Hope Zduriencik won’t claim his reserved spot on hot seat

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.comApril 12, 2013 

The good news for Jack Zduriencik is that it’s early in the baseball season.

The not-so-good news? It’s early. If the next 51/2 months worth of roster moves resemble some of the wrong moves the Seattle Mariners’ general manager has made since the last week of spring camp, Zduriencik will be looking for work.

And to think that things went so swimmingly in Arizona. Justin Smoak, a disappointment since Zduriencik identified him as the prize piece of the 2010 Cliff Lee trade with Texas, appeared ready for a breakout summer. Dustin Ackley, whose regression from a solid rookie year was attributed to a nagging case of bone spurs in his left ankle, looked healthy again. Veterans such as Raul Ibañez and Kendrys Morales were showing how focus matters to the sometimes unfocused Jesus Montero.

The pitching rotation, meanwhile, was shaping up as an intriguing mix of ferocious talent (Felix Hernandez), dependably serviceable veterans (Hisashi Iwakuma and Joe Saunders), a third-year starter envisioned as competent (Blake Beavan) and a rookie whose stuff and poise vaulted him on a fast track that bypassed Triple-A (Brandon Maurer).

A superior staff it wasn’t, but Zduriencik figured the Mariners had enough decent arms to allow right-hander Jon Garland – a winner of 133 games over his career – to follow his bliss elsewhere.

Garland, who missed 2012 while recovering from reconstructive shoulder surgery,

wanted assurance that he’d start. When he got none, the 33-year-old packed his bags and signed with the Colorado Rockies, who were more desperate for a decent sinkerball pitcher than the Mariners were.

The decision to part with Garland is regrettable because he’s a better, cheaper, younger candidate to stabilize the bottom end of the Seattle rotation than the soon-to-be-36 Aaron Harang, obtained Thursday in a trade with, yep, Colorado.

That Zduriencik was forced to ply the Rockies’ scrapheap for a starter is telling. It tells us that Beavan’s role has been changed to long reliever – he’ll replace Kameron Loe, designated for assignment after surrendering six home runs in 62/3 innings – and it tells us that Maurer’s status in the rotation is tenuous. (Definition of tenuous: If Maurer, scheduled to start Sunday against the Rangers, is rocked a third straight time, he’ll be sent to Tacoma for the seasoning he clearly needs.)

Most of all, it tells us the Mariners are a mess. Ten games into a season that opened with reasonably optimistic expectations, and they’re trading for a starter the pitching-thin Rockies didn’t want?

Zduriencik can’t be blamed for the shoulder injury Michael Saunders sustained on Wednesday, when the right fielder – among the few everyday players hitting his weight – crashed into the fence and ended up on the disabled list. The absence of Saunders might have been mitigated by Casper Wells, a proficient defensive outfielder acquired in what now can be called Zduriencik’s worst trade: the 2011 deal that sent starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Tigers.

Except Wells, whose periodic attention lapses did not endear him to manager Eric Wedge, was jettisoned on the last day of camp, victim of a roster-cut challenge match that came down to him and Jason Bay.

A 28-year-old who has yet to tap his potential (Wells) was pitted against a 34-year-old long south of his prime (Bay). Money wasn’t an issue – neither commanded a sophisticated contract – and Zduriencik made a call that’s threatening to haunt him.

Which is too bad because Zduriencik’s work over the winter generally garnered positive reviews. The three-team trade that brought Michael Morse to Seattle from Washington, while sending productive backup catcher John Jaso to Oakland, has been justified by Morse’s emergence as a threat to hit 40 homers.

Starting pitcher Jason Vargas to the Angels for the heart-of-the-order batter that is Kendrys Morales? At first glance, I liked the deal. Now that I’ve watched Morales for almost two weeks, I like the deal even more.

But Zduriencik, whose reputation as an astute talent scout in Milwaukee earned him a long-awaited gig as a general manager in Seattle, is depending on some kids to perform, and the kids are lost.

Smoak showed up at Safeco Field on Thursday with a .156 batting average, a tepid number that still trumped Kyle Seager’s .147, Montero’s .133 and Ackley’s .106. Speaking of tepid numbers: Smoak, Montero and Ackley, without an extra-base hit among them, brought a combined 12 total bases into the opener of the series with the Rangers.

That’s 12 more total bases than Martha Stewart has, and three more total bases than former Braves pitcher Tony Cloninger once collected in a 1966 game against the Giants. So it’s not as if Smoak, Montero and Ackley have been reduced to complete irrelevance.

Still, Zduriencik needs these guys to wake up. He needs Harang to assert himself as a starting pitcher. He needs Bay to justify his skepticism about Wells. He needs his team to recall all those good vibes we heard about in spring training, before the lowly Houston Astros settled into Safeco Field and put a harsh on the Cactus League buzz.

A comprehensive clearance of the Mariners’ front office remains a last resort. But if there are further replications of the first series of the season’s first homestand – small crowds watching a bad team embarrass the home team – front-office clearances are imminent.

They’ll begin with the replacement of Jack Zduriencik.

john.mcgrath@thenewstribune.com

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