Jack Zduriencik came to the Seattle Mariners as a rookie General Manager in October of 2008. He got off to a fast start and made a blockbuster trade, immediately earning the nickname "Trader Jack" and the hearts and trust of many M's fans.
It hasn't been all downhill since then, for sure, but to say that the fanbase has soured on Zduriencik is totally fair. Looking at the attendance numbers, it is pretty clear that the fanbase has soured on the Seattle Mariners, period. And now with Eric Wedge, who Zduriencik selected out of 59 candidates and five finalists -- Cecil Cooper, John Gibbons, Lloyd McClendon and Bobby Valentine along with Wedge -- is gone, Jack has gone through two managers who he personally selected as the right fit to move the club from rebuilding to contending.
It hasn't worked.
The Mariners have lost 90-plus games for the third time in four seasons and have a collective .444 winning percentage under Zduriencik entering play Sunday. The club's best season under the GM was his first -- clearly the year that he had the least influence on the makeup of the roster. The organization is unquestionably stronger in the department of it's top minor league talent and overall minor league depth, but none of that has transitioned to winning at the big league level. And as should be very clear to everyone that follows the club here at SeattleClubhouse, Zduriencik has very little to do with the draft for the Seattle Mariners -- that is Tom McNamara's role.
And so Zduriencik now faces his biggest challenge as the GM of the Seattle Mariners: improve the club at the big league level for 2014 on an expiring contract. That means he has to convince a manager who can help the team win -- finding someone who can effectively manage player personalities and a bullpen that was a mess this year, and bring them on board for what is clearly a one-year trial period -- that he look past the contract status of the GM and look at Zduriencik's "Plan". It also means that he has to make some player acquisitions in the trade and free agency markets where the players, agents and competing General Managers around the game will be acutely aware of the dire need for him to improve his club. And there is very little doubt that while the Mariners should have a lot of money to spend this winter with their expiring contracts and pending uptick in money through the new ROOT Sports deal, ownership will be heavily involved in the discussion of major moves. Zduriencik will need to wade his way through both of these tasks carefully but confidently, being able to convince his bosses that the moves are in the best interest of the club.
Seattle showed that they weren't deep enough in the rotation or the bullpen this year, and as things stand right now they look to be about to lean on their youth even more heavily in 2014. Taijuan Walker and James Paxton both debuted over the last month and had strong results and both should be considered among the top candidates to slide in behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma in the rotation next year for Seattle. But the club may still want another veteran there. They unquestionably will look for more veterans to strengthen the bullpen, one of the most glaring weak spots for the Mariners this season. Young arms coming off of injury (Stephen Pryor) and those looking to bounce back from poor seasons (Tom Wilhlemsen and Carter Capps) could still figure prominently, but experience is needed.
The core of the lineup looks better on paper than it has in quite some time, but the veterans brought in this season to lengthen the lineup and provide pop could all be gone next year. Michael Morse's fragile body fell apart again this season after his hot start and he was dealt to the Orioles in a waiver deal a month ago. Raul Ibanez has tied Ted Williams' record for most home runs in a 41-year-old season (29), but he's 41, not a good defender and was forced to play far more than the club or Raul anticipated this season. If he were to be brought back it would unquestionably be in a reduced capacity. Kendrys Morales has hit well and leads the club in hits (167), doubles (34) and RBI (80), but he is a free agent at season's end, is a Scott Boras client and would net the club a draft pick if he were to decline a qualifying offer and sign elsewhere. A qualifying offer figures to be around $14 million and Morales is a defensively-limited 1B/DH with a long injury history. Is he worth a $14m offer? Is he worth a long-term deal? While the money would not be a hindrance to the M's or Zduriencik, the club could certainly pass on the risk with Morales.
With the outfield among the biggest areas of need, Jacoby Ellsbury could be a great fit for the Mariners and they figure to go hard after him, but a long-term deal with a player who's game hinges greatly on speed could backfire and become an albatross down the road. Big money is being thrown around for free agents and the Jack Zduriencik-Mariners have never gone to more than a 5-year guaranteed offer to any free agent they've signed. And speaking of injury history...
Even if the club were to re-up with Morales and sign Ellsbury to a reasonable deal, convincing the Pacific Northwest native that Seattle isn't a poorly run organization and that the club does indeed have a bright future, the rest of the free agent market doesn't look like it holds many more answers that could address the M's needs. Trades could be on the horizon. Big trades. Like the failed Justin Upton deal from a year ago. That trade in hindsight looks like it could have been a potential disaster for Zduriencik, but it didn't seem totally unreasonable at the time. If the M's want to acquire an Upton-esque bat this offseason, the cost again figures to be high. And with Jack's status and the known urgency of the entire front office, that deal could end up looking like one of the more generous offers.
It is going to be a very important and very difficult winter for the Seattle Mariners. It is unquestionably Jack's last stand, and the direction this winter could not only shape the 2014 season for the M's but also the future of the ownership and many of the futures of the young core.
Desperation and "the best interest of the team" don't often go hand-in-hand. Let's hope they can coexist here.
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