By Shannon Drayer
With or without a manager, Jack Zduriencik was facing a pivotal offseason this winter – pivotal for the entire organization, and ultimately his future in Seattle. If his vision for this team is going to come to fruition, there can be no more false starts. There is no room for a season marred with injuries. There is no more time for the youth to grow up, and this point he is well aware of.
"The message I want to say is I am tired of saying young kids," the Mariners' general manager told on "Wyman, Mike and Moore" on 710 ESPN Seattle shortly after manager Eric Wedge announced last week he would not return in 2014. "This is the end of it with you guys. I am tired of us talking about these young kids. They are young, [but] it is time for them to grow up. The message at the end of the season when I talk to them is I don't want to hear this young kids stuff anymore. You guys have got your feet wet, you guys are big leaguers. Get in here and act like big leaguers."
On the postgame show Sunday following the final game of the season, Zduriencik said he passed that message on to the team the day before. He had plenty else to say about how the season turned out and the search for a new manager, and I will get into these things in the near future, but what jumped out at me from our nearly-20-minute conversation was his description of how he saw the team currently and what needs to be done to take it to the next level. Quite frankly, I left the interview encouraged by what he said.
After a season that Zduriencik candidly called a disappointment more than anything else, obviously there is a ton of work to be done. Furthermore, Zduriencik's track record in player acquisition – be it by trade or signing – is far from stellar. Seattle would appear to be a hard sell right now. The encouraging thing, however, is that Zduriencik recognizes the problems.
"We know what the task is before us this winter – to put a better roster together," he said. "A better roster to allow better usage of our 25 players."
Without being able to land a long-term middle-of-the-order bat last offseason, Zduriencik went about trying to find enough bats to give his manager the ability to push some of the young players down further in the order. That would give them the opportunity to grow by getting into the spots they should be in rather than the spots he needed them in, like the previous year when Miguel Olivo was the closest thing they had to a cleanup hitter. It would require some mixing and matching, but the feeling was that having two of Raul Ibanez, Michael Morse, Jason Bay and Kendrys Morales in the order should have helped accomplish that.
"We thought it was important to bring in middle-of-the-lineup hitters, veteran guys with some power," he said. "When you do that, no one is giving away a young guy that has power and is a good defensive player. So you make sacrifices to try to augment for the benefit of your Kyle Seagers, your Justin Smoaks and your Michael Saunders. That was really the whole prescription that we put together."
That prescription came at a price, however. A price Zduriencik says he was well aware of.
"This wasn't a secret. We knew we were sacrificing our outfield defense," he said. "We have been a really good defensive club over the last several years, and we have been a pitching-oriented club with struggles offensively. We have made some strides offensively, but our defense struggled, and I think these are areas that need to be improved. We will have to continue to look into this. I don't have the answers now, but these are areas we have to get better at."
Indeed, huge steps can be made in improving the defense of a Mariners team that finished last or near the bottom in far too many defensive categories. Zduriencik couldn't help but chuckle when I pointed out that clearly it wasn't all about the long ball, as the team finished second in baseball this year in home runs. Fans have been screaming for more pop for years. Obviously, it takes more.
Jack Zduriencik says one area in which the Mariners can improve is outfield defense, which was sacrificed with the addition of power bats. "This wasn't a secret," he said. (AP)
One fix may be to not go after the home run at all costs. One fix may be to go the route that has proven successful for the Athletics.
"What I don't want to do is do something just to do it," Zduriencik said. "People say, 'Well, you have got free-agent money, then go get a free agent.' Well, I agree, but what good is that if it is not a really good free agent or a guy that is going to be with you. We may have to look at some other alternatives like platooning. In our matchups this year, I would have hoped we had done a little better job going forward with matchups, and a lot of that has to do with health, and that hurt us. There were so many times this year we were so left-handed oriented, just throw a left-hander against us and we were in trouble. And we knew that. It's hard to rectify that in the middle of the season."
If Justin Smoak is only going to produce from the left side, could we see a counterpart brought in to face lefties? Maybe Michael Saunders, if he is still here, only faces righties. Maybe we see a platoon at second base. These are all options. These were not possibilities with the current roster. This doesn't work if you have four or five first base/limited outfield/DH types on the team. Zduriencik is aware of this and to that end it will be interesting to see if there is room for Raul Ibanez on this team. Thoughts on that at a later date.
Another area of upgrade – and an area I think the team could make the biggest impact and get the biggest bang for the buck in one move – is starting pitching. Zduriencik appears to be leaning toward going with what they have. A great 1-2 in Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, and then 3-4-5 coming from some combination of James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Erasmo Ramirez and Brandon Maurer.
I think we all feel good about the first two. For me to take the third would be a concern both of depth and proven ability. We don't really know what any of them are. I am willing to roll the dice on Paxton and Walker – not a tough gamble to take. But Ramirez has been wildly inconsistent. We liked what we saw in 2012, but where was that guy in 2013? We love the stuff Maurer has, but can he bring it start after start? Too many questions for me.
We saw what having nothing behind 1-2 did this year. In addition to the runs surrendered by 3-4-5, their inconsistency taxed the bullpen and had a large part in the second-half collapse. Could we see Zduriencik go after a true No. 3?
"It depends on what's available for us," he said. "I am wide open to bringing in another starting pitcher. As much as I love our young kids, but you never have enough."
They certainly didn't this year.
We have yet to learn – and most likely won't until it is spent – how much Zduriencik will have available to spend this offseason. Knowing what is coming off the books, however, I don't think it is a stretch to say his checkbook will be dramatically bigger than it was in his previous seasons with the Mariners. Pursuit of the biggest-ticket items has proved fruitless in his tenure, but that does not mean the potential to improve the team significantly with signings isn't there. It is just not as obvious. The biggest difference, however, is this year Zduriencik shouldn't be limited to one-year fixes.
The evaluation has taken place. From our conversation I did feel that, as he said, Zduriencik is aware of where the club is. Perhaps a lot was learned this year. A functional roster is a step in the right direction. No more one-year fixes or gambles on players with injury histories. Easier said than to construct, but we will see what happens this winter.