Early last month, Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik went on the Softy Mahler Show on Sports Radio KJR and suggested his front office might need another two years to get this rebuilding plan right. Since this is Year No. 5 of Zduriencik’s tenure, he is effectively asking to be allowed to stretch this into a Seven-Year-Plan.
“Anyone that knows rebuilding from the ground-up, it takes five-to-seven years,” Zduriencik said. “And this is only the beginning of the fifth year.”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with Zduriencik asking. Some of us have felt for a while that this franchise never had serious hopes of contending before 2015, so formalizing that by extending this plan through that season is really just accepting reality. With certain criteria met, I’d have no problem giving Zduriencik and his front office more time. Problem is, they have yet to demonstrate why things are going to be different two years from now.
The much-vaunted youth movement is a mess. Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero are back in Class AAA, Justin Smoak is drydocked on the DL and was off-and-on as a hitter, Michael Saunders has vanished offensively and none of the young starting pitchers has made any real impact yet.
Sure, there have been positive signs from Kyle Seager and Nick Franklin. But five years to develop one consistent major league regular and one prospect in his first month is hardly a solid rate of return.
Yes, this team has had injuries. But their impact is exacerbated by several key front office decisions now coming back to haunt.
The Mariners, for whatever reason, entered the season with Montero and Kelly Shoppach as their two catchers. Shoppach is a career backup who should catch two days per week. Montero was a guy who couldn’t catch consecutive games last year and had demonstrated little since to suggest things had changed.
By mid-May, the Mariners abandonned all hope of Montero magically figuring something out. Shoppach has been run into the ground from overuse and the best solution the Mariners could come up with was making minor leaguer Jesus Sucre their No. 1 catcher.
Now that Sucre is hurt, the Mariners have had to promote Brandon Bantz, a guy hitting .178 in AA just a few weeks ago. They refuse to promote No. 1 draft pick Mike Zunino, for reasons that might have to do with arbitration eligibility, minor league options, or fears that he needs considerably more development at a time the club really can’t afford another hyped young player falling on his face.
Another decision gone wrong was entering spring training with injury-plagued Franklin Gutierrez as the full-time center fielder and no clearly defined leadoff hitter. Gutierrez quickly got hurt again and has barely played, while reserve center fielder Saunders was thrust into the leadoff role full-time and quickly wilted after a solid opening month.
The Mariners could have signed free agent Michael Bourn — hitting .302 with a .343 on-base percentage for the Cleveland Indians — at a better-than-anticipated rate this winter and had a center fielder and leadoff man for years to come. But they passed on that, hesitant to lose a No. 12 overall draft pick later used on college third baseman D.J. Peterson, as well as the first-round slot money that came with it.
Finally, the Mariners skimped on adding valuable innings-eating starters to offset the losses of Jason Vargas and Kevin Millwood, importing only Joe Saunders and sticking in-house with the rest. That plan blew up when minor leaguers Erasmo Ramirez and Danny Hultzen got hurt, causing the team to rush AA starter Brandon Maurer to the big leagues.
The parade of patchwork fill-ins used since has barely given the Mariners the minimum five innings required of any starter.
It’s all led to a team 10 games under .500 when, on paper, it should be at least a .500 squad. And any GM asking the fans to give him two more years on top of the previous five is seriously pushing his luck when he doesn’t have a .500 season to point to since 2009.
Zduriencik has gotten some things right. His veteran bat additions of Kendrys Morales, Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, and, to a lesser extent, Michael Morse, have mostly done what was asked. Had the young core lived up to its billing, this might indeed be a .500 team. Had Zduriencik not made some critical off-season misjudgments, he might have the cache to demand two more years.
But right now, other than a good bullpen and more minor league prospects who may or may not work out in another year or two, this team can’t produce evidence that things will be different in 2015. It can’t win right now, even with a rotation fronted by Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma.
That could still change in the weeks and months ahead. But unless it does and Zduriencik can at least point to a .500 season from the current decade, the case for giving his plan two more years hasn’t been made. Remember, the end-goal of this plan was supposed to be contention year after year. Right now, there is no evidence this team can contend even once.
And giving Zduriencik two more years now could lead to pleas for two more years midway through the 2015 season. Which is how three-year plans give birth to five-year plans, seven-year plans and even 10-year plans.
At some point, there must be tangible results. And other than being younger and cheaper, this squad hasn’t proven any better than the one Zduriencik inherited in 2008.