After four seasons and a 288-360 record with the Mariners, Jack Zduriencik has experienced the full range of a taxing life as a general manager.
PEORIA, Ariz. — Jack Zduriencik is a peculiar kind of impressive. He’s actually human, which qualifies as strange in a world of myth and hyperbole.
Zduriencik, the Mariners’ general manager, has done a difficult job in a raw and real manner. You can evaluate him honestly, no smoke, no mirrors, all the good and bad splayed in front of him for all to see. He doesn’t always say what you want to hear. He doesn’t make the splashy free-agent acquisitions that you pray for, and he doesn’t make trades that send you into a playoffs-predicting frenzy. After four years and a 288-360 record during a meticulous rebuilding process, the first-time head honcho has had great and grating moments, experiencing the full range of this taxing life as a GM.
Still, you believe in him. He’s flawed, but he’s trustworthy.
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As he enters his fifth season running the Mariners’ baseball operations, Jack Z remains a good fit for this job because he’s executing a transparent plan to rebuild the franchise with very little hedging. He almost never strays from the plan. And though Zduriencik hasn’t yet acquired a player who has become a superstar and the face of his youth movement, the plan is working when you consider the amount of intriguing talent now in the organization.
Now, though, Zduriencik will be judged by more than the accumulation of talent. He needs the top tier of those players, many of whom already have substantial big-league experience, to continue developing and contribute to a winning baseball team this season. He needs the moves he made to acquire veterans (Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Joe Saunders, Raul Ibanez) this offseason to pan out and expedite the Mariners’ growth process. And, of course, he needs to keep replenishing the minor-league system, which is now one of the best in baseball.
This is the first time it’s fair to judge how Zduriencik is building the major-league roster without the use of asterisks. He has cleaned up most of the problems he inherited and redirected the organization in the proper fashion. Now, he has to win. And he knows it.
“Am I happy with where we’re at? I can’t say that I’m happy, can’t say that I’m satisfied at all,” Zduriencik said. “Because, at the end, it’s about the finished product at the big-league level and all of these kids becoming what you want them to become.”
As he relaxed in his office at the Mariners’ spring-training facility two weeks ago, Jack Z looked back on his first four years in charge. He talked of a conversation he had with Oakland general manager Billy Beane last season.
Beane told him: “You know, I’m a better general manager today than I was 10 years ago. I was better five years after that. You just always grow in the job.”
Zduriencik feels the same about his initial years with the Mariners. He arrived after a disastrous 2008 season and made an immediate impact with a monster three-team, 12-player trade in which former All-Star closer J.J. Putz was dealt. In that deal, the Mariners received several players who meant much to the first stages of their rebuilding, including center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, pitcher Jason Vargas and first baseman/outfielder Mike Carp.
The Mariners finished 85-77 in Zduriencik’s first season, their only winning campaign of his tenure. Then, Jack Z traded for Cliff Lee the next offseason. In the beginning, things were so good that “In Jack We Trust” became the mantra of many Mariners fans. But Year 2 produced an ugly 61-101 season that included Ken Griffey Jr. retiring abruptly, manager Don Wakamatsu getting fired, Chone Figgins signing a $36 million contract that he never lived up to and Lee being traded to Texas after only 13 starts for a package built around first baseman Justin Smoak. The Lee trade also included the controversial acquisition of relief pitcher Josh Lueke, who had pleaded no contest a year earlier to a charge of false imprisonment with violence against a woman, a fact that Mariners president Chuck Armstrong said he was not aware of before the deal was finalized.
After that second season, you didn’t know whether Zduriencik was the GM who started with such a flurry or the one whose team fell apart. Though he has always been great with the media, there were questions about his leadership and communication skills, especially after the Lueke fiasco. But since then, he has committed deeply to the original plan. And his chemistry with manager Eric Wedge is far better than the rocky relationship he had with Wakamatsu.
Mostly, though, Jack Z has acquired more young talent. That’s why, despite the results, the organization is getting healthier. That’s why, despite some mistakes, Zduriencik still has the patience of Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln.
“I would hope the communication skills have gotten better,” Zduriencik said. “As a general manager, I think you want to make sure that we are staying the course, that those who work around you and with you understand that you’re in it with them, that your plan is moving forward, that what you have put in place is the right thing at the right time for this organization. So those are the things that I think you try to work on every day.
“A lot of it is the people around you. You have people under you, and you have people over you, and you have to respect all of their opinions.”
That’s as close as Zduriencik will get to a mea culpa about the past. He’s looking forward, and there’s plenty to look forward to.
“I certainly want to be here for the completion of it,” Zduriencik said. “There’s no question. I want to win a World Series in this city. And there are a lot of factors that tie into that. We’ve got a very good base. We’ve got a very good minor-league system right now. We’ve got some great things going on here. But players have to mature, and there’s a chance we’re going to have to go out eventually and try to add to this thing, either through a trade or free agency, to try to get us over the top, if you will. Because every club does it. It’s just a part of it.
“I like where we’re at. I like the health of the organization, top to bottom. But we are not complete. And we’re not where we’re going to be. And when we get there, we have every intention of keeping it for a long time.”
There are no guarantees, but if you feel any hope, it’s legitimate. There’s little sizzle but ample substance with Zduriencik. Blemishes and all, he remains impressive.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Twitter @JerryBrewer