and they’re very important, and what I think they do is solidify and put credence to a lot of your thoughts and philosophies. You now have, as opposed to just an opinion, something that will verify your thoughts. Take Ryan Langerhans. I give Tony a lot of credit on Ryan Langerhans. Now, that was one that was under the radar. Here is someone who was sitting in Triple-A and nowhere in sight in terms of their radar screen, but we lost Endy Chavez, who we had been very happy with defensively, and we were looking for someone to come in and not only be a big-league player, but also help us defensively. Tony came up with Ryan Langerhans. He walked into my office and said, “This guy fits our needs,” and in the course of a couple of phone calls we ended up with Ryan Langerhans. He wasn’t a huge piece, but he was certainly a guy who did a very nice job for us, playing very solid defense. As a general manager, it’s my job to interpret information and fit it into what we’re trying to do. Our pitching was successful last year, in large part, because we had good defense. We had really good defense, and that became a theme. The more we went along, the more we realized that if we can catch the ball and prevent runs, the more it will help us. Outside of Russell Branyan, we didn’t have any 30-home-run guys on our ball club, so what are you going to do? You prevent runs and that’s what we did.
DL: Talking about the advancement of defensive metrics, Bill James recently said, “The only difference between our ability to evaluate defense and offense, at this point, is confidence.” Do you agree with that?
JZ: Well, Bill James is a hell of a lot smarter than I am and he’s got an enormous amount more experience than I do, but I’d have to read the entire context of how he said that in order to be able to interpret it exactly. I know we have confidence in our own information. We have confidence in what we’re doing and it goes hand in hand with how we’ll try to solidify something through defensive metrics or whatever type of form we’re looking at. We also try to have a scout in the ballpark to see what he thinks. It’s checks and balances because I like to have a lot of information before we make a call. Using Ryan Langerhans as an example, we made calls to scouts. Can he play center field? Can he play left field? Can he play right field? But as far as (defensive metrics) go, yeah, it is a new frontier and I think that’s what (James) was probably referring to. People haven’t all jumped out there and said, “This is what we’re going to do because we believe in these numbers,” but we’ve taken steps. Any decision we’ve made in terms of addressing our club, in regards to defense, was made with a lot of information and we’re continuing to go that route.
DL: Scouting is generally accepted to be an inexact science. That being said, are there elite scouts?
JZ: Oh, yeah. I tell our guys this a lot. I’ve always been amazed, over the course of the years, when somebody makes an acquisition, and you’ll end up sitting with people and saying, “How did that guy become Comeback Player of the Year?” or “How did you know this guy was going to do that?” There is so much said about the understanding of the swing of a hitter or the understanding of a hitter’s confidence and there are also the instincts of a scout who really gets it. He sees the body type and he sees the things that the player does, like how he hits in certain counts. He sees pitchers’ deliveries and how they use the stuff they have. What is the difference between a really good pitcher and one that should be a really good pitcher but isn’t there yet? What is it? Is it adjustments? Is it the ability to use his stuff? I mean, I can sit here with Carmen Fusco, who I have a great deal of respect for, and he can tell me about the swing, he can tell me about the approach to hitting, he can tell me a lot of things. And this is why you go out and hire quality pitching coaches and quality hitting instructors. They understand it. They get it and really good scouts see it. And once they tell it to you-sometimes you’re going to make a decision based on a particular person’s gut feel and that says a lot about people who have had a lot of success. They have confidence, they believe in what they see and they have a track record of being right. They’ve done their homework, so it’s not a shot in the dark. There’s a definite reason why they’re making the assessment they make.
DL: How seriously did your organization look into Aroldis Chapman?
JZ: Well, he’s a tremendous talent, and I tip my hat to Cincinnati for securing that type of player. We were there. We saw him. And we’ve seen him pitch for awhile. Bob Engle had a history with him. He knew him. We sent our guys in to watch him work out, but at the end of the day Cincinnati put the best deal on the table, apparently.
DL: If you were given information that showed Barry Bonds could help your ball club, would you consider signing him?
JZ: I think that we’re open to doing a lot of things. I don’t think we’ve ever closed a door to anything. So, if anybody walked in today and said, “We need to consider this player,” we would have to look into a lot of factors. Finances would be one issue. In this case, how long the guy has been away from the game would be another. There are many factors that go into any decision but we would certainly keep our door open to anybody who wants to come and play in Seattle.
DL: Mariners fans are getting pretty excited about the team you’re putting together. Knowing that, would you be willing to make a deal that resulted in the team’s taking one step back in 2010 in order to take two steps forward in 2011?
JZ: I wanted to win last year, so I don’t think that anybody’s expectations for this ball club are ever going to be any higher than my expectations. I expect us to be competitive. I expect us to be a ball club that goes out and plays day in and day out. That said, the message I hope to send out there is that we want to build this organization and sustain it for a long period of time. I’ve never been one to look for instant success. Or maybe how I should put it is that I’ve never looked to have success for just a short period of time. That’s not what we’re trying to do. What we’re trying to do is, through the draft and through the acquisition of players … an interesting note on this club is that every position player on this club will be back next year. Ichiro is signed. Gutierrez is signed. Bradley is signed. And any of the young players that will play left field, whether it is Saunders-he’s a young kid who will be back. Figgins is locked in. We’ve got Jack Wilson coming back, who will be a part of this organization. We’ve got Kotchman. We’ve got the catching back. If we’re going to be a good club, stability is going to be an important factor as we move forward. And if we’re going to be an elite organization, we’re going to have to do it with the players in our system, like your Carlos Triunfels and your Alex Liddis and your Nick Hills, with guys like that emerging through the system and becoming forces at the major-league level. That’s how you build and establish a good major-league ball club. We’ve done a lot of things this year because we had to do a lot of things. We did things last year because we had lost 101 ballgames (in 2008), so we couldn’t exactly run that same club out on the field. As we move forward in this whole process, I hope that our best players are players that we drafted, signed and developed. And when you acquire players, you acquire players who will be with you for awhile. Sometimes you need to go out and add a piece here or there, and we have done that, but again, if we’re going to become elite it’s because we developed our good players and maybe added here or there to put the finishing touches on it. By ‘it’ I mean a championship ball club here in Seattle.