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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

June 3, 2013 at 12:56 PM

Mariners are in a bind that firings won’t cure, without change at the top

Mariner fans are in a firing mood these days, and the drumbeat is getting louder in the media, as well. As the Mariners’ season disintegrates, I’m hearing constantly from people who want to dump manager Eric Wedge, get rid of general manager Jack Zduriencik, and reading more and more about the hot seats in the Mariner organization.

And yes, it may come to that, if this season keeps spinning out of control, because that’s what happens in baseball. These four or five weeks before the All-Star break might be the last chance for the Mariners to put the season back on track and ease the mounting pressure on those guys.

But as I look at what’s going on right now, I’d say the Mariners are closer to a free fall than they are to a revival, though the latter outcome is not out of the question, as fickle as this team has been. When you face a situation where you desperately need a replacement starter and all you can come up with is a guy who has sat out two years with injuries — and hasn’t even pitched all that well in the minors — that’s a pretty telling commentary. For an organization supposedly rich in pitching prospects, they have had to rely on a lot of journeyman type hurlers (plus one promising rookie in Brandon Mauer who proved to be not yet ready for the challenge) behind Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma. Couple that with the alarming regression of Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero, and the inability of Justin Smoak to make that leap forward to providing the production needed from a first baseman, and it spells big trouble.

The margin for error with this team is already paper thin. Despite an increase in power this year, they still rank 14th among 15 American League teams in runs. They are the worst team in baseball hitting with runners on base. So when the back end of the bullpen struggles, as has happened lately with closer Tom Wilhelmsen and others, the result is devastating losses that are hard to bounce back from. The Mariners once again lead the majors in walk-off losses, as they have, by a wide margin, since the beginning of the 2010 season. Nick Franklin, the prospect d’jour, had a good first week, Mike Zunino might be up in the second half, and don’t sleep on Stefen Romero, who is suddenly red-hot down in Tacoma. But it would be unwise to count on any position-player saviors down on the farm that will come up and put the Mariners back on track. On the pitching side, Erasmo Ramirez has had two promising starts as he rehabs from his elbow injury, and his eventual return might help bring more stability to the rotation. But again, with Danny Hultzen still on the shelf with a rotator cuff injury, James Paxton having an up and down season, and Taijuan Walker (wisely) being brought along slowly in Double-A, there are no saviors in sight here, either.  The Mariners have it in them to play better, as they’ve already shown during that stretch of five straight series wins (plus a split). But the hole they’ve already dug is going to be hard to dig out of.

Both Zduriencik and Wedge are in the last year of their contracts, which has effectively put them in a “perform or else” position. But here’s what I see: if Wedge is fired, why should we have confidence that Zduriencik would hire someone better? After all, he has had two chances already to hire a manager. His first one, Don Wakamatsu, didn’t even make it two seasons before he was fired. And if Wedge gets the ax in the middle of this season, that would mean Zduriencik’s second hire wouldn’t even have made it three years. That would be a major indictment of the general manager if he failed so badly twice in less than five years in one of his most important tasks: hiring a manager.

And if Zduriencik is canned, why in the world should anyone have confidence that team president Chuck Armstrong and/or CEO Howard Lincoln would be able to identify the right architect? Their previous GM hire, Bill Bavasi, had a disastrous stint, and firing Zduriencik would be an acknowledgement that his plan was also a failure, and that they got that one wrong, too. In fact, under the Armstrong/Lincoln regime, this organization has pretty much been run into the ground over the past decade — except for their ability to turn a profit, which the M’s have done almost every season, good, bad, or worse. But they’ve also undone many of the good things that were accomplished earlier in their reign, including a successful campaign for a new stadium and on-the-field successes under two other GMs, Woody Woodward and Pat Gillick. When attendance has been cut in half over a 10-year span and continues to drop, when once-loyal fans are bitter and alienated (and growing more so by the week), when last-place finishes mount and the organization becomes a cautionary tale of how to squander all the good will that had been painstakingly built up, well, the buck stops at the top. But one of the peculiarities of this organization is that with absentee ownership, there doesn’t seem to be anyone to hold the stewards in Seattle responsible. So barring an ownership change (rumors continue to abound, despite constant denials), or retirement (both Lincoln and Armstrong are in their 70s), it seems like no change in upper management is in the offing.

The result is the untenable mess that exists now: A team that always seems to be in disarray with vague hope of a better future that never comes (despite some positive elements to Zduriencik’s plan), and with more and more fans losing faith that it ever will. And the reality is that there’s no easy way out, despite all the calls for this head and that. You could fire everybody, sure. But as long as the existing chain of command doesn’t change – ie, from the top down — it’s hard to see how that’s going to make things better.

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