Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Mariners' makeover driven by Zduriencik
By Jerry Crasnick
Jack Zduriencik grew up in New Castle, Pa., seven miles from Dick Allen's hometown of Wampum and 20 miles from Joe Namath's birthplace in Beaver Falls. Youngstown, Ohio, home of Dave Dravecky, Bernie Kosar and football's Stoops brothers, was just a few miles and a state border beyond that.
Bedrock values were abundant in Zduriencik's neighborhood. His father worked in a steel mill and owned a barbershop, and young Jack obtained his barber's license at age 16. When he arrived home each day from football and baseball practice, his dad would hand him a pair of clippers and tell him to get to work.
More than 40 years later, Zduriencik chuckles when asked whether he might brush off his tonsorial skills if a few Seattle Mariners need sprucing up this spring.
"Nobody's asked, but I can," Zduriencik said. "It's like riding a bike. You really don't forget."
Zduriencik's secret talent might seem quaint and outdated in comparison to, say, Boston general manager Theo Epstein's ability to play Pearl Jam on his guitar or Twins GM Bill Smith having a bachelor's degree in French. But as long as Zduriencik keeps earning rave reviews for his day job, baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest won't be complaining.
Time will tell whether Zduriencik's offseason is the precursor to a 2010 executive of the year award, but he's definitely made life interesting in Seattle, where it's been wall-to-wall activity this winter. During the past 40 days, Zduriencik and his front-office team have done everything but (A) add a 30-home run guy and (B) built an ark.
Since early December, the Mariners:
• Signed All-Star third baseman Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million deal with an option for a fifth year. Figgins, the only big leaguer to steal 30 bases or more in each of the past six seasons, led the American League with 101 walks and ranked second to Dustin Pedroia with 114 runs scored in 2009. He also brings a .395 on-base percentage to a team that ranked 29th in baseball in that category last season.
• Acquired former Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee in a four-way trade with Philadelphia, Toronto and Oakland. Lee will combine with Felix Hernandez to give Seattle one of the most formidable one-two punches in the game.
• Added outfielder Milton Bradley from the Cubs in a classic bad-contract swap. The Mariners traded pitching bust Carlos Silva to Chicago for Bradley, who is still owed $23 million over the next two seasons. Bradley will play left field, health permitting, and slot in somewhere in the middle of the order.
• Picked up reliever Brandon League from Toronto for starter Brandon Morrow in a swap of hard-throwing Brandons.
• Acquired first baseman Casey Kotchman from Boston for Bill Hall, a minor leaguer and cash. Kotchman's .406 career slugging percentage is not optimal for the position, and he's a power downgrade from Russell Branyan, who hit 31 homers last season. But Zduriencik, who nearly selected Kotchman in the 2001 draft as Milwaukee's scouting director, is convinced that Kotchman has room to grow as a hitter.
• Avoided salary arbitration with Hernandez by signing him to a multiyear contract, according to ESPN.com's Keith Law.
• The Mariners even talked to former San Diego general manager Kevin Towers about an advisory position with the organization but will not be hiring him "at this time," Zduriencik said. Towers worked under Zduriencik in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s, and they bonded while working long hours through the draft.
After all those transactions, the Mariners probably still aren't done. They could use another starting pitcher, and they would like to add a right-handed hitter who can play some left field or first base and share time with Ken Griffey Jr. at designated hitter. With Ryan Garko, Jermaine Dye, Xavier Nady, Reed Johnson, Jonny Gomes, Marcus Thames, Rocco Baldelli and the newly designated-for-assignment Eric Byrnes still on the market, they have lots of reasonably priced options.
The Mariners posted an 85-77 record last year even though they were outscored 692 to 640, a Pythagorean disconnect that suggests they overachieved and the hot stove euphoria is overblown. But don't tell that to Zduriencik and his staff.
"I sit back and go, 'Man, these guys are going after it,'" Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu said. "It's exciting, and it's neat to be a part of.
"You have to give Jack credit because he's pretty new at this job. There's the player-acquisition part, but there's also building an organization and how warm and fuzzy you make people feel. It takes leadership skills to do that, and Jack leads by example. He does a good job of tapping into all the resources he has, which makes people feel included. That's critical."
