Quite the firestorm erupted yesterday when the Mariners called up top catching prospect Mike Zunino from Class AAA. Those who work in the blossoming internet cottage industry of so-called “prospect evaluation” were largely up in arms over the move, saying it was done too quickly. In fact, one of the more intriguing ideas put forward was that the move was designed strictly to save the jobs of Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge.
Which, I suppose, is true in a sense. If the Mariners win more games, then the jobs of those two men become more secure. After all, winning at the MLB level is ultimately the No. 1 test of whether a GM or a manager is succeeding, no matter how many years they want to be given for any long-term plans to work. You can build nice farm systems, get yourself some fancy rankings in the prospects game and try to sell hope for as many years as your fanbase will buy into it, but ultimately, it comes down to wins and losses and your ability to sell tickets and TV market share in the business that is Major League Baseball.
So, in that respect, yes, winning games will help both Zduriencik and Wedge.
But I don’t buy into the theory that this was a desperation move strictly to save their jobs.
In fact, if both men were operating with that mindset, they might do the exact opposite with Zunino.
They might hide him in AAA for a while and acquire somebody else’s designated-for-assignment (DFA) catcher. After all, if Zunino flops on-the-heels of some other well-publicized prospect flameouts for this club, it will merely add to the doubts many now have about how valid Zduriencik’s rebuilding plan truly is.
And in the end, if Zduriencik — and Wedge, by extension — don’t make it beyond 2013, it will be because of the overall lack of success of that rebuilding plan five years and several sacrificed seasons later. So, believe me, it’s not in their best interests to have Zunino thrown into the “doubt” pile at this stage of a very problematic season.
The safe thing to do with all prospects is to keep them in the minors, where their perceived value will never have to be put to the test. The safe thing is to keep coddling them, nurturing them like breakable little flowers and waiting until the conditions are absolutely perfect.
That’s not what is happening with Zunino. He could very well show he isn’t close to being ready and have to be sent back to AAA in a week or two. And if that’s a ploy by Zduriencik and Wedge to save their jobs, it sure is exposing them to plenty of unwanted additional flak.
In fact, the evidence suggests this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment decision borne of desperation.
If that was the case, the Mariners would have called Zunino up right away when Jesus Sucre got hurt last week. If Zduriencik and Wedge were trying to save their jobs, they’d have given no second thought to bringing Dustin Ackley back up from AAA the moment he began hitting — a move they really should make right now to play some first base and prevent that Kendrys Morales back issue from worsening. They would have added Brad Miller a month ago when Brendan Ryan was hitting .140.
That’s what men trying to save their jobs first and foremost would have done. But that’s not what has happened, with either of those young players, or Zunino.
Initially, the team figured Sucre would only be out a few days and they could get away with a living, breathing guy in a catcher’s uniform named Brandon Bantz. But when circumstances changed, Sucre went on the disabled list and the Mariners were forced to actually use Bantz in a major league game — lest Kelly Shoppach collapse on the field — the initial approach had to change.
The Mariners got away with using Bantz once. But there was no way they could keep doing it multiple times per week.
The Mariners owe it to their paying fans and players to put as close to an MLB product on the field as possible with the intention of winning games. This idea that you can use MLB as an experimental training ground for three, or four, or even six months every season, regardless of how many games your team loses, is a relatively new phenomenon encouraged by an extremely-vocal segment of fans and pundits more interested in the process of how a team is built than the actual yearly results.
Problem is, that phenomenon runs contrary to what those paying their way into games, as well as the team’s players, actually expect. You can’t ask 25 guys to bust their butts night in, night out, then tell people to pay MLB prices to see it, if you’re throwing less than your best out there.
And yes, when you have only a two-day-per-week catcher at the major league level in Shoppach and your other option is Bantz, who was hitting .178 in Class AA three weeks ago, it makes perfect sense to bring up an everyday AAA catcher in Zunino. More sense than adding some other team’s veteran DFA reject and expecting him to magically become an everyday guy. They can always go the DFA route if Zunino falls flat on his face. But right now, he’s the guy with the much higher upside, already knows the pitching staff and is part of the depth that a AAA squad gives the big-league team.
This decision would have been automatic a decade or so ago. And it should be no less automatic today, despite the increasing amount of attention being paid to prospects by the online cottage industry that surrounds them.
This was Zunino’s turn to be “on-call” to help out, just like it was Kyle Seager’s turn two years ago when he was virtually fresh out of AA ball.
What Zunino makes of this early chance is up to him.
As for Zduriencik and Wedge, they are running out of turns. But this move won’t change that one way or the other. They didn’t bring Zunino up to bat .300 and save the team. They need other guys to do that. All Zduriencik and Wedge are doing right now is their job — of giving this team its best possible chance to succeed on any given night.
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