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September 25, 2013 at 10:40 AM

Mariners woes under Jack Zduriencik didn’t just pop up overnight

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has been told he will be staying at his post in 2014. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik has been told he will be staying at his post in 2014. Photo Credit: AP

There has been an amusing narrative gaining more and more steam locally that the Mariners find themselves in the mess they’re in today because of a panic move by the Jack Zduriencik regime after a 101-loss season in 2010 that took them away from defense and towards finding big bat boppers at all cost. It’s an interesting theory and, if there was any real substance to it, might offer clues as to why this franchise can’t get out of its own way.

Alas, it just doesn’t pass the smell test.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no Zduriencik apologist. Never have been, whether we’re talking this week or four years ago. Just ask him. And for sure, the Mariners tried to upgrade their offense after a 2010 debacle in which they lost 101 games and scored just 513 runs, prompting one ESPN columnist well-versed in advanced statistics to argue that Seattle had posted the worst offensive season of all-time relative to the run-scoring environment of the day.

When you’re the worst offensive team of all time, what’s the first thing any paid professional will do? Exactly. You try to upgrade the offense. But did the Mariners willingly start ignoring defense to do this? Sorry, I’m just not seeing it.

Not unless you want to include shortstop Brendan Ryan among noted fielding butchers. The Mariners went out after 2010 and traded for Ryan, then actually used him to displace reigning Fielding Bible champ Jack Wilson from his shortstop position. Wilson slid on over to second base, effectively giving the Mariners two Fielding Bible guys up the middle of their infield.

Then, they dumped Jose Lopez and slid Chone Figgins from his second base spot where he’d struggled in 2010 back over to his more natural third base position, where he’d excelled for years according to advanced metrics. At first base, they used Justin Smoak, who was reputed to be an outstanding first base glove along the lines of Mark Teixeira when the Mariners traded for him the previous summer. As an aside, Smoak has always been a better defensive first baseman than he sometimes gets credit for — largely because advanced metrics ignore some critical things like a first baseman’s ability to scoop out throws at first base. If you watched last night’s game and Smoak’s picks of two James Paxton throws in the dirt, you immediately understand how important that skill is.

So, that’s a pretty good 2011 defensive infield based on past and anticipated performance.

In the outfield, the Mariners went with Gold Glove winner Franklin Gutierrez in center and perennial winner Ichiro in right. The only spot on the diamond they could be said to have “sacrificed” any defense was in left field, where Milton Bradley would play out the final month of his career. But Bradley wasn’t a panic move based off the 2010 season. He was a holdover from the ill-conceived offensive experiment of 2010, where the Mariners — unwilling to spend on slugging power — stacked their lineup full of good on-base percentage guys (based on past history) and hoped they could all drive each other home with a dozen singles per night.

Instead, some of the acquisitions proved over-the-hill, while the rest pressed too hard trying to compensate for the lack of big bat threats one-through-nine in the order.

So, fast forward again to 2011. Behind the plate, the Mariners went with veteran catcher Miguel Olivo, not trusting Adam Moore to handle the load by himself. Again, the advanced defensive metrics tell us little of use about catching because of incomplete measurements and an inability to gauge critical components like handling a pitching staff. So, we can’t say whether Olivo was a defensive upgrade or not. But considering the Mariners went with Moore and Rob Johnson behind the plate in 2010, I don’t think too many fans would try to argue that Olivo was anything worse than a defensive “push” at the catching position in 2011.

So, no. There is no evidence the Mariners panicked after 2010 and started ignoring defense. They stuck with it at just about every position on the diamond — and scored just 558 runs in 2011.

In other words, the Mariners followed up arguably the worst offensive season of all-time with arguably the second-worst.

The Mariners scored 1,071 runs in 2010 and 2011 combined. The playoff-bound Cleveland Indians scored 1,009 runs in the 1999 season alone, so yes, it should have been obvious less than two years ago that the Mariners had an offensive problem that required fixing.

