CHICAGO — The one-year anniversary came in the city where it all took place. The announcement came via email at 10:28 a.m. local time on August 28, 2015. With the Mariners sinking toward the fifth losing season in his seven-season tenure, general manager Jack Zduriencik had been relieved of his duties.
About an hour later, Mariners’ team president Kevin Mather, who had flown into Chicago the night before to personally fire Zduriencik that morning, met with the media in the conference room of a plush downtown hotel.
“It was obviously a difficult morning,” Mather told a small gathering of reporters on the road trip. “I said goodbye to a very loyal, hard-working baseball man who I considered a friend. I met with him this morning. He wasn’t shocked. He thanked me for coming down, and he said he would make it easy for me. He did all the right things and said all the right things.”
But Zduriencik didn’t win. And in a season with playoff expectations and the largest payroll in team history, the Mariners were 59-69 when he was let go. The issues were beyond the team’s big league record. Lack of overall organization philosophy led to reactionary moves and regrettable trades. The farm system was rated as one of the worst in baseball and the development of the few talented prospects seemed to stagnate when they reached the big league level.
“At the end of the day, if it doesn’t work, there’s no excuses,” he said that day. “You’re the guy as the general manager that is responsible for the club, no matter what. It just didn’t work out like we hoped it would.”
A year later, the Mariners entered the anniversary of Zduriencik’s removal with a 68-61 record and just two games out of the second wild card spot. Just over a month of meaningful games await if they can somehow overcome issues with the starting rotation, lineup holes and bullpen overuse. Are they a better team? They are certainly playing better than a year ago and have a few less flaws from a roster standpoint.
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To be fair, there are pieces of Zduriencik’s regime that have been key parts of this season’s success. On the current 25-man roster, 14 players were acquired or drafted and developed by Zduriencik during his time with the Mariners. Notably, Zduriencik drafted third baseman Kyle Seager, catcher Mike Zunino, pitchers James Paxton, Taijuan Walker and Edwin Diaz. He was also GM for the signings of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Hisashi Iwakuma’s first two contracts and two extensions for Felix Hernandez.
The new regime led by general manager Jerry Dipoto has tried to supplement around the core group of stars — Hernandez, Cruz, Cano and Seager – and other remnants of the roster. Dipoto has made an endless stream of roster adjustments and decisions since taking over. Some of the moves have been successes – trading for Leonys Martin, converting Diaz to a reliever, signing Dae-Ho Lee to a minor league contract and starting Zunino in Class AAA to work on his hitting. The failures are also evident – the signing of Nori Aoki, the trades for Wade Miley and Nathan Karns and a pieced together bullpen.
Are the Mariners better now?
The direction seems improved. Dipoto and his staff have a system and a belief in it that has been and will be unwavering. He won’t overreact to small sample trends. The lack of talent in the farm system, particularly at the upper levels is still glaring and evidenced in the constant roster shuffling at times this season. The minor league system’s emphasis on a winning culture and “control the zone” approach to hitting and pitching have led to all seven affiliates earning or vying for postseason spots.
Realistically, the shrinking window for optimal success at the big league hasn’t been widened. The Mariners best chances for the first playoff appearance since 2001 are this season, 2017 and possibly 2018. Cruz is under contract until then while Hernandez and Cano are still hoped to be a high-level players in that span. The crush of contracts becomes a little more real in those seasons. The Mariners will have $75 million committed to their four stars in 2017 and at least $12 million owed to Iwakuma. The price for Cano, Hernandez, Cruz and Seagers goes up to roughly $84 million in 2018.
A year later, Zduriencik is gone and the Mariners are winning. It’s instructive to remember that he also won in his first season after taking the job, going 85-77. The rest of his tenure was largely a failure and the effects are still being felt today.
Batter vs. starting pitcher matchups
Mariners numbers vs. Carlos Rodon
White Sox numbers vs. Taijuan Walker
American League West and Wild Card Standings
On this day in Mariners’ history
- 1997 – Omar Olivares becomes the first Mariners pitcher to drive in a run in a 9-5 loss at Colorado.
- 1998 – The Mariners clout three home runs in a 10 – 3 loss to the Yankees, making them the first team in history to reach the 200-home run mark for a season in three consecutive years. Shane Monahan, Russ Davis, and Rob Ducey each belts a solo round-tripper for Seattle.
- 2001 – Ichiro collected his 200th in the team’s 132 game of the year; matching Darrin Erstad (2000) as fastest in the Majors to 200 hits since Joe Medwick in 1935 (131 games), & fastest in AL since Al Simmons in 1925 (125 games). He also becomes only the third American League rookie to reach 200 hits since 1964.
- 2015 – Taijuan Walker allowed 3 hits over 6.1 scoreless innings, striking out 6 to lead the Mariners to a 2-0 win over the White Sox in Chicago…Walker picked up his 10th win of the season, becoming the 4th Mariners starter to win 10 games before his age 23 season…Nelson Cruz saw his 37-game on-base streak come to an end, going 0-for-5 in the game.
- 2015 – Mariners General Manager Jack Zduriencik was relieved of his duties…Assistant GM Jeff Kingston was named interim GM.