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Why the Jack Zduriencik extension was a mistake

In the wake of the recent discoveries that Jack Zduriencik is under contract through 2014 and Tony Blengino is not, it's time for me to reevaluate my position on Z's tenure as Mariners GM. The prognosis is not good.

Otto Greule Jr

This post begins with a discussion of John Jaso. No! Wait! Stop! Don't close the tab, I promise, I really really promise that this is an angle that you haven't read before. Give me three paragraphs. Please.

(Thank you.)

In retrospect, the most hilarious incident of the Mariners' 2012-2013 offseason did involve John Jaso, but it was not the Michael Morse trade. Instead, it was a transaction that never actually took place - a fact for which the Mariners can thank their lucky stars. Only the greed and ineptitude of another front office saved the Mariners from what would've been the most disastrous deal of the Zduriencik Era: the move to acquire Garrett Jones.

Yep, that's right. In the weeks leading up to the Winter Meetings, the Mariners were engaged in serious talks with the Pittsburgh Pirates about trading for the Steel City's resident 1B/LF slugger. It got to the point that actual names were "bandied about"; one proposal would've brought Jones and then-Pittsburgh-closer Joel Hanrahan to Seattle in exchange for John Jaso, Justin Smoak, and Hector Noesi. Based on the later rumor that Pittsburgh refused to move Jones because the Mariners were (rightly) unwilling to part with top pitching prospect Taijuan Walker, I think we can guess who made the Jaso/Smoak/Noesi-for-Jones/Hanrahan proposal. Namely, Jack Zduriencik.

As disastrous as the Michael Morse trade has been, the Garrett Jones trade would've been even worse. Jones has made $4.5M in 2013; he's arbitration-eligible for 2014 and 2015 with salary likely to increase. This year he's put up a 96 wRC+ to go with putrid defense and baserunning, and the result has been a Morseian -0.5 fWAR. Hanrahan, who's made just over $7M in 2013, was eventually shipped out to Boston, where he somehow managed to produce -0.6 fWAR in only seven and a third innings pitched before his arm blew out and he hit the DL. On the other side of the deal, Jaso has been predictably good in a part-time role for Oakland, and Smoak has turned into the Mariners' best hitter not named Kyle Seager. To illustrate the point more succinctly:

Hypothetical Jones Trade Results 2013 fWAR 2013 Salary
Pittsburgh to Seattle -1.1 $11,540,000
Seattle to Pittsburgh 2.2 $2,314,000

This table is accurate as of August 22, which is when I wrote the first draft of this article. If we use Fangraphs' estimate that in 2013 1 fWAR is worth $5.25M and take a fWAR-salary differential, we find that the Mariners essentially offered to trade $9.24M in surplus value to Pittsburgh in exchange for $17.32M of wasted money, for a net loss of twenty-six-and-a-half million dollars. And that's just so far in 2013. I'm completely ignoring the fact that Smoak and Jaso are projected to keep outproducing Jones and the injured Hanrahan for the rest of the year, and the fact that Smoak and Jaso are under control through 2016 and 2015 respectively at much lower AAVs than Jones. Amazingly, twenty-six-and-a-half million dollars wasted is a conservative estimate.

For reasons known only to God, when presented with the opportunity to trade a left-handed platoon outfielder and an overpaid closer with horrendous peripherals for an underpaid left-handed platoon catcher and a young post-hype first baseman, the Pirates said "no". If they hadn't, the Mariners' 2013 season could've been... worse. A lot worse.

OK, so, funny story of mutual ineptitude by Mariners and Angry Mariners. Why am I telling it now? Well, to be honest, the events of the last week have made it sort of impossible to resist offering an opinion on Jack Z's tenure as Mariners GM. We've gotten a flood of front office news: the Mariners have not only leaked that Z is under contract through 2014, they've also announced that statistics guru Tony Blengino won't be coming back. The time is ripe for me to inflict my opinion upon the world. And my opinion is that Jack Zduriencik shouldn't have been extended.