Part of the problem in 2011 wasn’t that the Mariners abandoned defense as a panic move following the 2010 season. It was that they stuck too closely to the same 2010 formula. Instead of dropping money on proven bats that could both hit and play defense full-time, the Mariners limited their attempted upgrades to a bargain bin Jack Cust at DH — which brought them some walk-generated OBP but little of the power they’d sought. They got a little more power out of Olivo at the catching position, minus the OBP, but catching isn’t exactly where any team needing massive offensive overhauls tends to seek significant boosts (too hard to find the Buster Posey types behind the plate).

They did swap out minimal defense for attempted offense in releasing Josh Wilson and keeping Luis Rodriguez as a backup infielder. They also brought in Adam Kennedy as another backup infielder, only to be forced to use him as a full-time player when the rest of the offense tanked. Kennedy hit so well the first two months of the season that the pathetic 2011 offense actually relied on him as a clean-up hitter for a short time. By mid-season, he’d been burned out from overuse and his numbers collpased.

Again, though, the evidence that the Mariners suddenly abandoned defense as a panic move after 2010 just isn’t there. Sure, they auditioned a number of outfielders once Bradley left in May 2011, including stumbling defenders like Carlos Peguero and Alex Liddi. But also notable glovemen like Michael Saunders and the freshly-acquired Casper Wells.

Mike Carp began leaving an offensive mark in the second half of 2011, even though his high strikeout rate served as evidence he’d possibly be exposed with more prolonged playing time. But at that point, remember, the Mariners were running out one of the worst offenses in MLB history over a sustained two-year period. Carp as a defender wasn’t any worse than Bradley had been through 2010 and 2011 and could actually hit a bit.

Where the Mariners once again fell short was the following winter, where they continued their trend of not spending to upgrade the offense with better all-around full-time players. Instead, they opened 2012 by running out largely the same formula they’d depended on in 2010 and 2011.

The infield would deploy two eventual Gold Glove finalists in Ryan and Ackley up the middle — top draft pick Ackley having supplanted Jack Wilson partway through 2011 — with Smoak at first base. Figgins was bounced from third base by Kyle Seager — arguably the best all-around Mariners player the last two years running — with the idea that Figgins would be used to shore up defense in left field and elsewhere as a super-utility player.

Gutierrez was again pegged for center field, with Ichiro in right and Olivo behind the plate. Again, very little difference in the types of hitters and defenders used at almost every position on the diamond since back before the 2010 season began.

The team even kept the more defensively-versed Wells as a fourth outfielder. The lone defensive “sacrifice” in the starting lineup was Carp, but his glove, again, was no worse than what the team deployed with Bradley in 2010 and the start of 2011.

So, no evidence the Mariners abandoned defense as a panic move for their offenses in 2010 and 2011.

If anything, their stubborn commitment to the same core players and refusal to increase payroll to try to shore-up weak spots tied to long-term contracts proved their undoing. The Mariners were dealt a blow right away in spring training when a bulked-up Gutierrez tore his pectoral muscle. Seattle still had Saunders to replace Gutierrez in center and Wells to back him up, but the team was further hampered when Carp got hurt in the season-opener.

Once again, the Mariners had limited their attempted offensive upgrades to the DH spot — bringing in Jesus Montero via trade and deploying him mainly as a DH and sparingly as a backup catcher — and adding backup catcher John Jaso via trade as well.

Jaso proved the best upgrade the Mariners would have offensively, but his defensive shortcomings behind the plate and overlap in DH duties with Montero limited the playing time he could get. Like Wells, exposed badly when given more playing time because of injuries, there was evidence that Jaso’s game became worse the more full-time action he got.

So, the Mariners wisely played to his strengths, limited his playing time and squeezed the most offense they could out of him — about 100 OPS points more than the Oakland A’s got from Jaso this season.

This season, after three years of terrible offense, the Mariners finally had extra payroll sitting around because Ichiro’s $18 million annual salary was off-the-books. The Mariners immediately targetted noted defender Torii Hunter as an offensive upgrade but were blown out of the water financially by the Tigers, who snatched him up right away.

