The Mariners’ firing of general manager Jack Zduriencik after five losing seasons in seven years had to happen for this moribund franchise to move forward. Now comes the hardest part.
When Mariners President Kevin Mather on Friday characterized being a baseball general manager as “an impossible job,” he was speaking about the complexities and vast scope of the position.
But for the past decade, that description has been all too true in Seattle. It’s been an impossible job for the sitting Mariners GM to do well, at least, and Friday, Jack Zduriencik’s failures, like that of his predecessor, Bill Bavasi, got him fired.
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The move, which came a year to the day after Mather extended Zduriencik’s contract and said the team was “well-positioned” for yearly contention, was a move the Mariners had to make. Indeed, it was overdue, as even Mather admitted.
“I was so optimistic about 2015 at the major-league level that I waited too long to start asking myself and others the tough questions about what’s going on here, what’s going wrong,’’ Mather said.
The list is copious. The busted draft picks and backfiring player acquisitions are piling up. The bad vibe surrounding the team has reached new levels. And, most important, hope for the future has withered away, at the precise time when the Mariners’ present is as frustrating as it has ever been. And that’s saying something.
But that doesn’t mean this job isn’t regarded as a plum opportunity within the industry. I talked to one former general manager Friday who called the Mariners “a sleeping giant,” but then laughed and said, “I think I said the same thing when (Bavasi) left.”
To have brought back Zduriencik would have been to stubbornly cling to a vision that clearly has been misguided. Zduriencik has five losing seasons in his seven years at the helm. But most damningly, it’s hard to look at the current roster and the mostly barren minor-league system and see the seeds of a dramatic recovery.
Not without new vision, and a new plan, at least. Now the Mariners have a great opportunity to revitalize their team.
This will be the first major test for Mather, in his second year since replacing Chuck Armstrong as team president. It will be interesting to see if changes are also coming above Mather in the realm of CEO Howard Lincoln, now in his mid-70s, or in ownership. It’s time for new blood there, too — and the prospect of Lincoln’s eventual involvement in this GM hire doesn’t inspire me with confidence.
Here’s hoping that Mather, in his search, takes a progressive outlook that incorporates the vast advancements in metrics and statistical analysis. That doesn’t mean ignoring scouting, but there has been a revolution in team-building that mostly has gone on without the Mariners’ involvement.
So I hope Mather looks at candidates like Thad Levine of the Texas Rangers, Jason McLeod of the Chicago Cubs, Billy Eppler of the New York Yankees, Mike Hazen of the Boston Red Sox and others who fall into the category of young, innovative, new-wave thinkers.
That doesn’t mean an old-school GM can’t work. The Mariners did quite well with Pat Gillick. But there aren’t many Gillicks out there, and the Mariners need to get this one right.
I was mostly encouraged by Mather’s answer to the question of the qualities he is looking for in the ideal candidate. He said he will lean toward an experienced GM, or an assistant who has had a heavy hand in the operation.
“I don’t want to hire someone who is going to learn on the job over the next two or three years,’’ he said. “That is a candidate I’m not interested in.”
Mather is fully aware of the trend toward Ivy League analytic types. He related an anecdote of calling the commissioner’s office to solicit a list of potential candidates, and being asked, “I assumed you’re looking for a young, analytical, computer-nerd type.’’
When Mather paused, the person said, “Everyone else is asking.”
In this case, everyone could mean three teams with a current GM opening — the Milwaukee Brewers, Los Angeles Angels and Red Sox — on top of at least one, the Philadelphia Phillies, that could come open. The Brewers have already indicated they are going the “nerd” route.
“I get that is the new direction in the game,’’ Mather said. “We’re heavy into it, but that said, it’s one of six, seven data points.”
He said he’d be open to an old-school candidate with a scouting background. “But you’d better darned sure have someone working for you that gets the analytic part, and that voice is loud and clear in your ear,” Mather said. “ It’s important to keep up with what everyone else is doing.”
What everyone else is doing is making the playoffs. When Toronto makes it to the postseason this year — and only a total collapse will prevent that — the Mariners will officially have the longest playoff drought in the majors — 14 years and counting.
That shouldn’t be the case. And that’s the bottom line when it comes to Zduriencik’s firing. Even inheriting a subpar team, he had more than enough time to build a winner.
As Mather said, “It’s not that we have a lack of resources. There’s no reason why this team isn’t competing year in and year out for postseason baseball.”
They got the first step right. A cleansing at the top of baseball operations was absolutely necessary to change the culture of a floundering team. Now Mather will have the immense responsibility of hiring an agent of true change.