Note: I haven’t been commenting much on the Seattle Seahawks so far this season. With the year ending injuries to key defensive stars Cliff Avril, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor, plus the problems with the offensive line and the running game, I have been, more or less, in “wait and see” mode as regards this […]Read the Rest →
Note: This article is Part II of my Seattle Mariners 2014 Season Preview. If you have not read Part I yet please do so before reading this. It can be found in this blog and is the article immediately preceding this one. MA
With the brouhaha stemming from Geoff Baker’s Seattle Times article critical of the Mariners front office, Lloyd McLendon could be forgiven if he wondered just what he had gotten himself into in taking the M’s manager job. If, indeed, he did have misgivings, having already signed his contract by the time the article broke, he has no choice but to make the best of things. The same could be said of Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik. Towards the end of the 2013 season, with the two year extension he signed in 2011 coming to an end, the M’s made the decision to extend Jackie Z for one more year. As Eric Wedge pointed out, a one year deal for a manager is hardly a vote of confidence and that statement would also apply to a one year extension for a general manager. The difference is Zduriencik took his deal while Wedge did not. In the wake of Baker’s article Jack also may have been wondering if staying was worth it; but he had already signed the extension, had just signed McLendon in November and Robinson Cano the day before the article broke in early December; so for Zduriencik the die was cast—he will sink or swim with the results of this 2014 Mariners season.
Many M’s fans wanted the 2013 season to be Zduriencik’s last in Seattle. Based on record alone the plan that Jack had initiated of building through the draft and wise trades was not working. The M’s combined record during his Seattle tenure is 356-449, good for a .442 winning percentage. Three of the last four seasons the team has finished in last place in the American League West Division. In 2013 they lost four more games than they did in 2012 but didn’t finish last only because Houston had been added to the division. Nevertheless, it is understandable why Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong would extend Zduriencik for one more year. The team has to have a GM and firing him at this point, just as the young players he drafted were arriving on the big club, including the young pitchers they had been cultivating, didn’t seem wise. So Jack was given another year—but, make no mistake, another season like 2013 with another poor finish and he will be through in Seattle.
It wasn’t always like this for Zduriencik. He came to the Mariners with a good reputation as a result of the work he did with the Milwaukee Brewers from 1999 to 2008. During that time he served as the director of scouting (1999-2006) and special assistant to the GM. (2007-8). The Brewers made the playoffs in 2008 for the first time in 25 years, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies in the National League Divisional Series. Milwaukee GM Doug Melvin had high praise for Zduriencik’s role in the Brewers’ resurgence: “No doubt about it, he deserves almost all the credit for the young players we have,” Melvin said. “The players he has drafted are making an impact at the big league level.” Those young players included hitters like Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder.
The Mariners hired Zduriencik to their GM post following their disastrous 2008 season, a campaign in which they became the first team in Major League history to have a payroll over $100 million AND to lose over 100 games. Most of the blame for that situation falls to Bill Bavasi who had been the Seattle general manager for the prior 4 years and who was fired in June of that season with the M’s already 20 games under .500.  Zuriencik came to post with a fresh 3 year contract and a mandate to re-build the team’s depleted farm system while ultimately reversing the fortunes of the parent team as well. He would do it as he had done with the Brewers, primarily through the draft and working the young players up through the M’s farm system. It was a plan that meant losing at first but in the end would result in a playoff caliber team filled with young and good players. That was the idea anyway.
Instead, with Ken Griffey Jr. returning to Seattle to play out what was assumed to be the last year of his Hall of Fame career, the Mariners astounded most pundits by putting together a winning 85-77 season in 2009—and then they tanked it in 2010, once again losing over 100 games. That performance cost manager Don Wakamatsu his job which resulted in Zduriencik’s hiring of Eric Wedge as the M’s skipper prior to the 2011 campaign. Wedge had a successful run managing the Cleveland Indians from 2003-2007 culminating in a 96-66 record in 2007 with an American League Central Division title and an appearance in the American League Championship Series where the Indians lost to the Boston Red Sox in seven games. For that season Wedge won the Sporting News and Major League Baseball’s Manager of the Year awards, but the Indians slipped over the next two seasons. Following a 65-97 year in 2009 Wedge was fired by Cleveland thus opening the door for Zduriencik to hire him in 2011.
