Zduriencik up for the challenge with M's

BY foxsports • January 23, 2010

The first thing that has to be understood about Seattle Mariners second-year general manager Jack Zduriencik is that he isn’t afraid to take a chance. Never has been. It’s an approach that gave him the success as a scouting director that was a critical part of the Mariners deciding a year ago to hire him as the general manager.

When Prince Fielder came out of high school labeled as a DH-in-waiting, Zduriencik wasn’t swayed. Even though he was scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers, a National League team that doesn’t use the DH, Zduriencik invested the seventh pick in the first round of the 2002 draft and a $2.4 million signing bonus in making Fielder a Brewer.

And three years later, when the same talk was going around about Miami third baseman Ryan Braun, Zduriencik didn’t blink. With the fifth pick in the first round, he took Braun and then gave him $2.45 million to sign.

What Zduriencik saw in both Fielder and Braun was explosive offensive potential that nobody else in those drafts projected to develop. He figured they would be so impactful with the bat that a position would be found for them to play.

He was right.

And he hasn’t lost that ability to shut out the critics and take high-risk, high-reward gambles since he became a general manager.

With the Mariners having been one of the pleasant surprises during Zduriencik’s first year on the job, he has taken advantage of a major payroll purge thanks to trades and free agency, in hopes of an even bigger move forward for the Mariners in 2010, and he is willing to gamble the future on a troubled soul like Milton Bradley, whose offensive potential hasn’t been enough for him to avoid the Mariners becoming his sixth team in six seasons.

"We were looking for a middle of the lineup bat and we had to weigh the options that were available to us," said Zduriencik.

The options were facing the possibility of a major salary hike to pursue the two offensive-gifted free agents, or take a gamble on Bradley, whose price was the remaining $21 million he is owed on the final two years of the three-year deal he signed with the Cubs a year ago. And that was offset, somewhat, by the fact the Mariners were able to unload their excess baggage — right-handed pitcher Carlos Silva and a similar financial commitment as Bradley — on the Cubs.

Silva, after all, had the type of contract that wasn’t going to allow him to be released, and given the ineffective efforts he had put together in his first two years in Seattle, he projected to be nothing more than the 11th or 12th man on an 11- or 12-man pitching staff.

The only real gamble was getting Bradley to fit into the Mariners environment. And in some ways that bet is hedged thanks to the presence of Ken Griffey Jr., whose return for the 2010 season is as much a statement for the leadership he has assumed in the Mariners clubhouse as anything he will do as the DH, and the offseason additions of the likes of third baseman Chone Figgins.

Zduriencik tries to downplay any expectations on Griffey, but read between the lines.

"I don’t want to make any one player responsible for another player,’’ said Zduriencik. "Every player is responsible for his own actions. … Now, the fact that we do have Ken is a positive. One of the things I read after we acquired Milton was that Milton said there were only two players in his career he has asked for an autograph — Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey Jr. That tells you the status Ken has."

Right now, Zduriencik’s status is pretty high, too, given the transformation of the Mariners from the day he took over until today. A team that suffered through its first 100-loss season in 15 years when it dropped 101 games in 2008 and finished 39 games out of first place in the AL West managed to rebound to an 85-77 record a year ago.

The Mariners are looking for better things in 2010, and a big part of that has been a major overhaul that Zduriencik has been able to oversee (in which he has been able to bring in major pieces, including the free-agent signing of Figgins, the trade for left-hander Cliff Lee and the signing of staff ace Felix Hernandez to a five-year contract) and actually can expect to trim payroll thanks to the ability to clean out high-priced baggage through trades and free-agent departures.

Consider that on Opening Day this year, the Mariners will have at least five new faces in their lineup — Rob Johnson at catcher, Casey Kotchman at first base, Figgins at third base, Jack Wilson at shortstop and Bradley in left field. They will have three new members of the rotation — Lee, Ian Snell and Doug Fister, or whoever they opt to use in the No. 5 spot. And the closer role has been assumed by David Aardsma, a gamble Zduriencik took a year ago that paid off huge when former first-round pick Brandon Morrow couldn’t handle the job.

The defending AL West champion Angels, meanwhile, have spent their winter trying to plug holes rather than add to the nucleus they had. Free agency hit them hard with losses that included Figgins, starting pitcher John Lackey and DH Vladimir Guerrero. They did, last week, sign free agent Joel Pineiro with the hope he can fill Lackey’s major role in the rotation, and they have signed Hideki Matsui to replace the bat of Guerrero, but like Guerrero he is limited primarily to DH duties and doesn’t give manager Mike Scioscia the flexibility he would like.

Zduriencik, however, isn’t blinded by his own team’s potential.

"We have to do an honest job of evaluation, and that starts with the fact we finished in third place last year, and right now we are the third best team in the division with Oakland and its quality young pitching right behind us," he said. "We haven’t accomplished anything yet.

"Nothing we have done is because of what anybody did or didn’t do. It’s what we felt we needed to address to get better. What we know is regardless of what happened this offseason, the Angels are still a heck of a club. They still have players like Torii Hunter, Bobby Abreu and Kendry Morales. We acquired good pieces. They have good pieces. What we are trying to do is catch them."

One thing you can count on, however, is that Zduriencik is up for the challenge. He’s willing to take a gamble.

And he has proven he can hit the jackpot.

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