We still have a long ways to go. A very long ways. Let's get that out there right now.
Five years into Jack Zduriencik's much-maligned but previously-praised "Plan," the Mariners sit ten games below .500 and 12.5 games back of the division lead. We're well past the point when we expected to see signs of potential success in place of success itself.
But signs are what we have, and it's these signs that make me hesitant to write off Jack Zduriencik as Seattle Mariners General Manager.
The Mariners have not been successful during Zduriencik's half-decade at the helm. You can't elude this, the most damning of criticisms. His job was to turn a bad Mariners team into a good one, and he hasn't done it. Not yet.
It seemed laughable at the beginning of May, when Jack went on the radio with Dave "Softy" Mahler, and said "Anyone that knows rebuilding from the ground-up, it takes five-to-seven years, and this is only the beginning of the fifth year." Hey guys, it's only the beginning of the fifth year! Why are we so worried?!
Without thinking too much about it, it sounded to me like an individual making excuses for not doing his job and passive-aggressively pleading that he should still keep it. But what separates him from us is, aside from self preservation of course, is that he is one of those people who "knows rebuilding from the ground up."
As anyone who's reading this is well aware, the Mariners hired Zduriencik because of his impressive track record as Scouting Director of the Milwaukee Brewers. He started in that role in 1999. In his fifth full season on the job, 2004, the Brewers lost 94 games. They finished .500 the next year. And I wish I could say it was a onward and upward from there, but they finished 12 games under .500 in 2006. It wasn't until 2008, Zduriencik's ninth full season—his last with Milwaukee—that the Brewers won 90 games and made the playoffs, as the Wild Card. The talent put in place by Zduriencik didn't reach its peak until it'd been 12 seasons after he took over as Scouting Director, when the Brewers won 96 games in 2011.
For those who haven't read it, Jonah Keri of Grantland has an excellent piece on the Brewers' rise under Zduriencik and their fall since his departure. I don't mean to grab too much, but here's how Jack's drafting went in Milwaukee, starting with his first pick, Dave Krynzel.
...Dave Krynzel was a bust, an Ohio-born, Nevada-schooled, lefty-swinging outfielder who lasted just 21 games in the big leagues. But Milwaukee redeemed itself in the 11th round, snatching Corey Hart. That first year started a string of drafts that would be the envy of nearly any other team. The next season's first-round pick, Mike Jones, never panned out; but J.J. Hardy proved to be a big score in the second round, giving the Brewers several quality seasons at shortstop before getting traded for current star center fielder Carlos Gomez. They did hit on their first-round pick in 2002, landing mega-slugger Prince Fielder seventh overall. (And though none of these players ever played a game for the Brewers, they showed a keen eye for talent in drafting Tom Wilhelmsen in the seventh round, Craig Breslow in the 26th, and Hunter Pence in the 40th.)
Rickie Weeks hasn't quite lived up to the superstar expectations thrust on him when he went no. 2 overall in 2003, but he has been a solid regular for years in Milwaukee (second-round pick Tony Gwynn Jr. has had his uses too). Mark Rogers disappointed as the top pick in 2004, but Gallardo more than made up for it as the second-round pick, with Lorenzo Cain turning into a 17th-round steal. The next year proved to be the score of all scores. Though the 2005 draft will go down as one of the best in baseball history, no. 5 overall pick Ryan Braun has shone brighter than Justin Upton, Alex Gordon, Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Zimmerman, Andrew McCutchen, Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, or anyone else from that class. And in true Zduriencik-era fashion, Milwaukee landed a couple of later-round steals, too, including Andrew Bailey and Michael Brantley, with the latter later to be packaged in one of the boldest trades the team has ever made. The Brewers did fare poorly in their 2006 draft, though top pick Jeremy Jeffress would at least make his way into yet another blockbuster trade. The top pick in 2007, Matt LaPorta, has been a sub–replacement level player thus far in the majors, but he was actually the linchpin in that massive deal that included Brantley; meanwhile, third-round pick Jonathan Lucroy has emerged as a key player on the current roster. Zduriencik capped off his 10-year run by snagging Brett Lawrie and Jake Odorizzi with the 16th and 32nd overall picks in the 2008 draft, with both players ending up in major trades for veteran pitching help inside of three years.
