Since the start of the 2009 season, no team has won fewer games than the Astros, and during that window they’ve picked up a new general manager. The Marlins have won the second-fewest games, and they technically changed general managers. So did the Cubs, with the third-fewest wins. So did the Rockies, with the fourth-fewest wins. And now so have the Mariners, with the fifth-fewest. Word went out Friday morning, on the firing of Jack Zduriencik, and though no one expected the specific timing, the writing had probably been on the wall. Think about the Mariners. Think about what you think about when you think about the Mariners. That’s why they made this decision. It felt inevitable, with the only question being, when would the blade drop?
If you’re reading this, I’m guessing you’re no stranger to FanGraphs. If you’re no stranger to FanGraphs, I’m guessing you’ve seen a certain reference once or twice before. It’s this one. Years ago, FanGraphs tried to feature organizational rankings, and though we no longer do that, people have long memories, and in between 2009 and 2010, the site ranked the Mariners at No. 6, just above — also hilariously — the Rockies. A big reason was because the FG staff at that time collectively believed in the new Zduriencik front office. People laugh because, by and large, the Mariners have sucked. People laugh because, by and large, the front office seemingly took a step back. But I think this is particularly interesting to reflect upon. Say what you will about the ranking, but that’s what the staff believed. And not too long after, the front office completely changed its identity.
I’m not really sure how much I’m supposed to review. If you’re at all interested in this story, you already know the basics of what went down. Zduriencik took over a shipwreck of an organization. The team, his first season, was a pleasant surprise, especially given how few resources were in place when he was hired. Then came the complete devastation of 2010, when Zduriencik attempted to build a winning team around run prevention. It wasn’t insane. That team had two of the best pitchers in the world. The defense was supposed to be tremendous. The lineup projected to be light, but adequate. It wasn’t crazy to see a successful club. Last year’s Royals didn’t have a single regular finish with an .800 OPS. A promising Mariners team lost 101 times. If that team scored any runs, I don’t remember them.
Chone Figgins collapsed immediately. Jose Lopez collapsed immediately. Franklin Gutierrez started suffering from a disease most people have never heard of. Casey Kotchman hit .217, in between hitting .268 and .306. The team wasn’t built well, in that it seemed thin and barely average, but almost everything with the position players went wrong, and this proved to be a turning point. Much of what the Mariners went on to do was influenced heavily by what they did, and didn’t do, before 2010.
There wasn’t much debating how the Mariners were trying to build, up to that point. And then there wasn’t much debating, after that point. It began with run prevention and with marketplace bargain-hunting. It turned to a focus on sluggers. A couple years ago, Geoff Baker aired a lot of peoples’ dirty laundry. Among others, Eric Wedge and our own Tony Blengino gave their sides of stories that painted Jack Zduriencik in a negative light. Some of the details, I’m sure, are either partially or wholly untrue, but one little excerpt has stuck with me:
In 2011, Zduriencik imported longtime associate Ted Simmons as a senior adviser and increased responsibilities for second-year assistant GM Jeff Kingston, pushing Blengino from his inner circle. Zduriencik received a three-year contract extension that August and Blengino said Zduriencik told him: “Now, we do things my way.”
I don’t know if that’s an exact quote, but the idea is supported by the behavior. Somewhere during the Zduriencik years, the front office’s pattern changed. The guiding philosophies changed. An oversimplification of what happened: early on, Zduriencik listened to his analytical advisors, who preached things like FIP and UZR. Then the resulting model bombed, and Zduriencik decided to try something he understood better himself. The Mariners effectively got a new GM without anyone changing positions.
You wonder what would’ve happened had 2010 not been a colossal bust. Some of that was just plain bad luck. But here’s one reason why we don’t do organizational rankings anymore: people can act unpredictably. At the time, the staff couldn’t have known Zduriencik was going to shift his preferences. It’s not often that a front office undergoes a pole reversal. That’s what happened in Seattle, and the result was another extended stretch of losing. Last year, like 2009, suggested that the playoffs could be around the corner, but this year, like 2010, has shattered any thoughts of positivity.
It can all be so hard to evaluate. The early years were promising, yet they didn’t lead anywhere, and 2010 was dreadful. The later years seemed worse, from an outsider’s perspective, yet last season saw the Mariners a win shy of additional play. The biggest problem was DH, so the team signed a DH, and he’s put together an MVP-level offensive season, and the team blows. There’s no easy trend line, here. People have poked fun at Zduriencik for years. People poked fun at Dayton Moore for years, until his plan finally came together. Last year’s Mariners finished with two fewer wins than the Royals, and a superior run differential. Something special could’ve happened. Something special happened for Kansas City, and it’s bought Moore the benefit of the doubt.
The most perplexing variable for the Zduriencik front office is that concerning the player development. This, again, is nothing new — this is something people have observed for years. Zduriencik wanted to build mostly around a homegrown core. Before 2010, Jesus Montero was the Baseball America No. 4 overall prospect. Dustin Ackley was No. 11. Justin Smoak was No. 13. Occupying lesser levels, Nick Franklin was highly thought of, and so has been Mike Zunino. Ditto a number of others. Objectively, there hasn’t been a shortage of talent. There has been a shortage of results. The hardest thing in the world is figuring out who to blame.
I mean, I guess it’s easy — it’s Zduriencik. The GM is accountable for everything, and it’s his say-so who’s doing all the instructing. The Mariners would’ve been far better off had the blue-chippers played like blue-chippers. But it’s impossible to succeed long-term if you aren’t pulling up fresh new talent from your own system, and the Mariners haven’t been able to rely on it. This has been the biggest hurdle, and the most frustrating, because we still can’t analyze player development in any meaningful way, and all we can say right now is the Mariners seem like they’ve been bad at it, while, say, the Cardinals seem like they’ve been good at it. We can’t explain that, thoroughly. It’s just what is, and it’s a huge reason why Zduriencik’s out of a job.
For a while, he’s been an easy individual to criticize. He hasn’t portrayed himself as a progressive thinker. None of his teams have made the playoffs. It’s been said he’s less than a pleasure to work with, he’s done some disrespectful things to former employees, and he’s been frustrating in negotiation, in part because he would propose trades and then pull them off the table. Many people didn’t love working with Zduriencik. Many people didn’t love negotiating with Zduriencik. To a great extent, that only matters if the team is disappointing. If the Mariners were winning, no one would care. When the Mariners were winning, no one cared. At a certain point, winning does become everything.
Which brought Zduriencik down. There wasn’t enough winning. When the wins aren’t there in sufficient number, people will take a more critical look, and the Mariners decided they want a new architect. Ultimately, they felt like they gave Zduriencik enough of a chance. His plans didn’t work out, and now the Mariners figure someone else will give them a better shot of reaching the playoffs, and soon.
Which, maybe. That should always be the question: does the standing general manager make a team more likely to be good soon than those general managers who might potentially be available? When enough doubt enters the mind, it’s time for interviews. The Mariners will interview a great number of people. Whatever they do, we’ll all have an opinion too soon.
We learned that from the Jack Zduriencik front office. The front office that morphed at the first sign of trouble. The front office that got lousy returns from some very promising veterans. The front office that hit big on last winter’s analytically-panned free-agent blockbuster. The front office that assembled plenty of highly-regarded young talent, but couldn’t get them to do anything. There are so many different ways this could have gone. Even with just a little better luck. I’m sure that’s how Zduriencik sees it himself. It’s been a weird and windy era. The small sample of results just got big enough. More than anything, the Mariners ran out of faith. Now they’re looking to fall for another smooth talker.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.