The Seattle Mariners made several moves this off-season which have resulted in a change (at least for the 2013 season) in the face of the big league club. Some have panned the moves, and some outlets have even raised the seemingly silly question, "Is this the move that costs Jack Zduriencik his job?" with one widely debated move. Taking a step back from the ledge, SeattleClubhouse gets down to the basics of what this front office has been doing for the past four-plus years: building the organization from the ground up on the strength of the farm system.
It's no stroke of luck that all of the moves so far this season were made without sacrificing any of the talent in the minor leagues. The Mariners front office believes in their minor league system. They believe they are doing things the right way. Their drafts under Zduriencik -- and more directly, Tom McNamara -- have been irrefutable successes, and the system that ranked in the lower quarter of MLB franchises in terms of talent when they took over is now a consensus top five organization. The 2013 team, to me, looks stronger than the 2012 team did. Some of that is definitely the manner in which they've added this winter, but a bigger part gets back to that player development -- the maturation of the young kids.
SeattleClubhouse has had a number of sit downs, phone calls, one-on-one's and general conversations with several members of the front office and player development teams over the past few weeks, and what they have said about their approach to the cultivation of their prospects speaks to the "how" of what they have done on that front.
First some of the quotes from General Manager Jack Zduriencik:"I was brought here for my skill set -– building an organization and bringing in players and trying to get this thing going. Player development and scouting has been what I've done. You stay true to who you are."
This is something that I think the fans sometimes forget. The Mariners hired Zduriencik based on his strengths. They had a very weak system at the time of his hiring and he has definitely turned that around. And although he has built the overall talent level as well as the depth up considerably, he still is approaching things the right way.
The Mariners tried to land one big free agent (the Josh Hamilton play, which Jack was referring to in the quote above) and they tried to land one big bat via trade (the Justin Upton deal which was shot down by his no-trade rights). But the thing that should give fans solace is that Zduriencik didn't make a costly reactionary move that sacrificed the future when either of those deals failed to come to fruition. He stayed in line with the plan of developing from within."You always keep the organization's best interests at heart and I'm going to do that. [I'm not going to] do something that is not in the best interest of this city, this organization, this fan base, despite the fact that there might be some people that wish I did it yesterday."
"We're committed to staying the course with these kids and trying to build," he said. "I've had several scenarios where I could give up two or three of these players, but what has to be weighed is the return you're getting, the years of control for what you're giving up."
Building a system more or less from scratch into a legitimate pipeline for the big league club takes time. Baseball prospects take time to develop into big league players; it isn't like the other sports where instant gratification from the draft is commonplace."We can't get -- unless you're enormously blessed -- a [Russell] Wilson to come in here like the Seahawks and be our starting center fielder the year after the draft. It just doesn't happen in baseball."
That being said, there are a handful of big leaguers from drafts since Zduriencik took over who are already making an impact on the big league roster: most notably Dustin Ackley, Kyle Seager, Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor. And there is a lot more talent on the horizon, particularly on the pitching side, but the strength of the system as a whole is impressive. And Zduriencik sees that and understands that it can be special. He should know, as he witnessed it play out that way first hand in Milwaukee, where he played a huge role in their rebuild."You've had three drafts with a chance to get guys to the big leagues. What we're going to see in the future -- in '13, '14, '15, '16 and '17 -- these kids are all going to start to matriculate to the big-league level. I think it's going to be fun. As the excitement builds, and we're able to do another free agent deal like we tried to do this year, it will be more successful in the future." "I don't think you can take our upper level pitching, between Double-A and Triple-A, and the young kids at the big league level, and say anybody [else] in baseball has that right now."
"A periodical recently had us rated No. 2 in the strength of the minor league talent. Some information came out...rating Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen as the one and two right-handed and left-handed pitchers in baseball, [James] Paxton the fifth left-handed pitcher in baseball, prospect wise. [Mike] Zunino the No. 2 catcher in baseball; there are some really nice things happening with our young kids. And, again, we're very young at the big-league level."
Those quotes from Zduriencik are echoed throughout the organization. Player development is being taken very seriously with this front office. And the man who is entering his second season with the club heading up that wing of the organization in Chris Gwynn. Gwynn has spoken with me a number of times over the past 13 months and he is always a great source of information on the prospects throughout the minor leagues for Seattle.
On prospect lists (i.e., MLB.com, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, maybe even SeattleClubhouse, etc.):"We look at it. I read it. But that doesn't alter or view on guys or stop what we're trying to do. We are happy that everyone likes our players, but until our players are competing and contributing at the big league level, our job isn't through."
