The case for retaining Jack Zduriencik

It’s easy to point to the reasons why the Seattle Mariners should go in a different direction at general manager, including two winning seasons in seven years, no postseason appearances and the manner in which the original plan — build a strong foundation through scouting and development — has failed quite miserably. It’s another task altogether to present a case for the club to retain it’s GM for another year.

The reasons for a dismissal, continued:

  • Inability to identify the skills that play well at Safeco Field
  • Inability to identify the needs of current roster
  • Inability to develop consistently through draft, international market
  • Unwillingness to acknowledge mistakes before its detriment to the team maximizes

What exactly has Zduriencik done well in seven years as the club’s No. 1 baseball man? In short, not a ton. A more in-depth look does reveal some key positives, however:

Financial Flexibility
Yes, the Mariners have two large, long-term contracts on the books. Felix Hernandez is owed $103.4 million over the next four years and Robinson Cano is owed $192 million over the next eight seasons. But considering the $125-plus million payroll being carried at present, the club’s future comes with between $71-79 in guaranteed dollars over remaining life of Hernandez’s contract, which is the true window of opportunity for the current core.

Avoiding a collection of bad contracts is greatly beneficial to the club’s future, whether it be under Zduriencik or a new general manager. At least part of this flexibility is a credit to the ownership’s resistance to simply trying to purchase a winning team. They’ve spent money, and at least recently it’s been spent in a fairly wise manner. Zduriencik deserves credit here, too, though, since he and his staff are perhaps the most integral pieces to who is worth the large investments.

Moving forward beyond 2015, the Mariners have room to add one or two more impact players to the tune of an annual salary in the vicinity of Nelson Cruz’s $14.25 million average. Despite the lack of young, high-impact talent coming up through the farm system, the Mariners have a number of young players offering field value while costing the club very little in terms of dollars, including Mike Zunino — despite his offensive struggles — Brad Miller, Taijuan Walker, Mike Montgomery and Carson Smith.

Do the M’s need to add more production to the roster from a position player standpoint? No question about it. And because 1) the ownership has raised the stakes financially and 2) Zduriencik has been able to avoid the colossal mistake in free agency, they’ll have enough flexibility to go out and do what’s necessary. Whether or not the front office can/will identify the right pieces is another story.

The Mariners aren’t that far away
Despite a poor win-loss record in 2015, the Mariners’ roster is not deplorable. It isn’t awful, it isn’t what some like to call a “dumpster fire.” It’s not a good mix, but the overall level of talent is probably somewhere closer to league average than the results suggest. This is both a point in Zduriencik’s favor and a knock against him, perhaps more of the latter.

The roster, however, does not need to be blown up or sold off in a fire sale. Still it needs a a few more pieces, probably about five pieces to add to or replace the present makeup. Since two of those pieces, in my opinion, are relievers, such a task can be done in one offseason. And for those wondering, the answer is yes: Zduriencik can get that job done.

It’s taken seven years to get here, but the club does appear to be close enough to suggest again that next year may very well end the playoff drought.

Discipline
I believe Zduriencik, for at least the first 5-6 years of his tenure as the GM in Seattle, has had the opportunity to make significant deals trading young players for veterans. Indeed he attempted to land Justin Upton in exchange for a package that included Taijuan Walker, a deal I would never have made myself. But how bad would that have been, in the end? Walker is getting it going now and his value moving forward may be enormous — I am a huge fan of Walker and his present and future. But Upton has hit in Arizona, Atlanta and San Diego and certainly would have helped the Mariners for the past three years, even more than the combination of players reportedly heading to the desert.

But on so many other occasions Zduriencik could have moved Walker, James Paxton, Miller and Zunino for short-term fixes, some which may very well have solidified his current job status. I don’t know what kind of restrictions were placed on Zduriencik by president Kevin Mather or the club’s ownership — basically Howard Lincoln — at this year’s deadline beyond the reports that Hisashi Iwakuma was not to be discussed in trades. If there were none beyond that, the same discipline by Zduriencik again took place. At very few points over the past several years has it made sense for the Mariners to part with significant young talent to grab a veteran player.

That isn’t to say anyone should be untouchable but the value of proven major league players is so high in today’s game that outside a bad contract or younger, producing player being part of the return package, those kinds of just aren’t available very often. And when teams do make such trades, the window typically becomes shorter, increasing the risk.

Bill Bavasi was allowed to trade Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, Tony Butler, Kameron Mickolio and George Sherrill for short-term help in left-hander Erik Bedard. Maybe Lincoln and Mather learned from that. Or maybe Zduriencik, no matter what one may think of the job he’s done to date, doesn’t want to be Bavasi, since job security or not, such deals would be bad for the club. Until I know different, I’ll lend a little credit to Zduriencik for not going down that path, particularly the past few years when the pressure has built.

The above factors do not outweigh what was outlined at the outset here, but they are legit and credit is deserved.

Conclusion
I don’t have a sense for which direction the Mariners’ brass may lean when the time comes for them to decide whether or not Zduriencik will return for 2016. If they choose to retain him we’ll likely hear reasons including “close to where we want to be,” “heading in right direction” “not that far away” and wanting to “stay the course,” since a new GM may require autonomy to make major changes to the roster and perhaps push off winning for another year — or at least the fear that could be the case.

One can argue with solid evidence the first three are legitimate, of not downright correct. I’m not saying the club should stick with the status quo — I believe the opposite. But I also believe the front office has to know without much doubt that a better candidate — in their estimation — not only is available, but would accept the job.

Again, not that it’s necessarily the right move, but considering the above positives, put yourself in Lincoln’s and Mather’s shoes and it’s easy to come to the conclusion that Zduriencik may be the club’s best bet to win in 2016.

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Jason A. Churchill

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