Jack Zduriencik and the Seattle Mariners are caught between worlds.
The draft picks Zduriencik and staff have made the past two summers aren’t yet ready for the big time. The mistakes of the past – the Bill Bavasi regime and a few of Zduriencik’s own missteps – have not yet been cleared away.
And the team just lost 101 games.
As Zduriencik moves into his third offseason with the club, he needs to hire a manager and coaching staff, find middle of the order power and production and a No. 2 pitcher behind Felix Hernandez, and probably do it all without raising payroll.
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The holes to be filled are deep ones.
The third spot in their batting order – where teams generally put their most productive hitter – was a nightmare in 2010, when first Don Wakamatsu, then Daren Brown tried six players there.
Milton Bradley, Russell Branyan, Franklin Gutierrez, Casey Kotchman, Jose Lopez and Mike Sweeney each hit third.
“We didn’t have a true No. 3 hitter, we didn’t have a true cleanup hitter,” Brown said. “You can’t focus on what you don’t have during the season, you look at what you do have and make the best of it.”
The best the Seattle offense mustered was historically bad – they scored fewer runs than any American League team since the advent of the designated hitter. Every National League team, with the pitcher batting, scored more runs in 2010.
“We haven’t scored a lot of runs. You look at your offense the last two years and realize if there’s a way to help your offense, that would be an important factor,” Zduriencik said. “I would hope that some of our players come back to become the players we think they are.”
That offense crippled a pitching staff that had the fourth-best earned-run average in the American League – lower than that of the Twins and Yankees, who are in the playoffs.
So, what do the Mariners do for 2011?
Figure their payroll won’t move much from the $92 million paid out this past season, then consider this: The Mariners owe six players – Ichiro Suzuki, Bradley, Chone Figgins, Felix Hernandez, Gutierrez and Jack Wilson – a total of $57 million.
Seattle has options on Branyan ($5 million) and Lopez ($4.5 million) with minimal buyouts.
And among those players arbitration-eligible are David Aardsma, Brandon League, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Jason Vargas and Josh Wilson.
If the Mariners can’t negotiate lower contracts, Lopez and Branyan are probably gone. It’s possible, too, that rather than pay Aardsma – who saved 30 games – what an arbiter might award him next spring, they could trade him this winter.
None of that gets Seattle an inch closer to filling their needs.
Which brings up another conundrum. The Mariners must fill out their roster with 19 players using about $36 million. That doesn’t make major acquisitions likely.
The Mariners might entertain trading Figgins simply to clear money to use elsewhere, but remember when Zduriencik – operating from a position of strength – traded Cliff Lee and Mark Lowe to Texas for Justin Smoak and three minor leaguers, he also sent the Rangers $2.25 million.
Moving Figgins, who batted .260 and has four years left on his contract, would almost certainly mean sending cash along in the deal, without much of a return in big-league talent.
Can the Mariners improve through trades?
Ichiro isn’t going anywhere, Figgins and Aardsma aren’t going to bring back a middle-of-the-order hitter, so if the Mariners hope to capture a bat, they’d have to package some of their young talent – and other teams are going to want the same prospects Seattle wants to keep.
“You have to have guys who drive the baseball,” Zduriencik said. “They’re not easy to find. They’re very expensive or you have to grow them. And if you grow them, it takes patience.”
The minor league system Zduriencik is so pleased with does have potential middle-of-the-lineup hitters, from Rich Poythress, who had 130 RBI in Single-A High Desert last year, to teammate Johermyn Chavez, who batted .315 with 32 home runs.
They’re not expected to be big-league ready for opening day next year, but anything is possible.
The young hitters the Mariners did play in 2010 didn’t pop any eyes with their hitting:
Catcher Adam Moore (.195), outfielder Michael Saunders (.211), Smoak (.218) , Greg Halman (.138), Matt Mangini (.211) and Matt Tuiasosopo (.173).
Will patience and coaching make them better? Probably. Will it make them the players the Mariners badly need? That’s uncertain, but the team may try to find out next year.
“You’re going to hope young kids emerge, you’re going to hope that guys who had down years go home and come back ready to have the kinds of years they should have,” Zduriencik said.
“The question is, ‘How many young guys can you afford to have on your team at one time?’
“You want to give your club an opportunity to win. But, the reality of it is that you are going to have some young players who are just not seasoned,” Zduriencik said. “During that process, the decision that has to be made is how many guys like that at one time can you give the opportunity?
“Sometimes you don’t have any other recourse except to say this is what we have to do.”
It’s entirely possible 2011 might be one of those times for the Seattle Mariners. They are caught between where they were last season and where they want to be, without a great deal of roster flexibility.