On the Mariners internal "rankings" and depth charts:"There is a little bit of the structure to it because of levels and assignments and such. I try to look at them though in the sense of what type of player they are going to be down the road, not necessarily what they are now. For instance, if you've got a kid with plus speed and he's swinging, trying to hit home runs in batting practice then we try and get to him and help him understand the type of player that we envision him becoming and the type of skills that will play for him in that role down the road."
On Julio Morban and his add to the 40-man roster:"He's one of the guys that has exhibited power, the ability to hit, the ability to defend – he's an all-around player. So it is a bit of a reward putting him on the 40, but also – you never know what is going to happen if he isn't protected. Yes, he's only 20, but you never know. And now he's going to be in big league camp with the rest of those guys -- the men. And he is one of the more talented players in the system, definitely."
On the approach and reasoning to the Non-Roster invitees/general Spring Training depth:"As a team you want to bring in the depth that you need, but if you're one of the kids, you want to get that NRI. If we can fill that position from within, that's great. And by bringing them in as NRIs, you let those kids know –- and other kids in the organization know –- that we're watching. We're paying attention. And that's a motivator. I can't wait to see what those kids do in camp. To have all of these kids in big league camp that are home grown...I think that sends an incredible message to all of the players in the organization. That [being added] means you've been identified, but you have to continue developing. One guy could be just plate discipline away from taking off."
On Brandon Maurer's breakout:"He has a lot of talent, first of all. Fastball, curveball, slider, change -– all above average. He didn't understand that he needed to use that fastball to both sides of the plate and then that will set up his other stuff better. We know the fastball is good, but hitters adjust -– you need to use both sides of the plate so that then you can come back and backdoor a slider or something. Once he understood that he could use both sides of the plate and that will open up the breaking pitches, he took off. Took off. The league was hitting well over .300 when I went down there in May and I looked at him and said, 'no way.' His stuff was too good. So I...well, I'm not going to take the credit -- Lance Painter, Rick Waits and I -- talked with him and just said, 'Location.' And you look at where he went from there to the point when we shut him down, so for three months they were hitting like .190. Instruction is what is key and you have to have good instructors so that the kids understand what they need to go to. And that's what can happen when a kid finally just figures it all out."
On Andrew Carraway:"I'm obviously a Carraway fan, but I asked him, 'I just want to know how you do it.' He talked about being a self-made guy. He knows he doesn't throw mid-90s so he just constantly reinvents himself. We sit down with every guy, and he is a guy that we say, "Just keep doing what you're doing."
On getting a struggling prospect (like Vinnie Catricala in 2012) back on track:"A lot of times you take a step back and take a look at what they did to get to where they were. So we go back and look at those films and try and see what they were doing right and then compare to what they're doing now. And we tell them, this isn't going to be easy, some stuff may seem foreign and some stuff you may not agree with, but we're going to get you right. Trust us. It isn't something that hasn't been done before. He had a pretty good Fall League so I'm interested to see what he got out of that -- interested to see what he can do this year."
On Danny Hultzen and Nick Franklin and the challenge of Triple-A:"I knew, personally, that they were both going to struggle at some point [in Tacoma]. But I felt that they were doing so well -- Danny had only allowed 38 hits in 75 [and 1/3] innings. It was like he was pitching against little leaguers. He needed a challenge, and Nick, too. But with Danny, it was his first full year, people seem to forget that. And you look at the season as a whole; I think he did really well. He's going to add on from the knowledge that he got in Triple-A when he struggled. There are only a few guys that I know of that never had to go through those struggles. And in some ways I think those struggles [in the minors] are good. Because when you get to the big leagues you are going to have to know how to make adjustments. There are better pitchers and better hitters and you have to be able to adjust."
On "dominating your level" and what Mike Zunino has left to prove:"Offensively, I'd say, you can always be better. There are always benefits. He's not going to see the same pitchers, just because of the time of year. Not taking anything away from him, because he was very good, but even we had a lot of our guys moved up by that point in the season. He won't have that same staff, so he'll have to think things through mentally from the defensive side, maybe doing things a little different way as a catcher to get his team through. So there are definitely still things that he can benefit from in the minor leagues. His leadership skills are through the roof and he's just a great kid, and there could be some benefits of having him just down the road [in Tacoma], but I honestly don't know where he's going to be to start the year at this point."
On changes/improvements in the system since he came aboard:"The renovations in Peoria and the Dominican -- that is going to be huge for player development. We won 496 games last year, had a .550 winning percentage -- which I think is another example of working to get our players better, understanding themselves and their roles and then it snowballed in a good way. The coaches and managers did an outstanding job. And you start playing the right way, things work. We had a five-year low in strikeouts, which is one of the things that we consciously worked on. Implemented a new routine in batting practice to have guys zero in on balls for contact, making sure it is strikes they are swinging at. So in 2012 we had a five year low in Ks and a five year high in runs scored."