Wedge went to work managing the team that Zduriencik was building, which by 2011 was starting to see the first players Jack had drafted or traded for arriving in Seattle. That season we got our first glimpses of Dustin Ackley, who had been drafted by the M’s out of North Carolina with the 2nd pick in the first round of the 2009 draft, and Kyle Seager, who was taken in the 3rd round that year out of the same school. First baseman Justin Smoak was also in his first full season with the M’s in 2011, having been acquired from Texas the prior year when Zduriencik traded All Star pitcher Cliff Lee to the Rangers. The young players all showed promise and across the 2011 and 2012 seasons the team did improve record wise, going from 61 wins in 2010 to 67 in 2011 and 75 in 2012.
Despite the improvement in the team’s won-lost record most of the young players who had shown promise in 2011 struggled in 2012. The exception was Kyle Seager. The 25 year old M’s 3rd baseman completed his first, full Major League season with a .259 batting average and 20 home runs. Smoak hit only .217 for the year with 19 HRs and Ackley wilted to a .226 batting average, figures far below what was expected of them. None of the other young M’s players, such as outfielder Michael Saunders or their young catcher Jesus Montero, had break out seasons either, though Montero did show some signs as a hitter with 15 homers and a .260 average.
Following the end of the 2012 season Wedge had the confrontation with Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong referred to in Part I of this preview. Both he and Zduriencik were entering the final season of their contracts in 2013 and according to the plan Jack had launched when he came to Seattle back in 2009 the Mariners should now be starting to reap the benefits from his excellent drafts and astute trades. In the off season Zduriencik added veteran hitters like Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales and the ancient Mariner Raul Ibanez to the team and it was expected that Ackley, Seager, Smoak, Saunders and Montero would all show dramatic strides. The pressure was on and the 2013 season needed to be one of significant improvement—Lincoln and Armstrong had made that much clear.
Instead the Mariners struggled through the first half of the season. An effort was made to make Jesus Montero the starting catcher, but that proved to be futile. After a month he wasn’t hitting his weight and was clearly overmatched by the duties of a major league catcher. The Mariners sent him down to Tacoma in late May and by June 1st it was announced he had a torn meniscus  in his left knee that required surgery. He also was suspended for 50 games due to being one of the players involved in the same “Biogenesis” scandal that is costing Yankees 3rd baseman Alex Rodriguez a suspended 2014 season. As a result of all of this Montero ended up being a complete bust for the M’s in 2013.
In addition Ackley continued his 2012 struggles into the start of 2013 and by the time he too was sent down to AAA Tacoma in late May he was a sub .200 hitter. Michael Saunders had gotten off to a good start but injured a shoulder while running into a wall to make a catch and never made it back to the level he was playing at before the injury. Morse also got hurt and wound up hitting .224 for the year. Ibanez, Morales and Seager all had decent years but it wasn’t enough to offset the inconsistencies of the others; and while the M’s got All Star caliber pitching from Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, the rest of the rotation, with the likes of veterans Joe Saunders and Aaron Hurang and rookie Brandon Maurer, was a train wreck. The bullpen was also inconsistent and closer Tom Wilhelmsen forgot how to close. After several blown saves he lost the job to Danny Farquhar who had come to the M’s when they traded Ichiro Suzuki to the Yankees in 2012.
All of this was just a bit too much for Eric Wedge to take. In late July he complained of light headedness and was sent to the hospital where doctors diagnosed a mild stroke. As a result he missed the next month of the season and bench coach Robbie Thompson took his place as manager. The injuries and players being sent down opened the door for more Mariners youngsters to come to “the show”. Brad Miller made the jump from the M’s AA Jackson team to AAA Tacoma and then to Seattle all within the first 3 months of the season. He finished the year as the M’s starting shortstop and showed flashes of brilliance both offensively and defensively. Likewise former 1st round picks Nick Franklin (2009 draft) and Mike Zunino (2012 draft) each made their major league debuts—Franklin (second base/shortstop) in late May and Zunino (catcher) in early June. While neither set the world on fire both showed big league talent. Also, two of the M’s heralded, young pitchers, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, made their first major league starts in September and from their performances it was obvious they had the stuff to get big league hitters out.
It was against this backdrop of young players, a new manager and Robinson Cano that the Mariners reported to the 2014 spring training a couple of months ago in Arizona. Camp had barely started for the position players when Jesus Montero, the same player who had been suspended for 50 games last season for taking performance enhancing drugs, once again made news for all the wrong reasons by reporting to the team 40 lbs overweight. By way of explaining all Jesus had to say was, “After winter ball all I did was eat.” That explanation did not sit well with Jack Zduriencik.
