On January 27, 2012, I stood in line for an hour and a half to get autographs from Jesus Montero and Jason Vargas. I remember this for two reasons: 1) I purchased a rookie Montero card on eBay for 99 cents a few days earlier, not wanting to show up to FanFest empty-handed, and 2) it was a colossal waste of time.
As the line snaked around the Terrace Club Level, the TVs looped a video of Jack Zduriencik and Eric Wedge. They stared meaningfully into the camera as they explained, in two or three minutes, the gist of "The Plan." The Plan was heavily discussed that winter, and again in the spring when Montero transitioned from designated hitter to starting catcher, and the call-ups of pitching prospects Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, and Taijuan Walker were hotly debated.
That video has since been removed from the Mariners' website, and my memory is fuzzy, but at the time the strategy seemed to make a lot of sense. Jack and Eric were confident about The Plan. They appeared to empathize with the fans who were clamoring for free agent signings and division titles during season after sub-.500 season, and promised to deliver a smart, foolproof method for lifting the Mariners from the bottom of the division to legitimate playoff contention.
The thing is, it's two years later, and I can't remember what The Plan is anymore. Was the plan for Raul Ibañez to become the hottest hitter on the team? Was it for Jack to chase overpaid, big-name free agents, only to settle for overpaid, washed-up "clubhouse leaders"? Let's see if we can figure it out.
Step 1: Draft well at amateur and international levels.
Here are some of the notable draft picks selected by Jack's right-hand man, Scouting Director Tom McNamara:
- Dustin Ackley
- Nick Franklin
- Kyle Seager
- Taijuan Walker
- James Paxton
- Stephen Pryor
- Danny Hultzen
- Brad Miller
- Carter Capps
Of those 10, six secured starting positions in 2013, two made impressive strides at the major league level, and two suffered season-ending injures.
By comparison, here are the top draft picks chosen in the Bill Bavasi era, as they pertain to the current team:
On an international level, the Mariners established an entire training facility in the Dominican Republic where young men and prospective players can hone their skills. Not only does this continue to expand the reach of Major League Baseball in Latin America, but it allows the Mariners to invest in new talent and gain a bit of an edge on their 29 rival teams. In recent history, some of the Mariners' most iconic players have come from outside the United States -- most remarkably, Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki.
When Baseball America last evaluated the Mariners' overseas progress, they pointed out a few key signings: Hersin Martinez, a left fielder with the potential for power, left-hander Luis Gohara, a highly-touted Brazilian prospect, 16-year-old first baseman Leurys Vargas, and a smattering of electric, under-the-radar high schoolers.
Step 1? Check.
Step 2: Replenish the farm system.
It's a simple jump from Step 1 to Step 2, and the Mariners wasted little time stocking the minor league levels over the last few years. From 2009-2013, the Mariners boasted multiple players in the top 25 MLB prospect lists from Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, and MLB.com.
Although Jesus Montero never quite panned out -- slumping at the plate, making constant defensive errors, and finally receiving a suspension during the Biogenesis scandal -- the Mariners "won" the trade by default when their former prospect Michael Pineda was sidelined with recurring shoulder injuries. Mike Zunino quickly emerged as a valuable catching prospect and wormed his way from Single-A to the majors in one year.
On the mound, Seattle prepped four pitchers, most of whom were expected to revitalize the back end of the rotation behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Again, injuries were a concern as Danny Hultzen struggled to stay healthy, but in 2013, Maurer broke camp with the team and Paxton and Walker made their debuts in August and September.
Step 2? Check.
Step 3: Establish a young, talented core of players.
As with most prospects, the faster they're admitted to the Show, the more patience they require to figure things out in the majors, and vice versa. I'm not sure whether management honestly believed that their star-studded MiLB cast was ready for the leap this season or whether they felt they had no other options.
Taijuan Walker and James Paxton dazzled in their sample-sized Septembers. Brad Miller had big cleats to fill when he assumed the starting role over Brendan Ryan, but he adjusted nicely and provided some pop at the plate where his defense was sub-par. Dustin Ackley was asked to fill a gap in the outfield, a position he had never attempted in the majors before, and I'm just impressed that he hasn't tripped over Tal's Hill yet.
Step 3? Check.
Steps 4-11: Do something that will eventually lead to Step 12.
See Step 12.
Step 12: Enjoy everlasting success.
Expectations, meet reality. Zduriencik has followed Steps 1-3 to the letter, pouring his efforts and heart into providing the team with a strong foundation, albeit one that is still shifting and improving.
Young, talented players don't guarantee World Series championships, though. The youth movement in Seattle is valuable, but the players are fairly raw and cannot be expected to shoulder the burden of turning a franchise around in a season or two, let alone carrying it to their first World Series.
Now, is a title just one Josh Hamilton or Prince Fielder signing away? Probably not. However, one or two big signings could supplement the groundwork Zduriencik and his team has laid, and could be instrumental in attracting other trade targets. With a couple of smart offseason acquisitions, a capable and focused manager, and a lot of patience and luck (or, if you're a fan, alcohol), the Mariners should be able to construct a winning season and move forward from there.
Until Jack Zduriencik figures out what he needs to do to bridge the gap between a solid foundation and a contending team, this ship is going nowhere fast. In the words of inimitable CEO Howard Lincoln: "We have to be patient and stick with the program we have invested so much in. We can't switch horses, change gears, whatever you want to call it now."
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- Manager Watch: Mariners interview Chip Hale
- Bloomberg ranks Mariners as 18th most valuable franchise
- Tim Lincecum inks 2-year deal with San Francisco