General managers in trouble always want more time.
Time for prospects to develop. Time for injured players to heal. Time for the GM’s blueprint to become a fully formed vision of a championship contender.
Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik is running out of time.
The M’s are 9-15 in a season in which they were expected to at least continue their recent incremental improvement, from 61 to 67 to 75 wins the past three years. And while the schedule is still less than 15 percent complete, the Mariners again are last in the AL in runs per game — a position they held in each of Zduriencik’s first four years as GM.
Zduriencik was talking about the need for more time Thursday, referencing injuries to three pitchers and each of the Mariners’ starting outfielders, pointing out that his front office has had only four drafts, explaining that some of the top prospects from Triple-A will be in the majors before the end of the season.
His argument makes sense only if you believe that Zduriencik and his front office are properly evaluating players, something that is very much in question. I mentioned to Zduriencik that fans, waiting for the Mariners’ first playoff appearance since 2001, aren’t necessarily in the mood to be more patient.
“Of course. I get it. Nobody feels it more than I do,” Zduriencik said. “I sit here and would love to deliver to the fans. But this is what we said we were going to do. We haven’t really deviated from Day One.
“I said we were going to build the minor league system, we were going to try and get these guys here at the right time and then I would expect owners to step up and allow us to do some things.
“Well, this winter, they allowed us to go after Josh Hamilton. It fell short. But going forward, we’ll be in better shape next year than we are this year, no question about it.”
Again, on the surface, the argument makes sense.
The Mariners rank second in Baseball America’s organization talent rankings, behind only the Cardinals. Catcher Mike Zunino, infielder Nick Franklin and left-handers Danny Hultzen and James Paxton are all at Triple-A, bearing down on their first major league promotions, and right-hander Taijuan Walker is at Double-A, not far behind.
Here’s the problem: Three of Zduriencik’s building blocks — catcher Jesus Montero, second baseman Dustin Ackley and first baseman Justin Smoak — still are struggling to establish themselves as major leaguers. And if those three prove to be busts, why should anyone be confident in Zduriencik’s next wave?
It’s not too late for Montero, Ackley and Smoak to snap out of it — Zduriencik said that he was encouraged by the hitting of all three in the Mariners’ most recent series against the Astros. But in each case, this is no longer a question of small sample size.
Smoak, the centerpiece of the Cliff Lee trade in July 2010, has a .678 OPS in 1,515 major league plate appearances. Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, has a .662 OPS in 1,127 PAs. Montero, the principal return for righty Michael Pineda, has a .701 OPS in 678 PAs.
“They have things to prove,” Zduriencik acknowledged. “I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Boy, oh boy, these guys are going to be superstars.’”
Well, that was the original idea.
Zduriencik has had his share of successes in the draft — third baseman Kyle Seager, relievers Stephen Pryor and Carter Capps, and presumably others to come. He made a dismal trade for Lee and received too little for right-hander Doug Fister, but also scored with deals for outfielders Michael Morse and left-hander Jason Vargas, whom he later turned into first baseman Kendrys Morales. His signing of Japanese free-agent righty Hisashi Iwakuma in January 2012 qualifies as a coup.
The eventual promotion of Zunino will liberate Montero from the mental rigors of catching, perhaps enabling him to take off offensively. Manager Eric Wedge continues to express confidence that Smoak and Ackley will be quality major leaguers. But if the Mariners are wrong on even two of the three, then where are they?
They’ve got no shortstop; Franklin might be better suited for second. Morse and Morales both are potential free agents. And while ownership clearly is willing to invest in big-ticket items, top players repeatedly spurned the Mariners last offseason for better options. Hamilton and outfielder Torii Hunter signed with the Angels and Tigers, respectively, as free agents. Outfielder Justin Upton rejected a trade to the M’s and later went to the Braves.
The question now is how the team’s historically inert ownership will react if things get ugly. Zduriencik expressed support for Wedge on Thursday, but at this point, who knows if ownership would even allow him to hire another manager? Or, for that matter, make trades before the non-waiver deadline on July 31?
While Zduriencik says the team has not deviated from its plan, the turnover in his front office has been significant since he took over in October 2008.
The Mariners fired professional scouting director Carmen Fusco in September 2010, two months after acquiring Josh Lueke, who had pleaded no contest to a charge of false imprisonment with violence against a woman, in the Lee trade.
More recently, Zduriencik greatly reduced the responsibilities of special assistant Tony Blengino, a statistical analyst who helped make the GM a darling of the sabermetric community early during his tenure.
Blengino, after returning home to Milwaukee, remains on the team’s masthead. But when I asked Zduriencik if Blengino is a contributing member of the front office, the GM replied: “Tony does his statistical analysis. That’s what his position is. That’s what his job is. We’ll continue to see how this thing unfolds.”
Bob Engle, the Mariners’ vice president of international operations and the man responsible for signing Felix Hernandez, left the organization at the end of last season. Zduriencik also has hired a number of highly regarded baseball people, including Ted Simmons, Pete Vuckovich and Joe McIlvaine. His shift to a seemingly more scouting-oriented operation will either save him or prove his last gasp.
Sports Illustrated recently took an optimistic view of the Mariners, proclaiming them to be “The Next Nats.” That forecast still may come true, but SI was similarly positive in March 2010, portraying the M’s as an organization on the vanguard of run prevention. Writer Albert Chen quoted Blengino extensively in that story and said Zduriencik “has been hailed as the second coming of Billy Beane.”
Well, the Mariners’ 85 wins in 2009 proved an illusion, and the team hasn’t had a winning record since.