Zduriencik (pronounced "zur-EN-sik"), 59, has a reputation in baseball circles as a hard-driving administrator who can be demanding on the people who work for him. Sports Illustrated magazine's Curry Kirkpatrick once described Mike Ditka, another son of western Pennsylvania, as an "intensely balled fist of a fellow." Zduriencik, with his Slovakian-Polish heritage, exudes the same no-nonsense air and sense of purpose.
But he's more than just a grinder. Zduriencik has a bachelor's degree in education from California University of Pennsylvania and a master's in physical education from Austin Peay, and he spent lots of time in classrooms before staking out a seat behind home plate as a scout. That experience fostered an open-mindedness and a willingness to consider all viewpoints. As Mariners pro scouting director Carmen Fusco told The Seattle Times, Zduriencik is a "consummate consumer of learning."
The "Moneyball" philosophy is about exploiting marketing inefficiencies. Jackie-ball, its less heralded cousin, adheres to the principle that several incremental upgrades are preferable to one enormous Matt Holliday or Jason Bay signing and resultant big-splash news conference. Sometimes it's preferable to zig when everybody else is zagging.
For example, the Red Sox and A's have gotten lots of attention for their focus on defense this offseason, but nobody does it better than Seattle. The Mariners improved from 26th to second in Baseball Prospectus' defensive-efficiency rankings last year, and Zduriencik's reconfigured lineup is loaded with elite glove men. Center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, right fielder Ichiro Suzuki, shortstop Jack Wilson and Figgins all ranked No. 1 at their positions in John Dewan's defensive plus-minus rankings for 2009.
Wakamatsu has some challenges awaiting him in spring training. In the aftermath of Kenji Johjima's return to Japan, the Mariners expect to go with Rob Johnson and Adam Moore, who have played a combined 106 games at the catcher position.
The Mariners also have to make things official at the top of the order. Figgins has started 643 of 894 career games in the No. 1 spot and Ichiro has made 1,397 of his 1,410 career starts at leadoff, so something has to give.
Even though Wakamatsu plans to talk to both players about their roles, he acknowledges that Ichiro's free-swinging approach makes him a less-than-ideal fit as the No. 2 hitter behind a proven base stealer. Seniority also counts for something, and Wakamatsu isn't going to commit to anything until he has a face-to-face dialogue with both players.
|Jack Zduriencik replaced Bill Bavasi as the Mariners' GM after the 2008 season.|
"As soon as we signed Figgins, people said, 'You've got two leadoff hitters. What are you going to do?'" Wakamatsu said. "There are a lot of factors. Ichiro is in Japan, and it's not that easy talking to him on the phone. But if we broke camp today, Ichiro would be my leadoff hitter."
Wakamatsu's other big mandate is getting the most out of Bradley, who is joining his seventh team since 2003. The Mariners hope that a relative lack of media attention, supportive fan base, Griffey's influence and an upbeat clubhouse atmosphere will bring out the best in Bradley and keep the histrionics to a minimum.
"I've talked to a lot of people over the winter, and there are a lot of guys who really like Milton and like hanging out with Milton," Wakamatsu said. "There's the public side that portrays him a certain way, and I'm not going to say he's a saint. But it's refreshing for me to know there are players who like him as a teammate."
Sons of steel mill employees aren't inclined to get caught up in hype, so the worker bee in Zduriencik will wait to assess his job performance. Texas has added Rich Harden and Vladimir Guerrero, Oakland's young pitchers are a year older and the Angels have won the AL West five times in the past six years, so the division has a chance to be very intriguing.
"We had a job to do, and we approached it in a professional manner and tried to get it done," Zduriencik said. "But I'm still cautious. It's very nice for the fan base to get excited, but we finished in third place last year. Will we be competitive? I think we'll be very competitive. How good are we going to be? We won't know until we put that team on the field."
Will Seattle's front-office staff rest for a moment in the perpetual quest to improve? The general manager will be sweeping hair off the clubhouse floor before he allows that to happen.
Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN.com. His book, "License To Deal," was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.
We had a job to do, and we approached it in a professional manner and tried to get it done. But I'm still cautious. It's very nice for the fan base to get excited, but we finished in third place last year. Will we be competitive? I think we'll be very competitive. How good are we going to be? We won't know until we put that team on the field.
-- Jack Zduriencik