Iffy picks at the very top of the draft but strong high-value ones later on? Sounds familiar. Nick Franklin and Kyle Seager are the Corey Hart to Dustin Ackley's Dave Krynzel. Brad Miller to—in a worst case scenario—Mike Jones's Danny Hultzen. And this doesn't include snagging Taijuan Walker in the "sandwich round" with pick #43 in 2010.
So while we sit and cry "but I want my Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder now," the truth is that they may not be here yet. We can't tell ourselves we'd be ecstatic with a rebuild in the style of the Brewers, and say that's the level of success we're looking for, but throw a fit because these things do—as Zduriencik says—take time.
It'd be one thing if the Mariners were where they are now without any signs of life, and it's looked like that at times this year, but it does not now.
We can say with certainty now that the Mariners made it through the era of Ackley, Smoak and Montero as can't-miss prospects with one above average major league player. It just looks funny when that player isn't Ackley, Smoak or Montero, but Kyle Seager instead. As Jeff described in a post on Nick Franklin, does it really matter if it's a guy you expected to succeed, or one you didn't, as long as you end up with the above average guy you planned on having? No, not really.
And as easy as it would be write off that entire "first wave" trio with Ackley 2.0 looking not quite similar to the previous iteration, Montero's only plus tool possibly being fraudulent and Smoak not being the star we'd thought he'd be, don't sleep on the latter-most player there quite yet. In the most recent recap I wrote, I pulled up Smoak's numbers since coming off the DL, and noted that these were strong but it was just the mini-sample of above-average play he's become known for. It was then pointed out he's been better for longer, with his triple-slash since April 22 now being a robust .293/.401/.489 for a .890 OPS, not counting today's dinger. It's still a small sample, but day by day, post-DL dinger by post-DL dinger, it's growing.
So the "first wave" may not be as depressing as initially thought—and it's really just par for the course as far as rebuilds of this type go—but now the reinforcements have started to arrive, and there's enough to be further encouraged by. In a previous post on this site in advance of Nick Franklin's promotion, Logan noted the eery similarity between Kyle Seager the prospect and Franklin the prospect. It's carried over to the Majors. Their 2013s:
Then, of course, we have Brad Miller and Mike Zunino. Brad Miller has managed a wRC+ of 102 despite a .200 batting average. Zunino's been less encouraging as he's produced about how we expected to: fine behind the plate but very, very rough standing beside it—though there have been some positive signs.
It's hard to put into words exactly how I feel about Jack Zduriencik and what he's done, and why I think he deserves more time, but if I were to instill it all down to a few words, I'd say this: I don't want these guys to stop coming. I don't want to turn over GMs and not have guys like Kyle Seager, Nick Franklin, Brad Miller and Taijuan Walker shooting through the M's system.
I'll acknowledged I've meandered a bit, about as much as this franchise the past few seasons, but where does this leave us? Well, we're starting to see results. It's an annoyingly small sample, but the Mariners just won road series against two of baseball's best teams. They did it with a balance of hitting and pitching, and young and old contributors. Had the Mariners been able to play add-on in Saturday's game, it's very possible the they could've swept a top-five National League team without sending Felix or Iwakuma to the mound.
The Mariners now head home, with a four game set agains the Red Sox up next, and then three against the Angels. Felix and Iwakuma will each get two more starts before the All Star break. Discredit momentum all you want, but it'd be nice for the Mariners to spend that four-day break thinking, like I am now, that things are headed in the right direction.
And if this miniature trend continues, if we see more hard balanced play in the second half, I believe like most others that Jack Zduriencik should be given more time to see this through. I want to see how things break when Zunino, Miller and Franklin have more than a sample of weeks—just one for Miller—to their major league resumés. I want to see what it's like when even just two of Walker, Paxton, Hultzen, Maurer and Ramirez are in this rotation at a single time, acknowledging it may even be less than two. I want to see if maybe, just maybe, one of Ackley, Smoak and Montero can be a consistent major league contributor. I want to see Jack land a high-impact free agent.
But more than anything else, I don't want to start over. I don't want to bring in an unknown commodity who could well be worse than Zduriencik. I don't want to have someone else be given another 4-5 years to turn this around, or worse, be given 1-2 and betting the prospects on a couple big names.
Things could be better, there's no doubt there. But though this situation is far from what where we expected to be five years into Jack Zduriencik's tenure, maybe we shouldn't have expected to be there considering the style of rebuild we were buying into. Jack's right, these things do take time—and I'm willing to give it to him.