Mid-Summer Deep Breath: The Case for Keeping Jack Z.

The only question of import surrounding your Seattle Mariners baseball team right now is this: Should general manager Jack Zduriencik be fired?

The Mariners hired Zduriencik in October 2008, and tasked him with picking the players that would return the franchise to its dawn-of-the-millennium glory days. What’s come instead is five consecutive seasons of dull, incompetent baseball. Fan interest has plummeted—the Mariners now draw 20,000 fewer fans per game than the Sounders, who had yet to play a match when Zdruiencik’s tenure began.

It would be weird if diehard Mariner fans weren’t wondering whether Zduriencik should go. My own reaction to the question has long been a sarcastic “Ya think?” But the more I think about it, the less sense firing Zduriencik makes.

If you’re going pink slip Jack Z, you’ve got to make a case that another general manager could’ve done better. And that’s hard to do.

One consistent frustration during Zduriencik’s tenure has been the Mariners terrible offense. Fans have begged for the Mariners to fix the problem by signing a big-name free agent. Should Zduriencik have done it? Here are the most coveted sluggers to have come on the free agent market since Zduriencik became GM, what their salary is, how many homers they’ve hit, and how many Wins Above Replacement they’ve been worth this year. (Wins Above Replacement or “WAR” is an advanced statistics that accounts for a player’s offense, his defense, his home park, and the position he plays to determine how many wins he is worth above a theoretical “replacement-level” or freely available player.)

-- Prince Fielder ($23M, 16 HR, 0.9 WAR)

-- Josh Hamilton ($15M, 14 HR, 0.6 WAR)

-- Matt Holliday ($17M, 13 HR, 1.6 WAR)

-- Albert Pujols ($16M, 15 HR, 0.5 WAR)

-- Jayson Werth ($16M, 10 HR, 0.7 WAR)

Not a single one of these guys has hit even as many homers as 41-year-old Raul Ibanez, who has delivered Zduriencik 23 homers this year at a low, low salary of $2.75M. And none of them has been as valuable M’s third baseman Kyle Seager (14 HR, 3.6 WAR). You hesitate to say that someone making mid-six-figures is underpaid, but at $501K this year, Seager surely is.

Seager’s success highlights Zdurienck’s strength as Mariners GM, the thing he was brought here to do, and the thing he has done quite well: Build the team through the draft.

It’s no secret why the Mariners’ offense is so terrible: Bill Bavasi’s disastrous drafting from 2004-08. Of the 113 hitters drafted under Bavasi’s watch—five years worth of players who should be hitting their primes right now—only one, Michael Saunders, is on the team (and hitting .219).

Bavasi’s five years of draftees combined to hit 59 HRs as Mariners. Zduriencik’s draftees—most of whom are still rising through the minors—have already hit 63 HRs.

Zduriencik’s first pick as Mariner GM, Dustin Ackley, was the 2nd-overall pick in the 2009 draft. Ackley has struggled this season, but with 300 major league games under his belt remains one of the more productive players in the 2009 draft. Of the four players taken right after Ackley, three aren’t even considered prospects anymore.

Zduriencik’s next pick in 2009, high school shortstop Nick Franklin, joined the Mariners in late May and already has more home runs (6) than all but two of Bavasi’s draftees. Of the 39 high school position players taken in the first 5 rounds of the 2009 draft, Franklin is one of only 3 to have made the majors.

And Seager, drafted in 2009’s third round, has been one of the better players in the American League this year.

Of the top ten hitters to have come out of the 2009 draft, Zduriencik picked three of them. Could another GM have done better?

(You could argue that the only reason Ackley, Franklin, and Seager have gotten the chance to hit home runs is because the team is so bad they’ve gotten to play. But Bavasi’s draft picks got the same chances—remember Jeff Clement? Rob Johnson? Matt Tuiasosopo?—and didn’t produce.)

Zduriencik’s trades for other teams’ draft picks have been far less successful. Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero, both centerpieces of big trades, have been horrid. But Zduriencik wasn’t alone in thinking them valuable. Smoak was the No. 13 prospect in baseball in 2010, Montero was rated No. 4. And let’s be honest about what the Mariners had to offer in those trades: Cliff Lee pitched 15 games for Texas. Michael Pineda hasn’t pitched at all for the Yankees.

Zduriencik’s worst deal sent away Doug Fister, now a stalwart of the Tigers’ rotation, for four players, only one of whom is with the M’s now. But the deal seemed like a no-brainer at the time: Fister was a 26-year-old soft-tosser with a 12-30 career record. Even frequent franchise critics USSMariner.com called the July 2011 trade “not half-bad”, with the site’s Mike Snow pointing out that Fister “seems to have reached a level of performance that’s about the most optimistic anybody could have projected for him.”

It may sound like I’m trying to apologize for Zduriencik: I’m not. I’m only trying to point ask: What could another general manager have done differently? Doug Fister was hardly a prime trade chip. Cliff Lee was, but other players who were reportedly on offer for him included David Adams of the Yankees, Wilson Ramos of the Twins and Jon Niese of the Mets. Adams is in AAA after hitting .190 for the Yankees, Ramos is the Nationals’ part-time catcher, and Niese is on the DL with a rotator cuff strain. Would we think better of Zduriencik if he’d picked one of those guys instead?

It doesn’t matter who the Mariners general manager is in 2014 and 2015. Either the young players that Jack Zduriencik drafted will turn out to be good, in which case the team will be good, or the players that Jack Zduriencik drafted will turn out to be bad, in which case the team will be bad. (Or the players that Jack Zduriencik drafted will turn out to be eclairs, in which case the team will be delicious.)

What could a new GM do? The only superstar free agent after 2013 will be Robinson Cano, who recently signed Jay-Z as his agent. Something tells me that Jay-Z’s first baseball client isn’t going to sign with a losing team in the Pacific Northwest. The only option any new GM would have is just what Zduriencik is doing now—build the team through the draft.

Across the street at CenturyLink Field, Pete Carroll has been able to rebuild a talentless Seahawks roster through the draft into a Super Bowl contender in three years. But you can do that when your draftees can step on the field—and star—just a few months after being drafted. Forty-one of the players taken in the 2012 NFL draft were starters for their teams the next year, including the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner. In the entire 49-year history of the Major League Baseball draft, only 20 players have gone straight to the majors. In baseball, draftees are often five to seven years away from being quality contributors...if they make the majors at all.

So, for Mariner fans—to use a reference from the last time the team was good—reality bites. Five years of losing, piled upon the previous five years of losing, seems like a unendurable amount of time to wait. But the Mariners were so bereft of talent when Zduriencik took over that he’s essentially been building an expansion team. Seattle had an expansion baseball team once, and we waited 18 years for them to contend. While I don’t think the M’s are another eight years away from a date in the MLB playoffs, firing Jack Zduriencik when he’s done about as well as anyone could hope won’t bring that date any closer.

 
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