Fortunes seem to change quickly for the Seattle Mariners in recent history, both for the better and for the worse.
Seattle ended 2013 on a low note, losing 91 games. After the offseason had begun, a scathing article appeared in the Seattle Times, featuring scathing quotes from former manager Eric Wedge and former special assistant Tony Belngino. Wedge announced he was resigning on the final weekend of the 2013 season, and accused General Manager Jack Zduriencik, as well as team president Chuck Armstrong and CEO Howard Lincon of constantly “meddling” with the team. Belngino, an expert in advanced statistical analysis and scouting, claimed he made the entire presentation package which eventually got Zduriencik (and Belngino) hired.
Though the article is well-written, it painted a less-than-flattering view of the Mariners’ front office, including some damning quotes regarding Zduriencik’s talent evaluation:
Jack portrayed himself as a scouting/stats hybrid, because that’s what he needed to get the job. But Jack never has understood one iota about statistical analysis. To this day, he evaluates hitters by homers, RBI and batting average and pitchers by wins and ERA. Statistical analysis was foreign to him. But he knew he needed it to get in the door.
The Mariners hired Lloyd McClendon to replace Wedge, and Seattle seemed eager to make a free-agent splash this off season, eager to spend some of its local TV revenue, but was already finding it difficult to find a free agent interested in joining the Mariners. After the article was published, common sense seemed to indicate the article would do no favors for Seattle’s front office’s ability to attract free agents. On Dec. 9, two days after the article, Zduriencik was forced to respond to the allegations, which he mostly denied. His choice of closing words seemed curious at the time, given the Mariners record in 2013:
We have stayed the course, and we now have a talented group of young players. We are hard at work looking into every option to add to this core group, as we said we would, and we are looking forward to 2014 and beyond.
A few days after the apology, news broke of the Seattle landing the big fish it wanted: second baseman Robinson Cano, and the Mariners outbid the Yankees to a record-breaking deal of 10 years, $240 million dollars. It was a risky deal, even though Cano was a star, as the contract will run until he’s 41-years-old. But Seattle wanted a star, and Cano was certainly one.
Then, the Mariners kind of closed up shop for the offseason. Yes, Seattle made a run for Masahiro Tanaka, and sure, the team did acquire Corey Hart and Logan Morrison, but the Mariners seemed to have a lot of question marks in its rotation beyond ace Felix Hernandez. Hisashi Iwakuma was going to begin the year hurt, James Paxton was a highly regarded, yet still unproven rookie, and the team wouldn’t deal top prospect starting pitcher Taijuan Walker, even for potentially an ace such as then-Tampa Bay Rays starter David Price.
Beyond the rotation, Seattle looked like it had other issues. Expected centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez, who had missed most of 2013 with a gastrointestinal disease, informed the team he wasn’t going to be able to play in 2014. The team was interested in re-signing first baseman Kendrys Morales, and offered him both the qualifying offer and a multi-year contract, but Morales spurned the M’s, and chose to instead sit out until after the draft (and eliminate the required draft pick compensation for signing him), and signed with the Minnesota Twins in June.
The Mariners did sign former Rays closer Fernando Rodney before the beginning of the year, but stumbled out of the gate early, with a 11-14 record at the end of April, but turned the ship around in May before getting hot in June (18-10). After a rough July, Zduriencik went out for reinforcements. The rotation had been surprisingly solid; Walker and Paxton both missed significant time due to injures, but King Felix continues to reign, Iwakuma has been mostly terrific since his return from injury, and 35-year-old Chris Young was having his best season since 2007. Zduriencik (somewhat ironically) acquired Morales for relief prospect Stephen Pryor, and then at the trading deadline, he got involved in the David Price trade the Mariners were long rumored to join.
But as you’re likely aware, Price didn’t head for Washington. Seattle acquired centerfielder Austin Jackson from the Detroit Tigers, giving up prospect Nick Franklin, who was made somewhat redundant by the signing of Cano. In addition, the M’s picked up outfielder Chris Denorfia from the San Deigo Padres. Denorfia hasn’t played very well (and has missed the past couple games with a stiff neck), but Jackson has been a huge upgrade over incumbent James Jones, and the Mariners are firmly in the playoff hunt as August comes to a close. Rodney has been about as good as a closer can be, and leads a an excellent-but-somewhat-unknown bullpen.
Zduriencik signed a multi-year extension with Seattle on Tuesday. It’s unclear if Seattle ownership is simply jumping the gun on an extension, but it’s worth noting Zduriencik’s contract expired after 2014. Rather than clean house last offseason when Wedge quit, Seattle essentially gave Zduriencik a make-or-break season to prove his worth. And entering September, it looks like Zduriencik has made it.
There’s a possibility Seattle could miss the playoffs, but the core of the team seems solid for beyond 2014; ace Hernandez and Cano, two stars who had both already proven themselves, and homegrown prospects-turned-everyday players in third baseman Kyle Seager and catcher Mike Zunino. The Mariners would probably add outfielder Michael Saunders and Jackson to this list (both are arbitration-eligible this offseason). Paxton and Walker could potentially contribute in September (and hopefully well past this season).
If Seattle needed Jack Zduriencik to prove to the team he could bring hope to the franchise, you kind of have to admit he has. It seemed unlikely in December of last year, but Zduriencik has done enough to keep his job. There’s still a possibility it could all go to naught, but he doubled down when the stakes were high, and even though many questioned his moves and non-moves, it looks like Zduriencik has positioned the Seattle Mariners to succeed for at least the next few years, which is a far better place than where the Mariners were before he was hired in 2008.