As reported in the Seattle Times by Ryan Divish, Zduriencik made his ire regarding Montero known to all, blasting him in the article: “We are disappointed in how he came in physically,” the M’s GM said. “It’s up to him. I have zero expectations for Jesus Montero.” While I can certainly understand Zduriencik’s frustration with Montero, the whole incident surrounding his weight leads to other questions. First, I don’t think it is correct for the M’s GM to blast a player in the press. Maybe Jack thought that by doing so he was bringing pressure to bear on Montero to shape up—or maybe he was just pissed off and lost it momentarily. Either way, his words for Montero, in my view, should have been delivered behind closed doors and in person. Raking a player in the press can cause irreparable damage, both to a players psyche and to any future relationship with the player.
Second, didn’t anyone on the Mariners know that this kid was down in Venezuela stuffing his face? Is it really true that Zduriencik was just finding out about this at spring training? If so then the Mariners have serious issues in their off season training programs and regimens. Yes, you would think the player would have more respect for himself and what is required to play this game. But you would also think that someone would be checking up on the guy and reporting to the club. The team has vast sums invested in these players. Can it really be that they don’t follow up on them in the off season? Can it really be that Zduriencik didn’t know about Montero’s eating? If he didn’t, then as a fan I am very disappointed in the organization Jack runs. And if he really did know, then—well—what a charade he perpetrated in the quote he gave to Divish as published in the Seattle Times. I am afraid that for this fan Jesus Montero’s overeating flap is a “no win scenario” for the M’s GM.
Despite Jesus Montero, by the accounts of veteran observers of past M’s springs McLendon ran a disciplined camp with a heavy concentration on hard work, competing and fundamentals. With Cano obviously taking the job at 2nd base a spirited competition arose between Brad Miller and Nick Franklin for the shortstop position which was won outright by Miller when it became obvious that he was having a monster spring, hitting nearly .400 with power (4 HRs). After being the subject of trade rumors for the last 3 weeks of spring training Franklin was finally sent to the M’s AAA Tacoma team to start the season. Something tells me we’ll be hearing from him soon, either because he is traded or because he is too good to keep in Tacoma. We’ll see.
Over the winter Zduriencik made two other veteran acquisitions, the first being first baseman/outfielder Cory Hart and the second being Logan Morrison, also an outfielder/first baseman. Hart is a former Milwaukee Brewer who was an All Star on that 2008 playoff team mentioned earlier, a fact which explains Zduriencik’s familiarity with him. When healthy Hart is a quality hitter with good power. As recently as 2012 he hit .270 with 30 home runs and 83 RBIs. The trouble is he hasn’t been healthy. He missed all of 2013 with micro-fracture surgery on both knees. In signing him to a one year $6 million deal with incentives Zduriencik is gambling he can stay healthy. Hart is a right handed bat, which the M’s need, and will mostly DH but can also play first base or outfield occasionally.
Morrison, who is a free spirit and is often known by his twitter handle of “LoMo”, was acquired from the Florida Marlins in a trade for relief pitcher Carter Caps. At one point he was considered not just one of the top Marlins prospects but one of the top prospects in the entire National League. Like Hart he has had injury issues and, as with Hart, the M’s are hoping he can stay healthy and return to the form of his first full season with the Marlins. Through 123 games that year (2011) Morrison hit 23 home runs and drove in 72. Also, he is only 26 years old and the M’s control his rights for three more years, which if he pans out is an added bonus.
Though both players will be coming north to start the season with the Mariners neither had a very productive spring leaving many of us veteran fans to wonder just who will be hitting behind Cano and protecting him in the lineup. Currently the options appear to be Justin Smoak, who had a productive spring but also has a history of regular season struggles, or any of a combination of Morrison, Hart or maybe Kyle Seager. Going into the season it appears McLendon has settled on Smoak as his cleanup hitter behind Cano, a prospect that has no successful track record to endorse it. Many of us are wondering why the M’s just don’t go and get Kendrys Morales, who is still available as a free agent, to DH behind Cano. He had a good year last season for the M’s (.277 with 23 HRs and 80 RBIs) and seems a superior hitter to any of the Mariners other options. Likely Morales is asking too much and no other big league team wants him at that price either, so it is not just the M’s. Still, the Mariners have a need and Morales would fill it, so you would think something could get done. After dropping a ton of cash on Cano it seems silly to me to now be penny pinching on getting him the protection he needs in the M’s lineup necessary to maximize his awesome potential. Things like this are what make this team so damn frustrating.
As far as the team’s pitching is concerned, spring training hadn’t even started when McLendon received the bad news that his number two starter Hisashi Iwakuma tore a tendon on the middle finger of his throwing hand when he tangled it in a net during a drill. It looks at this point like Iwakuma, who actually had a better 2013 season than “King” Felix Hernandez and who was number three in the American League Cy Young voting last year, will miss the first few weeks of the season. In addition the top young pitching prospect in the entire M’s system, Taijuan Walker, who was expected to hold down a spot in the rotation this season, developed a sore shoulder a week and a half into camp and had to be shut down. It looks like he will be OK but he also is missing the first few weeks of the season.