They made a pitch to Josh Hamilton, who for years had been an above average defender but was penalized heavily by advanced defensive metrics in 2012 after some noted on-field lapses in the second half. Indeed, the only reason Hamilton was even available on the open market was because of his all-around second-half declines, which caused the Texas Rangers to underbid for him.

The Mariners did pull off a trade for Justin Upton, also viewed as an above average defender, only to have him veto the deal.

So, yet again, there is little evidence that the Mariners, in seeking elusive offensive upgrades, suddenly abandoned defense in trying to improve one of the worst offenses of all-time. In the end, yes, they settled for Michael Morse as a Plan C or D, or E, hoping that his offensive numbers could offset his awful glove.

And that gamble proved wrong. But in the end, the defensive strategy of going with above-average glovemen in center and one outfield corner, and a below-average Morse in the other spot, was no different than it had been at the start of 2010 with Gutierrez in center, Ichiro in right and Bradley in left.

Where the Mariners saw their strategy completely fall apart this year was when Gutierrez again could not stay on the field health-wise, while both Saunders and Morse also got hurt in the season’s opening weeks. That forced Raul Ibanez and Jason Bay — both brought in as part-time bats — to play the outfield on a daily basis and the defensive results were terrible.

The Mariners also came up short when they tried to get by with Montero behind the plate for a few months, hoping Mike Zunino would be ready by mid-summer to be groomed as the full-time catcher.

And for all that, Zduriencik deserves to be held accountable. No argument from me.

Again, though, none of this is emblematic of any sudden abandonning of defense by the front office as a reaction to 2010.

If anything this front office’s modus operandi has changed very little since the winter prior to the 2010 season, even if some of the evaluators surrounding Zduriencik have changed. The Mariners have continued to operate within the profit-generating fiscal parameters devised by CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong. Those parameters see the Mariners spend just enough each year to generate a profit and grow franchise value, regardless of how poorly the team has performed.

They’ve continued to allow themselves to be hamstrung by long-term contracts given out prior to the 2010 season. Deals to Ichiro, Figgins and Gutierrez that became more and more paralyzing to the team as 2010 became 2011, then 2012. By the start of last year, the Mariners had a payroll of $84 million, with $32 million of that tied up in a trio of position players contributing very little on the field. Throw in close to $20 million paid to staff ace Felix Hernandez, that left just $32 million to try to round out the rest of the ballclub.

So, there it is. Which is why you can’t compare the payrolls of the Mariners and A’s, or Rays, and say the Mariners are spending enough. They haven’t been for years. And when they did spend, this front office — starting way back before 2010 — compounded the problems with long-term deals that became more problematic as years wore on.

Deals that the team’s profit-focused owners have refused to spend around in an effort to improve the club, despite playing in a taxpayer-funded ballpark the Rays and A’s would love to have. Instead, the Mariners paid Figgins $9 million to go away this year and Gutierrez another $7 million to again spend most of the year on the sidelines. That’s $16 million out of an $82 million payroll for 2013.

And yeah, even with Kendrys Morales coming over and succeeding as the team’s latest attempt to bolster offense via the DH spot — having initially courted Mike Napoli — the Mariners can still barely score 600 runs.

Some of it is because of continued moves by the Zduriencik front office that have not worked out. Some of it is team ownership’s lack of willingness to spend around mistake contracts that got more burdensome as the years wore on. By the time the Mariners did try to spend money last winter, they couldn’t get any half-decent free agents to take it.

Very little of it has to do with a panic move to bolster offense at the expense of defense after 2010. The evidence just isn’t there.

The Mariners collapsed defensively this year, for sure. But the origins of this team’s woes under the Zduriencik regime didn’t just pop up overnight. They began way back before the 2010 season, aided and abetted by an ownership focused on acquiring its own a regional sports network and perhaps doubling, or even tripling, franchise value since 2008 in the process. By an ownership and front office that plugged holes with low cost veterans like Ryan Garko and Eric Byrnes in 2009, then a parade of untested kids in years to come, some good and some bad — but all cheap. Whatever helped meet the payroll that enabled a profit.

Ignoring that reality now — or worse, pretending it never happened in the first place — is an invitation for the same thing to continue unchecked for years to come.

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