The attempted Garrett Jones trade is evidence of that. See, it's easy for us to forget that what took place over the 2012-2013 offseason was not in fact Plan A. It was Plan C. And as frustratingly unsuccessful as Plan C has been, Plan A was way, way worse. The Mariners, remember, wanted to sign Josh Hamilton. They offered him four years at twenty-five million dollars a year, with two easy-to-reach vesting options. The only reason the Mariners didn't sign Josh Hamilton is that Angels owner Arte Moreno offered a guaranteed five years - and there've been rumors that Moreno did that without consulting his GM, as a panicked response to the crosstown Dodgers' acquisition of prime Angels target Zack Greinke. Twice, then, the Mariners were saved by another front office's mistake.

And the attempted Hamilton signing sort of erodes the credit the Mariners get for Kendrys Morales, because it shows that they weren't originally planning to acquire him. That trade only happened because the post-Hamilton Angels had one corner bat too many and needed to dump a hitter for a pitcher; it was hashed out over just a couple of days. If the Mariners had had their druthers, it never would've happened. It was a shrewd opportunistic move made at the expense of a front office reeling from a desperation signing, but it certainly wasn't part of the plan. The plan, it seems, was almost exclusively terrible.

I don't feel that there's any legitimate argument left to be made in defense of the current front office's MLB roster construction skills. This isn't the front office that acquired Guti and Ryan and Lee any more; front offices are more than just the general manager at the top, and this front office (except the GM) has almost completely turned over since it made all those moves that I liked. The recent Blengino news is just another example of an early-years Z employee falling from favor and getting kicked to the curb. This front office should be evaluated on its recent moves, not the moves that the almost-entirely-different older front office made.

Now, I admit that there's a tinge of results-based analysis in my slamming of the Hamilton/Jones/Morse deals, but front offices make hiring decisions with roots in results-based analysis all the time. The Chone Figgins signing was great in theory, but that didn't stop the Mariners from firing their entire analytics division when it went south. Even so, it's not like these moves looked like really good ideas even before Hamilton, Morse, and Jones imploded. Hamilton was never worth 6/150, and Jones was never worth Jaso, and Morse was especially never worth Jaso. Did you know that before the season began ZiPS projected John Jaso to be a better hitter than either Michael Morse or Garrett Jones? That sure seemed strange at the time!

No, we should get to blame the Mariners' front office for trying to trade for Hamilton and Jones. And, before you ask, no, they don't get credit for whatever good things they tried to do but couldn't get other front offices to agree to. Think of it in terms of a decision matrix:

(read top, then left) Make a bad offer... Make a good offer... a good front office: they accept, you're screwed! they decline, nothing happens a bad front office: they decline, nothing happens they accept, you win!

If we assume that the majority of MLB front offices are competent, which we really should because otherwise our criteria for evaluating GMs get all screwed up, it's apparent that the odds of "losing" when you make a stupid offer are much higher than the odds of "winning" when you make a smart one. Any fool can put a waiver claim on Shin-Soo Choo, and nothing'll come of it, but if you volunteer to give up John Jaso for Michael Morse you're probably going to get burned. You don't get credit for trying to pull the wool over someone's eyes if it doesn't work, but you do get blamed if someone else pulls the wool over your eyes and then mysteriously decides not to cheat you.

In short, I'm convinced that the current iteration of the Mariners' front office is not good at building a major league roster via free agency and trading. And what's the conclusion that we can draw from that initial condition? That the current iteration of the Mariners' front office should probably become a past iteration of the Mariners' front office.

Everyone knows that the strength of this front office is drafting. And maybe that's enough. Maybe Jack Z and Tom McNamara's ludicrous drafting skills, the ones that brought us Kyle Seager and Brad Miller and Mike Zunino and Taijuan Walker and so on and so forth, maybe in the long run those outweigh all of the deficiencies in major league roster construction and player development. Maybe. I'm skeptical. But it doesn't matter - because even if this is an average or better front office, it's not the front office that the Mariners need right now.

When the Mariners hired Jack Zduriencik, everyone accepted that the team sucked and would probably continue to suck for several years. The organization had nothing - not a good major league team, not a strong farm system, not a slew of interesting young players, nothing - and it was generally agreed that the best way to rebuild would be from the ground up, with a strong drafting crew. A team in that situation, with no incentive to win now and a desperate need for homegrown talent, that's the kind of team that could use a draft-heavy front office like Jack Z's, even if it meant suboptimal moves at the major league level in the interim.

But the Mariners are no longer that team. There is a strong farm system, and there is a slew of young interesting young players, and most of all there is an incentive to win now. After a dozen years without a playoff slot, the Mariners are rapidly approaching the Cleveland Indians Point of No Return. Cleveland's fans grew tired of losing teams and constant rebuilding, and now even when they're in contention no one bothers to show up to the park. The Mariners? The Mariners are reaching new lows in attendance just as the Seahawks are building a Super Bowl favorite and the Sounders are adding Clint Dempsey and the Sonics are maybe coming back to town. If they don't win, soon, they're going to lose the market to one or more of those other teams, and then the big picture gets a whole lot bleaker. And if there's one thing that a front office with great drafting skills and poor MLB roster-building skills is bad at, it's winning soon.

The funny thing about a draft-first front office is this: the better the major league team is, the easier it is to fire the GM. The argument that Jack Z's tenure should be extended if the team is winning has always seemed weird to me. If your team is close to contention, why would you keep around a front office whose only strength is the draft? Building through the draft is slow. It's not how you want to get from 81 wins to 91 wins. When your team is close to contention, when you have incentive to win now, you want a GM who's good at adding talent quickly through trades and free agent signings, and drafting becomes kinda secondary. In theory, after a draft-first front office takes your team from 60 wins to 80 wins and gives you a whole bunch of young major league talent, it's time to say "thank you", wave good-bye, and bring in the people who really know what they're doing at the major league level. And I think that's where the Mariners are right now.

Anyone the team drafts next year won't reach the major leagues until 2016 at the earliest, which means that all of the talent on the 2014 and 2015 teams will have to come from trades, the development of players already in the system, and free agent signings. Translation: all of the talent will have to be acquired through avenues that this front office is demonstrably not very good at acquiring talent though. The draft is done; it's off the table. Jack Z and co. have already done pretty much all that they can to help the team contend in 2014 and 2015... and this team really needs to contend in 2014 and 2015. The Mariners and their front office have come to a natural parting of the ways, and it's time to say farewell.

In summation:

The Mariners' front office has almost completely turned over since they last made a series of moves that I liked. Their recent bad decisions, including several moves that thankfully never happened, have me convinced that the new regime is not good at building a successful major league roster. It's possible that their strength in drafting outweighs their weaknesses in player development, free agency, and trading, but I'm skeptical. Even if they're an average-ish front office overall, the Mariners' new strong incentive to win now (provided by the surging Seahawks, Sounders, and maybe Sonics) means that the current draft-first front office is no longer the appropriate front office for the franchise's long-term success. They've done all that they can to help the team win in 2014 and 2015, and considering that the team really needs to win soon, it's probably time to bring in someone else who can help more.

Don't get me wrong: I don't wish any harm upon the members of the Mariners' front office. I'm not horribly upset that they're still employed, and I don't think they're a particularly bad FO taken as a whole. And they could improve! I hope they do improve, and start making better decisions at the major league level, because I want the Mariners to be good. However, setting aside the possibility of future front office improvement, because that's just wishful thinking: I'm no longer convinced that this current iteration of the Seattle FO is above average as a unit, and I am convinced that they aren't very good at building a major league roster. Seeing as the Mariners are rather desperately in need of a good major league roster, I find myself reaching an inescapable conclusion:

I think it's time for the Mariners to fire Jack Z.