So as I get back to obsessing over the Mariners, I might as well start at the top. Jack Zduriencik has to stay.
It is easy to find faults with Zduriencik. The Mariners are yet to field a decent offense under him. His trades are a mixed bag at best. Same goes for his free agent signings. Jesus Montero, Justin Smoak, and Dustin Ackley are yet to pan out as expected. The struggles of Montero, Smoak, and Ackley are the most damning because Zduriencik got the job on the strength of his ability to build up farm systems.
I hoped the Mariners would be better by now. They probably could be better with some smarter trades. Hindsight is 20/20 though, and it should not be forgotten that Zduriencik's strength should be in player development. The cupboard was also bare when Zduriencik got the job. Player development takes time, especially when starting without many prospects in the farm system.
It's too short-sighted to look at just Montero, Smoak, and Ackley. Prospects are prospects for a reason. Some pan out and some don't. It wasn't just Z and the Mariners that were high on this trio. Here is where Baseball America ranked this trio of disappointments among all baseball prospects:
- Justin Smoak: #23 in 2008, #13 in 2009
- Jesus Montero: #38 in 2008, #4 in 2009, #3 in 2010, #6 in 2011
- Dustin Ackley: #11 in 2009, #12 in 2010
The easy answer is that the Mariners, therefore, must know how to kill prospects. However, I don't buy that. Doug Fister became a surprise contributor. Carter Capps, Stephen Pryor, and to a degree Tom Wilhelmsen, are products of the M's farm system. Kyle Seager is a Z product through and through, and Brandon Maurer might prove to be a late draft pick the M's coached up into success. He had some flashes of brilliance to suggest he can figure it out. Most people would have to agree that Michael Pineda was darn good as a rookie. Right now Nick Franklin looks pretty good too. Any analysis of the farm system must consider successes with the failures. There are both in the M's system.
However, the real reason I believe in Zduriencik is the group of players just a step away from the majors. The Rainiers have the best record in AAA, thanks largely to prospects. This is a big deal; good AAA teams are often lead by "AAAA" players - guys in the prime of their career that don't have the talent to be MLB contributors, but enough experience to run circles around rawer prospects. Tacoma is lead by the likes of Brad Miller, Stefen Romero, Logan Bawcom, and until recent promotions, Mike Zunino and Nick Franklin. Prospects.
By the way, much of the prospect group above clinched a first-half title in the Southern League last year too. They are getting used to winning. They have a track record that suggests their talent overcomes a lack of experience.
Zunino, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, Franklin, and James Paxton were in Baseball America's top 100 this year. Prospects aren't sure things, and as Mariners fans we can appreciate what that means. However, it's not just Zduriencik and company saying the Mariners have promising prospects. Handfuls of top 100 prospects every year should end up as top 100 players down the road.
What we've really learned so far about Zduriencik is that he isn't great at cobbling together a roster of short-term veterans. He's not horrible at it either though. Jason Bay is decent, which is a surprise. Raul Ibanez is on the home run leaderboard at 41 years old. Oliver Perez is actually a decent lefty reliever. The jury is out on Aaron Harang and Joe Saunders. Brendan Ryan is one-dimensional, but without him the Mariners might have a zero-dimensional shortstop. Chone Figgins was a pretty epic flop, and Jack Cust wasn't an answer at DH. Ken Griffey Jr. was a good enough answer...for one year, but then he hung around for part of another. This is a mixed bag for sure, but mixed mean there is good with the bad, not just bad all over.
My main point is that every general manager has their strengths and weaknesses, and the Mariners are yet to reap the rewards of Zduriencik's greatest strength. They should in time. I'm willing to call Smoak and Montero busts, but the majority of Z's prospects haven't been around long enough to say anything definitive. However, scouting organizations keep seeing great promise in the M's farm systems. In the meantime, waiting for the prospects, Z has tried his best to plug all sorts of holes that were left for him. Predictably, they've been filled by a mixed bag of mediocre to downright terrible talent.
Bad organizations turn over their leadership frequently. The issue has a chicken-or-the-egg feel - maybe bad organizations lose alot because they turn over their leadership too much, or maybe the turnover is simply the necessary aftermath of losing. There are probably examples of both.
In the Mariners case, Zduriencik should be extended one or two more years. His plan shows signs of working. The last thing to come are wins at the MLB level when building within the farm system. I'd be singing a different tune if the M's farm system was mediocre, but it's not. The Mariners would be smart to see their current plan all the way through. They haven't quite yet.