In October 2008, the Mariners hired Jack Zduriencik as their new general manager, replacing Bill Bavasi and introducing what they hoped was a new and improved era of Mariners baseball. Zduriencik had been with the Brewers in one role or another since 1999 and was credited for a large part of the team's playoff berth in 2008. He came from a scouting background but was a proponent of using more modern methods of statistical analysis, making him popular among the sabermetric crowd.
Under Bavasi, the Mariners were big, inefficient spenders, owning a payroll that ranged from $80-$118 million from 2003 to 2008 but averaging just 75 wins. In fact, in 2008, the Mariners became the first team to lose 100 games in the same season in which they opened with a $100 million payroll, an ignominious feat to say the least. The hope was that, under Zduriencik, the Mariners would get a little more bang for their buck and fix many of the mistakes that had sent them to the American League West cellar.
This is Zduriencik’s fifth year at the helm, and the Mariners are headed for another sub-.500 finish. In the previous four years, they won an average of 72 games and finished no better than third in the AL West. Most of the moves he has made have either left the Mariners standing right where they started or sent them back a step or two. Many would say that Zduriencik’s signing of free agent Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36 million contract was the biggest mistake of his tenure, but it has been punctuated by meaningless moves, such as trading Carlos Silva for Milton Bradley and signing Jason Bay.
There is no question Zduriencik has fallen well short of the expectations set for him, especially since his first Mariners season saw the club win 85 games. However, Seattle is in a much better spot right now than a year ago, two years ago or when it hired him after the 2008 season. The Mariners are 59-67 and any hope of a late-season playoff push was dashed weeks ago, but their current .468 winning percentage would mark the third consecutive season in which they've improved and their young core is starting to take hold.
Franklin has displaced Dustin Ackley as the team's second baseman of the future, posting a .738 OPS since his recall on May 27. Miller has brought some much-needed lumber to the shortstop position, currently the owner of a .742 OPS while playing half his games in one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in baseball. He may not have Brendan Ryan's defensive acumen, but the Mariners are tired of ranking among the league's worst offenses. Zunino, last year's first-round draft pick (third overall), came up in a pinch when the Mariners ran out of catchers. Before breaking his hamate bone, he handled major league pitching well and showed some potential at the plate.
Meanwhile, in 51 games since coming off the disabled list with a strained oblique, Smoak has hit 11 home runs in 212 trips to the plate and posted an .869 OPS. Seager has emerged as one of the top third basemen in the American League, ranking fifth in weighted on-base average (.354) and sixth in fWAR (3.6), more than doubling the No. 7 guy. As for Saunders, it has been a long time coming, but he has shown steady improvement after years of looking like he wasn't going to make it.
These six position players are the most visible bunch of what could be a young, productive and affordable core for years to come. Manager Eric Wedge, back in the Mariners dugout Friday night after suffering a mild stroke and missing a month, just needs a little bit of good luck on his side and for his GM to plug a few holes for Seattle to be realistic contenders in the American League again:
1. Plan a rotation behind Felix Hernandez. Sure, Hisashi Iwakuma has been great this year, but he is under contract only through 2014 (2015 is a club option) and turns 33 in April. This includes promoting Taijuan Walker at some point during the 2014 season. He has had some minor difficulties adjusting to Triple-A competition this year, which might motivate a midseason call-up.
2. Acquire a surfeit of back-end starters. There are myriad ways to go about this. The Mariners learned a lot about young starters like Brandon Maurer, Erasmo Ramirez and prospect Danny Hultzen this year, and that is: They aren't very reliable. Having five or six guys competing for three spots in spring training is not a bad thing, and as the Dodgers have shown this year, sometimes you'll need them all and then some. Some soon-to-be free agents who fit the bill: Jason Hammel, Bruce Chen, Phil Hughes, Dan Haren and Jeff Karstens. This isn't an exhaustive list and doesn't include pitchers who could be acquired cheaply via trade and those who may be nontendered (such as Kyle Kendrick with the Phillies).
3. Make a run at Jacoby Ellsbury in the offseason. Few teams can say they built a championship contender all alone, and the Mariners don't have a legitimate center fielder. Ellsbury has one important skill that the Mariners lack: speed. Saunders leads the team with 12 stolen bases in 16 attempts; Ellsbury has stolen 46 in 50 attempts. While he likely won't hit 32 home runs again, his speed, defense and gap-to-gap power would be a huge bonus to the lineup. It will be costly, but the Mariners are only committed to Hernandez and Iwakuma on long-term contracts.
4. Don't panic about the bullpen. Relievers are notoriously fickle, and teams that overreact to their bullpen woes usually end up paying for it; just ask the Phillies how the Jonathan Papelbon and Mike Adams signings panned out. The Mariners have a lot of young, live arms in the bullpen, and things just simply haven't worked out well this year, although they may have found a closer in Danny Farquhar. The Mariners bullpen has posted the third-best strikeout rate (24.8 percent) in baseball, trailing only the Reds and Rays. The killer has been the sixth-worst walk rate. Fortunately, control is a fixable issue if the coaching staff recognizes and addresses the issue.
5. Keep Kendrys Morales around. A good designated hitter is hard to find, with switch-hitting ones even rarer. While he hasn't recaptured the power that landed him fifth in AL MVP voting in 2009, he has ranked among the top third of DHs since returning from a broken leg last year. Having a relatively affordable, reliable option at DH for the next two to three years gives the Mariners the luxury of more efficiently focusing their attention on more pressing needs.
Bill Baer runs the Crashburn Alley blog on the Phillies and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.