Zduriencik motivated to improve Mariners

ryan.divish@thenewstribune.comDecember 2, 2012 

Expectations have changed for Jack Zduriencik as he heads into Monday’s start of baseball’s winter meetings in Nashville.

In years past, there was an understanding and reluctant acceptance of a rebuilding philosophy. Plus, bloated contracts and budget restrictions were recognized hindrances.

Entering his fifth season as general manager of the Mariners, Zduriencik faces a different attitude from fans toward the organization – impatience.

Granted, rebuilding takes time, but after only one winning season in four years under Zduriencik, fans expect a competitive team in 2013.

Zduriencik is in the final year of a two-year contract extension, and he’s facing not only a demand to improve the team, but to add significant offensive punch.

After four years as one of the worst offensive teams in the American League, the Mariners under Zduriencik must add a legitimate bat or two. Marginal past signings like Jack Cust or Russell Branyan simply won’t cut it.

This offseason, with the bloated contracts of Ichiro Suzuki, Brandon League and others off the books, and a reported possible bump in payroll from $83 million to $91 million, Zduriencik is in position to do something he’s never been able to do before.

“We have some flexibility, yes, just because of the removal of some of the contracts,” Zduriencik said. “There’s some room to try to do some things.”

But “some things” might not be a high enough goal. Fans want a headline-maker. They want a recognizable name.

Zduriencik understands the mindset, but it might not be prudent.

“Sometimes it appears the vogue thing is to jump in and do something because you get the headlines and a big splash,” Zduriencik said. “But last year we walked out of (Dallas) and the teams that made huge splashes, it didn’t work out exactly how they wanted. You have to do what is best for your organization in the long term.”

Perhaps Zduriencik was thinking of the Angels, who signed Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson, or the Marlins, who signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buerhle and Heath Bell. Neither team made the playoffs and Miami conducted a fire sale at season’s end to clear those salaries.

Zduriencik sees cautionary tales like these as examples of flawed thinking.

“I’m not going to go out and try to be motivated and have that motivational factor be to make a statement, make a splash,” Zduriencik said. “I’d like to make a splash, period, because I want to bring a good player here. But I wouldn’t do it for the sake of just to do it. I would do it because it makes sense and it’s the right thing for us to do and continues with the plan that we put in place when I got here.”

A thin free-agent market got leaner when the Braves signed former Tampa Bay center fielder B.J. Upton this week.

The biggest name is Texas outfielder Josh Hamilton. The former MVP and five-time All-Star is a dominating middle-of-the-order batter who has averaged 28 homers and 101 RBI with a .912 on-base plus slugging percentage (OBP) the past four seasons in Texas.

However, questions about his health and durability and his desire for a 7-year contract have made the Mariners circumspect. Zduriencik has said he doubts Seattle will figure into the Hamilton sweepstakes.

That leaves such players as Yankees outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, Rangers catcher/first baseman Mike Napoli and outfielder Michael Bourn as possibilities.

Swisher wants a long-term contract paying more than $100 million, and the Mariners have already met with Napoli, who is seeking a four-year contract. After those players, there is a significant dropoff in talent.

Zduriencik’s last major free agent signing – Chone Figgins – was a disaster that the team will continue to pay for in 2013. . Figgins was released a few days ago, but the Mariners owe him $8 million in 2013, the remainder of his four-year, $36 million contract.

Has the experience made Zduriencik hesitant about going after a free agent again?

“I’m not going to be gun shy because of what happened with Chone Figgins,” he said. “It’s just one of those things that happened. I think you can go through every team in baseball that has faced a free-agent signing or a trade that hasn’t worked out. You can’t back away from doing what you think is the right thing. It made a lot of sense at the time.”

With a weak free agent class, a trade for a hitter is a possibility. Rumors have swirled that the Mariners are interested in Royals designated hitter Billy Butler and Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton.

To make that sort of move, the Mariners would probably have to give up at least one of their three prized pitching prospects – Danny Hultzen, James Paxton or Taijuan Walker – along with a position player or two. But that might be a necessary consequence to obtain a key hitter.

Besides improving the offense, Zduriencik is looking to increase depth of starting pitching. The 2013 starting rotation projects to include Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas and Hisashi Iwakuma. Erasmo Ramirez, Blake Beavan, Hector Noesi, Hultzen, Paxton and others will vie for the other spots.

“Everyone in baseball wants to add pitching,” Zduriencik said. “We have had some talks with free agent pitchers, and talks with some pitchers coming here via trade. If we could do something, we are certainly open to it.”

Zduriencik can’t afford to disregard any enticing possibility. His future with the organization depends on it.

“I think we have enough dialogues going that we can do some things,” he said. “I’m going to be open and if the right situation is there and we think it’s the right situation to make a deal, whether it’s a two- or three-year deal, or depending on who the player is, I don’t think we’re going to shy away from it. We’re trying to do something that makes sense for this club.”

Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 ryan.divish@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish

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