Will the real Jack Zduriencik please stand up?
Last month I wrote at Prospect Insider that there are many tasks on the offseason to-do list of the Seattle Mariners, and that among them is a return to GM Jack Zduriencik’s roots as the club’s head of baseball operations.
When Zduriencik first arrived in Seattle prior to the 2009 season, his first major move was a 3-team, 4-for-5 trade that essentially shipped out right-hander J.J. Putz in exchange for left-handed starter Jason Vargas and centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez.
That deal produced strong returns for the club, including four solid years from Vargas for bargain salaries, the best defensive centerfielder in the game. It’s not the results of that deal that are most important. It’s the approach.
Zduriencik went after value. Sure, he’d like to have to found some middle-of-the-order hitters to sprinkle in with a lineup that was going to get a lot younger over the ensuing seasons. Since that wasn’t in the cards — particularly since the club’s farm system was nearly void of premium talents with which to trade to acquire such players — Zduriencik went for defense, a little upside and value, and to get it he sacrificed a few easily-replaceable pieces, including the team’s closer.
A few weeks later the team made a deal with the Boston Red Sox for reclamation project David Aardsma, trading Class-A southpaw Fabian Williamson for the right to take a chance that Aardsma could get healthy and pitch late in games. He ended up the team’s full-time closer, saving 69 games combined over the next two seasons.
Russell Branyan was brought in for one year at the bargain price of $1.4 million and posted a .347 on-base percentage and 31 home runs in 116 games, another shrewd, low-cost acquisition.
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Since that offseason there have been trades that have simply not worked out well for the Mariners, and even a few that have — Josh Lueke to Tampa Bay for John Jaso, for example — but after that first year at the helm, Zduriencik’s MO seemed to change, with the lone exception being the no-brainer deal that brought left-hander Cliff Lee to Seattle for half of the 2010 season.
Instead of value acquisitions that filtered in defense where offense was unavailable, on-base percentage and speed where power wasn’t available and inexpensive but quality pitching with upside and little risk, Zduriencik and his staff began to reach for the stars.
The July, 2011 trade that sent right-hander Doug Fister to the Detroit Tigers stands out most of all. Fister, at the time of the deal, was basically what Vargas was when the club acquired him from the Mets; cheap, reliable No. 4 starter type with years of club control remaining. In return, the M’s were hoping Casper Wells and/or Francisco Martinez would develop into an everyday player. Neither happened. Charlie Furbush wasn’t destined to remain in the rotation and Chance Ruffin regressed from potential late-inning relief arm to what we like to call the 4-A player who bounces back and forth between the big leagues and the minors.
That kind of deal, right smack in the middle Zduriencik’s supposed 5-year rebuilding plan, was entirely out of place. It didn’t fit with such a plan, even if we delete the fact that Fister had more room to grow than even the Tigers believed at the time. Trading Fister is fine, but a rebuilding club needs more promise in exchange, or it holds onto its young arms. At least that’s what successful rebuilding clubs have done and continue to do.
The point here is that Zduriencik has shown he has the marbles and wit to construct a roster that can support younger players, give his field manager weapons and options alike and do so without doling out free-agent contracts that don’t support sustained, long-term success.
In the piece linked above where I first discussed this point I stated that if that particular scheme comes back to the front office, Zduriencik can have success and get back on track to putting together a solid baseball team.
Tuesday on the Steve Sandmeyer Show, Zduriencik said a few magical phrases that give me hope that the 2009 and 2010 approach may be back for 2013 and 2014. “There also may be some things where we have to get creative,” he said. “We may have to do some things a little differently. We’re going to try to be a player in the free agent market.”
Two things: Zduriencik said they’ll try to be a player for free agents. He also stated they have to consider other things, meaning other than free agency. He told us he will be wide open in terms of trade possibilities. It’s what he said next that pushed my brows north.
“In the same sense we may have to get a little more creative in terms of going with matchups, if you will.” Translation: Platoons.
Good managers know how to utilize them. Good general managers know how to acquire them, and that they are an extremely valuable possession. It’s not easy to find average or better everyday players. Usually the players available have a severe weakness. Maybe the outfield bats with good power are susceptible to left-handed pitching or below-average defenders. Perhaps the right-handed hitting first baseman has significant problems handling right-handed pitchers.
Pow. This is where the Oakland Athletics and Boston Red Sox are beating the cumber buns off other teams in the American League. The price for an everyday player that can hit .270 with 30 home runs and a decent outfield glove is $15-20 million per season. The price for two halves of that costs about 10 percent the price.
The A’s have used Brandon Moss and Nate Freiman as their primary first-base platoon. The two totaled 24 home runs, 75 RBI and a .330 on-base percentage while manning the position. That’s above-average in the AL for first basemen.
Freiman faced most of the left-handed starters and Moss handled the right-handers. The pair combined to earn $2.1 million this season.
If the Mariners can find one or two of those scenarios for the outfield and/or first base, and perhaps pluck even one impact player from the free agent or trade markets without sacrificing significant counts of young talent, the best of Jack Zduriencik will have taken center stage. It may not be enough to turn the club into a contender in 2014, but there will be real reason to believe he’s capable of getting that job done.
These are just words, for now, but encouraging ones at that from the Mariners general manager. Words that haven’t been uttered, let alone acted upon, since the first several months of his tenure in Seattle.
Listen to the entire interview with Zduriencik: