Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong had the right idea. As much as it pains most Mariners fans to consider that statement to be true in any context, it is when examining the thought process behind the hiring of general manager Jack Zduriencik—who was brought in as a draft and development guru, and tasked with building a club that'd contend year after year after year.
"Jack is extremely well-respected throughout baseball," Lincoln said at the time of Zduriencik's hiring. "His track record in recognizing and developing young talent in Milwaukee was instrumental in the Brewers steady improvement over the past several seasons."
The former was true at the time, as the hiring was widely lauded throughout the game, largely due to that referenced track record. But while that track record in Milwaukee can never be taken away, his tenure leading the Mariners' front office has all but answered the question of repeatability.
The key trait that brought Zduriencik to Seattle has abandoned him, and is largely to blame for the franchise's current misfortunes—and pessimism regarding his ability to change them.
The high-profile failures, those are apparent. Zduriencik's picked in the top three on three separate occasions, failing yet to find a franchise cornerstone in Dustin Ackley, Danny Hultzen or Mike Zunino—though with the last of the three, there's still some semblance of hope for cashing in the lottery ticket. Speaking of lottery tickets, though not draft picks, the same slice of hope applied to Jesus Montero—a player who once only ranked behind Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in prospect status—but not the since-departed Justin Smoak.
Prospecting, though it plays out over hundreds if not thousands of plate appearances, is a game cursed to the whims of small sample sizes. In the previous paragraph, you have five players. If but a single one hits his 95th percentile, we're looking at this all differently. But they didn't, so we don't.
It would be easy to stop there, and most do as that is a convenient and damning list of names. And while it's easy to heap blame on the individuals in question, teams likely ruin talents just as frequently as they draft or trade for busts. When you look at this list, and the broader picture, it becomes clear this current situation is not the product of repeatedly rolling snake eyes, but instead a larger problem—or, more accurately, a failure.
That broader picture, as outlined below, is just that. It's been widely explained that when Zduriencik was brought in, the farm was barren and work needed to be put in to build the pipeline that'd produce a steady flow of major league talent.
But when you look at the commentary from outside evaluators, here in particular Baseball Prospectus—whose rankings were until 2013 compiled by Kevin Goldstein, now Director of Pro Scouting with the Houston Astros—you'll see the Mariners have circled the block and returned to exactly where they started before Zduriencik's hiring in 2008.
The vast majority of decline in the ranking of the Mariners' system is tied to graduations. Whether it's Baseball Prospectus or another publication, they'll point to minor leaguers coming up to Seattle as the reason for the depletion of talent down on the farm. And that's true, as in the last few years the Mariners have promoted major league talents in Zunino, Taijuan Walker, James Paxton, Brandon Maurer, Brad Miller, Nick Franklin and Chris Taylor.
But if they're all here—or have been—and the consistent contention that had been promised it still somewhere beyond the bend, there's obviously some kind of disconnect, a lack of ability to turn talented minor leaguers into contributing major league players.
The Mariners were depending on a number of them to contribute to a World Series contender this year, something that's obviously failed to come to fruition. And even when it looked like they were struggling to tread water, when they were in desperate need of an outfielder—any warm-blooded semi-talented outfielder to step in—the best the minor league system could afford was James Jones.
Going back to the chart above, this is not only about turning prospects into pros, but just as much about turning prospects into better prospects—or at least not worse ones. On a systemic level, that's been a challenge, as only two of Zduriencik's seven years in charge have seen an above average system. And there's any number of anecdotes you can point to illustrating this issue, from Ackley's failures to Montero's skirmish with a scout to Zunino's rushing to D.J. Peterson's stumbles, but there's one recent one I think I prefer above all the rest.
As measured by the MLB.com midseason rankings from Jim Callis, the Texas Rangers moved three top 100 prospects in their trade for Cole Hamels. That's more top 100 prospects than the Mariners even have. And after the trade, Rangers still have more top 100 prospects that the Mariners.
That's an important point here. The ability to build from within, to develop a true pipeline of talent that never stops flowing, it reaps rewards beyond young cost-controlled talent, especially in a league where that young cost-controlled talent is more valuable than ever. It's why so many teams focused first on the ability to development talent from within, regardless of market and resources.
The Los Angeles Dodgers could've had their pick of anyone to run their organization, and they went with Andrew Friedman. The Chicago Cubs could've thrown heaps of money after big-name players in an effort to get good again quickly, but instead Theo Epstein and his crew focused on and succeeded in building the best minor league system in the game.
To consistently thrive in baseball now, it's something an organization must be good at. But to even have a job as a general manager, you assume one must be good at something.
For Zduriencik, it isn't the draft and development wizardry he was brought here for. It isn't shrewdly identifying undervalued players and bringing them in. It isn't constructing the perfect major league roster, where all the pieces fit just so. And it certainly isn't some kind of sheer force of will and positive energy that has everyone playing above their heads.
Now more than two years ago, I wrote that Jack Zduriencik deserved a little more time get things right. Time has passed, and things aren't right.
Now it's time for the organization to think about what might be next.