The buzz is back for this MLB team

BY foxsports • December 16, 2009

As a rule, baseball general managers are as popular as the mayors of cash-strapped towns. There are budgets to meet, difficult choices to make, and too many constituencies to satisfy.

The sabermetricians. The traditionalists. The superstar-philes. The community-first types who value philanthropy over skill. They all have expectations, so they all have reasons to criticize the GM.

Except in Seattle. Except this week. Except when it comes to Jack Zduriencik.

"He's turning into a rock star in this town," said Shannon Drayer, a field reporter for 710 ESPN Seattle who has covered the Mariners for 11 years. "Twitter was lighting up on Monday: We need to have a Jack Zduriencik Bobblehead Night. It was glee, coming over the Internet.

"The fans are in awe of what he's been able to do."

The source of such optimism? The imminent arrival of left-hander Cliff Lee, last seen beating the Yankees twice in the World Series, and growing sentiment that the Mariners are a couple hitters away from toppling the Angels in 2010.

The Mariners, Phillies and Blue Jays agreed to the blockbuster trade on Monday, and the consensus among Seattle fans is that Zduriencik got a bargain. He parted with three good prospects – right-hander Phillippe Aumont, outfielder Tyson Gillies, right-hander Juan Ramirez – but didn't cripple the farm system. (In that respect, this is a very different deal than the Erik Bedard airball before '08.)

Not only did Zduriencik acquire a former Cy Young Award winner, he did so at a reasonable cost. And among one of the game's most educated fan bases, the move has furthered his reputation as something of a hardball shaman.

The most encouraging thing for Mariners fans: This isn't Zduriencik's first good move. He's making difficult maneuvers look routine. His legion of followers has grown accordingly.

"I've never been this confident as a Mariner fan," said Dave Cameron, an author at the popular blog "Even when we had those teams in the mid-90s, there were moments when you said, ‘What is (former GM) Woody Woodward doing?' He traded (Jason) Varitek and (Derek) Lowe for Heathcliff Slocumb. There was always something.

"Now, it's clearly laid out. These guys know what they're doing. They're trying to stick to a plan. Even if every move doesn't work out, they have a good thought process behind it."

Zduriencik had a charmed first year on the job in 2009. He acquired everyday center fielder Franklin Gutierrez in a three-way trade (notice a theme?) and signed Russell Branyan (31 homers) on the cheap. The Mariners were in contention after the All-Star break and finished with 85 wins. They had the best team ERA in the American League.

Now a sophomore with more money to spend, Zduriencik has been one of the game's most aggressive GMs this winter. He signed the versatile Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract. He's discussed a long-term contract extension with the agent for ace Felix Hernandez. And he has added Lee, forming perhaps the majors' best 1-2 pitching combination.

With the arrival (or retention) of each "name" player, Seattle will become a more attractive place for free agents to go. We're all familiar with the geographic advantages/disadvantages of the city: It is a beautiful place that is very, very far from most other cities in the major leagues.

But it was once a popular destination among players who wanted to play for a winner and didn't mind the long flights. Former Mariner Mike Cameron once referred to Safeco Field as "the biggest block party at 7 o'clock that I'd ever seen." With the additions of Figgins and Lee – not to mention the continued presence of Ken Griffey Jr. – it could become that again.

"Jack's well aware of that," Drayer said. "Chone Figgins talked about seeing it from the other side of the field, knowing Junior was there, hearing stories about him.

"It's funny. Four years ago, they were trying to sell (free agents) on the plane. Now, it's about the clubhouse, about how Seattle is a great place to live, about how the fans are great. There is value to that."

Zduriencik has steadily built credibility among those who were skeptical when he was tabbed as Bill Bavasi's replacement. At the time, Zduriencik had little notoriety outside baseball circles despite a very successful tenure as a scouting executive with the Brewers. Some fans feared a reprise of Bavasi's unpopular moves for Jose Vidro, Horacio Ramirez, Jeff Weaver and friends.

"When he got hired, there was some pessimism," Dave Cameron said. "He's bald, he's a scout – he looked like the Bavasi template for a GM. A significant amount of people thought the Mariners had just hired Bavasi 2.0. Then he comes in, hires Tony Blengino (a former CPA), establishes the Department of Baseball Research and shows that he's open to things that are clearly not scouting based.

"Even with that, I'm stunned at how much the stuff he does matches up with what we want to do."

One year removed from a disastrous 101-loss season, the Mariners have a solid foundation. Now comes the tricky part. Where can Zduriencik turn for what could be the final pieces to Seattle's first playoff team since 2001?

Make no mistake: This team needs to add more offense. Branyan and Adrian Beltre, the Nos. 2 and 3 hitters during the middle of the season, could leave via free agency. Only one player on the roster (Jose Lopez) had more than 80 RBIs this year.

Dave Cameron believes the Mariners should consider free agents such as Branyan and Nick Johnson, along with trade targets Luke Scott and Ryan Doumit. The team needs more left-handed power to suit Safeco's dimensions.

What about Jason Bay, the popular free agent who lives in the Seattle area? Cameron placed the odds of him signing with the Mariners at a "half percent," citing outfield prospects on the way and the disadvantage of right-handed power hitters in Seattle's home ballpark.

Then again, Bay could decide that he wants to play close to home, regardless of which team offers the biggest contract. Soon, the Mariners might take over the league lead in press conferences and optimism. When an off-season is going this well, why bother with the games?

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