Continuing on pitch selection, "selective aggression" and plate discipline (where Gwynn and I see 100% eye to eye):"When I came in we were between 500-600 Ks above average for an organization. We went to work on getting the kids to understand what pitches they hit best and how to get the pitcher to throw that pitch. And that doesn't mean just taking pitches to take pitches. If that first pitch is your best pitch, the pitch you want to hit in your spot, swing at it. Hit it. Walks are earned more through aggression than they are through patience. Once you show the pitcher that you swing at strikes, they're going to try and get you out with pitches that look like strikes but end up being balls. Once you show that you won't chase those pitches, you're going to get more strikes to hit and, in turn, as you hit better, you're going to earn more walks out of respect and out of working through a team's bullpen as you extend games by racking up hits and moving through more pitchers, and at times, lower quality pitchers. It becomes a culture that can permeate through a whole team -- a whole organization. So you're right, walks are earned because you can hit. If you can hit, they'll just pound the strike zone because they don't have anything to worry about."
On where the 16-year-old pitching phenom Luiz Gohara may play in 2013:"We just have to make sure that he is supported as a person. If that means an interpreter, or whatever...but we want to make sure he is comfortable, assimilated, comfortable around all the guys and that he is supported. But we aren't going to hold him back. His stuff is absolutely ahead of his age, there's no doubt about that. If we feel that he is ready for the Northwest League both physically and mentally, then he will go there. If we feel he's better suited to stay in Arizona -- with a little bit more built-in support all around -- then that's where he'll be. He's an interesting guy, because you look at him and you just now it's going to be really good -- it's good now -- but you know it's going to be really good when he's about 19 or 20."
Another vital member of the M's front office is Assistant General Manager Jeff Kingston, who has worked in a number of front offices with a strong role in Player Development. Kingston is credited with being a key player in both of Felix Hernandez's extensions and is overseeing the development of the new academy in the Dominican for the M's. The M's said of Kingston when introducing him that he wore "a number of hats" for the club because of his involvement in the stadium renovations in Seattle, Peoria and the academy in the Dominican. Jeff spoke with me about the foreign rookie leagues and more.
On judging the talent in the Venezuelan League, where political strife has led to all but four teams pulling out of the league:"The quality of play has certainly suffered because you're only playing three other clubs all the time and things can get redundant. A lot of club's are sending their better talent to the Dominican. I think it certainly hurts development to a degree, but it's hard to get a handle on just how much, year to year. You get better by playing better competition, for sure."
On guys like Jesus Ugueto and spending multiple seasons in foreign rookie ball:"I think with Chris [Gwynn] here and this staff, I don't think that you'll see a guy like Ugueto down in Venezuela for four years. There comes a time when you have to push guys along, at least see what they can do at the more challenging levels. You never want to hold anyone back for four years if you think they're a true prospect because then they're in their 20s by the time they come to the states and they've still got five or six levels to climb. So I think you'll see us be a little bit more aggressive when we can. It's a case by case scenario, and you saw this year with Victor Sanchez being pushed all the way to the Northwest League where he was an All-Star, but pitchers it is a little bit easier to move them up. In reality, if we can't determine within a year or two if they're a prospect or not down there, it's probably time for us to move on."
On the new facility and what is more important in being able to land the top talent: the right facilities or the right people running those facilities and cultivating the relationships with the prospects:"That's a really good question. And I imagine that different organizations have different philosophies on that. As far as it pertains to Venezuela, we feel that it is a big advantage for us to have that presence there and for the kids to see that we're invested there and they can relate and identify. That is an important part, but I really think that your people on the ground are the most important part. Us signing Felix [Hernandez] -- Emilio Carrasquel and those guys got to know him at a very young age and that relationship became, probably, the number one determinant in him signing with Seattle. So your people on the ground are vitally important. Someone asked me earlier if I thought that us signing Felix helped us in landing other guys, and I think that yes, absolutely it does. Getting back to [Victor] Sanchez again, Felix is his idol and he tries to emulate him. So obviously us having him and having built that relationship is a huge aid in our negotiations with certain guys."
On breaking in international signings stateside and structuring the rosters at the lower levels:"In the past we've had it set up so that Pulaski has a big contingent of Latin players there, the coaching staff has a definite Latin feel to it and we try and keep some of those guys together. And that really helps. I think that is one of the hardest things for the kids when they come over is to assimilate them to the culture. We try and get them in a situation where they can succeed -- and level of competition is certainly a part of it, too -- but we try to find good fits for them culturally, too. Venezuela and the Dominican, we try and keep the kids close to home and we rarely send any Dominican players to Venezuela although sometimes they do go the other way. Kids from Nicaragua, Panama and those other countries, it kind of depends on the level and how they fit those rosters."
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