Jack Zduriencik never lets The Plan go.
Fernando Rodney has his imaginary bow and arrow. Marshawn Lynch has his Skittles. Linus from “Peanuts” has his blanket. Zduriencik is committed to The Plan just the same, seldom straying, building the Mariners in his consistent fashion despite plenty of mistakes, setbacks and embarrassment.
For six seasons, Zduriencik has relied on this methodical, ground-up approach to team building, and while he has lost popularity over the years, The Plan has advanced from the “What The Hell Are You Doing?” phase to a fruit-bearing phase. On Tuesday, the Mariners rewarded their general manager — and clarified the ever-simmering topic of his future — with a multiyear contract extension.
It was an inevitable move, especially with the Mariners in playoff contention and showing significant progress in Year 6 after five seasons of waiting and wondering. Zduriencik’s tenure has been far from perfect, but you should appreciate his persistence and consider it a factor in the Mariners’ improvement.
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“He’s always looked long term,” Mariners president Kevin Mather said.
Mather and Zduriencik finalized the new deal during lunch Tuesday. Near the end, Mather praised Zduriencik for his doggedness. Even with all the uncertainty and media speculation about his future, Jack Z stayed focused on the long-term development of a franchise that was desperate for such a makeover when he arrived.
“Not once have you asked me about your contract,” Mather told Zduriencik during their lunch. “Not once have you made a decision that made me think, ‘Hey, you’re being a short-term thinker.’ ”
Zduriencik is a rare type of survivor in today’s sports world. We live in a microwave society now, and never is it more evident than in sports, where long-term plans go to die. Whenever someone is hired to rebuild a pro team, it usually means the poor sucker will do all the hard work, get fired and then watch the next guy finish the job. The rebuilder gets three or four years these days. It’s incredibly uncommon to see a rebuilder get six years without some type of stunning early success.
The organization’s commitment isn’t lost on Zduriencik. The Mariners have stuck with him through the controversial Josh Lueke acquisition in the Cliff Lee trade, through the club’s .443 winning percentage over the first five years of his GM tenure and through the concerns about his leadership and communication skills. Zduriencik is on his third field manager; most GMs couldn’t survive that. He has been able to do so because the Mariners believe in his talent-evaluating ability.
The farm system has improved dramatically under Zduriencik. The Mariners have a good core of young players contributing to a winning ballclub, led by third baseman Kyle Seager, who made the all-star team this season. And Zduriencik has been able to retain one superstar (Felix Hernandez) and acquire another (Robinson Cano).
The Mariners’ majors-best pitching staff has a chance to become the first American League staff in 40 years to finish a full season with an ERA below 3.00. That group is full of players who have developed during Zduriencik’s tenure.
Over six seasons, there have been disappointments. Dustin Ackley, the No. 2 overall pick in the 2009 draft, has yet to become the consistent bat that many expected. Justin Smoak, the key piece in the Lee trade, isn’t on the 25-man roster currently. Neither is Jesus Montero, whom Jack Z traded former all-star pitcher Michael Pineda to acquire.
Zduriencik has had his share of bad trades, and until Cano’s monumental $240 million free-agent signing last December, his decisions in free agency had been shaky. But he hasn’t left the franchise hamstrung with any of his moves, and his patience has allowed a team to develop organically. Now, with some young pieces in place, the M’s can polish a sustainable contender in free agency or via trades.
“I’m looking forward to where we’re going,” Zduriencik said. “It’s going to be better than where we’re at today.”
New manager Lloyd McClendon continues to call it a “golden era for the Seattle Mariners.” After joking that his relationship with Zduriencik is “dysfunctional” — a playful swipe at a Seattle Times report last winter detailing Zduriencik’s shortcomings — McClendon gave some thoughtful insight into his relationship with the general manager.
“Seriously, and this is a real important point, when you talk about dealing with someone on a daily basis, the one thing you have to understand is the first thing you need to do is agree that sometimes you’re going to disagree, to make your organization better,” McClendon said. “It’s not always about ‘I love you’ and ‘You love me.’ There’s some days when he leaves this office with a bandage over his head and other days I leave the office with a bandage over my head. But our relationship is one of mutual respect. I think he’s tremendous at what he does.”
Over the years, Mariners fans have gone from “In Jack, We Trust” to “In Jack, We What?!?!” But he deserves credit for the progress they’ve made. He deserves this new contract.
Now that we know he’s keeping his job, it’s on to the ultimate challenge.
Finishing the job.