Of course none of this is good news for the M’s who now have to scramble to see who will follow number one starter Felix Hernandez in the rotation. At this writing it looks like the team will go with Erasmo Ramirez, rookies James Paxton and Roenis Elias, and late spring addition (acquired through a trade) Chris Young. Of these, while Paxton stands out as having the potential to be a top level pitcher for years to come, it is Elias who has the more captivating story. Four years ago he was on a boat with 25 other people escaping to Mexico from Cuba. Now the 25 year old is jumping straight to the M’s starting rotation from AA ball. Does he have the stuff to make it in the big leagues? I guess we’ll find out sooner than we, and probably he, expected.
The M’s bullpen will be comprised mostly of familiar faces from last year such as Danny Farquhar, Charlie Furbush, Yoervis Medina and Tom Wilhelmsen. The chief exception to this is another free agent Zduriencik signed, veteran closer Fernando Rodney. Rodney closed out games for the Tampa Bay Rays the last few seasons, nailing down 48 saves in 2012 and 37 last year. At 37 years old Rodney has seen it all and hopefully has enough gas left in the tank to reliably close out games for the M’s for the next year or two. If he falters likely the job will fall to Farquhar who took over when Wilhelmsen stumbled last year, saving 16 of 18 opportunities.
Based on all the above, the trouble with the M’s, and what McLendon will have to deal with if he is to be successful, is that there are way too many “ifs” on this team and not enough certainties. Robinson Cano will do what Robinson Cano does and Felix Hernandez will do what he does. Those are the certainties on the M’s. Beyond that, IF Iwakuma and Walker can get back to the rotation quickly, IF Cory Hart and Logan Morrison can stay injury free and return to form, IF Smoak and Ackley and Miller and Seager continue to develop and start to live up to their potential, IF the rotation holds together until Iwakuma and Walker are healthy and IF the bullpen holds up, the M’s would then have a chance at a successful season. Rarely in baseball do that many “ifs” become certainties in the course of one campaign.
For the Mariners, however, they will need to, for hovering over everything this season is the specter of Geoff Baker’s critical, winter tirade in the Seattle Times implying that the M’s will never win with Howard Lincoln and Jack Zduriencik running the show. Both men, and particularly Zduriencik, have this season to prove otherwise.
If nothing else, it should be interesting to watch.
By Mark Arnold
All Rights Reserved
 Please see Part I of this series “Seattle Mariners 2014 Season Preview— Part I: “There Oughta Be A Law!” earlier in this blog site for a full discussion of Baker’s Seattle Times article critical of the Mariners.
 Bill Bavasi was fired on June 16, 2008 with the season barely 2 months old. At the time the Mariners were 24-45, 21 games under .500 and had the worst record in baseball.
Considering he was 39 that season and clearly in the twilight of his career, Ken Griffey Jr. did OK in 2009 with 19 home runs and 57 RBIs. The M’s would re-sign him for 2010 but it turned out to be a disaster with Griffey performing poorly. He abruptly left the team on June 2nd in the middle of the night and set out driving across country to his home in Florida. He announced his retirement the next day. The team had been in turmoil through the prior couple of weeks due to an article by reporter Larry Larue stating that M’s manager Don Wakamatsu had failed to use Griffey in a pinch hitting role in a game because Jr. was sleeping in the clubhouse. While Wakamatsu and other players denied it, Griffey never did which gave the story some credibility. The flap made nationwide news and was referred to as “Napgate” in news media around the country.
 Don Wakamatsu was the skipper of the Mariners during the 2009 season and most of the 2010 season. With the M’s suffering another terrible season in 2010 he was fired in August.
 The Mariners acquired the then 22 year old Jesus Montero from the New York Yankees as the main piece in a trade that sent promising young pitcher Michael Pineda to the Yankees.
 Please see “Seattle Mariners 2014 Season Preview— Part I: “There Oughta Be A Law!” earlier in this blog site
 The “meniscus” is a pad of cartilage in the knee that serves to cushion it from shock and friction. Each knee has two.
 The “Biogenesis” scandal broke in early 2013 when a disgruntled employee at “Biogenesis of America” (a weight loss and hormone replacement clinic in Coral Gables, Florida) released records to a Miami newspaper that linked a number of Major and Minor league baseball players to the clinic who used it for the purpose of obtaining PEDs (performance enhancing drugs, in this case testosterone and human growth hormone.) The players included Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Nelson Cruz and Bartolo Colon among others.