On any other day, the Seattle Mariners’ decision to send catcher Mike Zunino to Tacoma would have qualified as stunning news. But Zunino’s demotion was a mere afterthought Friday morning, when team president and CEO Kevin Mather announced that he’d fired general manager Jack Zduriencik.
Although the moves were unrelated, there is a correlation between the stalled development of the former No. 3 overall pick and the GM once regarded as a superior talent scout: Since Zduriencik was brought in to overhaul the organization’s decrepit farm system, the Mariners whiffed on prospects the way Zunino whiffs on fastballs in the dirt.
Of the six top first-round draft choices selected under Zduriencik, the only player remaining on the big-league roster is starting pitcher Taijuan Walker — a modest success story requiring a caveat: Zduriencik offered Walker to Arizona in a 2013 trade package for outfielder Justin Upton, who used a contract clause to sink the deal.
If the Mariners enter September in a playoff hunt, Zduriencik’s failure to identify and nurture top draft talent could be forgiven. But the team, which wasn’t eliminated from the 2014 wild-card derby until the final afternoon of the season, never gained any traction in an AL West race many pundits expected it to win.
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Of all the numbers underscoring Zduriencik’s struggles in Seattle — four losing seasons in six full years, four managers, $36 million wasted on the free-agent bust that was Chone Figgins — none is more damning than 30. That’s how many hours the 2015 Mariners have owned a record over .500. They beat the Angels in the opener, lost the next two, and spent the five months that followed in a line-dance mode: one step forward, two steps back.
A breakdown of the Mariners’ woes points to a 29-36 record at Safeco Field, which poses obvious advantages to athletic, defensively adept players who can run and obvious disadvantages to plodders who can’t. Zduriencik’s acquisitions over the years revealed a stubborn fixation on the latter: Mike Sweeney, Jack Cust, Michael Morse, Kendrys Morales, Justin Smoak, Corey Hart, Jesus Montero, Rickie Weeks, Mark Trumbo.
So now the page has been turned, with Mather finally emerging to turn it. Until Friday, the CEO kept a profile lower than a cicada burrowed in the soil. But he traveled to Chicago, where the Mariners are taking on the White Sox in a weekend series, to inform Zduriencik that the organization would be seeking somebody else to build and oversee a roster.
The timing makes sense. Had Mather given Zduriencik the chance to finish his seventh season as a professional courtesy, the Mariners might have deprived themselves of a quality replacement. A pool of candidates that’s deep on Aug. 28 is not as deep on, say, Oct. 4.
While Mather’s specific preference is anybody’s guess, he won’t be looking for a novice general manager.
“We’re not going to take three years,” he said, for somebody “to learn on the job.”
Get used to seeing some names in the conversation such as Kevin Towers, Frank Wren and Josh Byrnes. Each has put together a comprehensive résumé, but remember, there’s a reason each is in the conversation. They had jobs they coveted, and lost.
No candidate is more intriguing than Jerry Dipoto, the former Angels general manager who resigned this season amid reports he never was on the same page with skipper Mike Scioscia. Literally.
Dipoto is a proponent of advanced stats — an analytics guy, in baseball lingo — and the information he passed on to his old-school manager wasn’t typically acknowledged with a compliment along the lines of “Thanks, DiPo! I just love how those numbers you’ve studied will affect my strategy!”
When Mather conducts his interviews, he should know that the Mariners have every potential to achieve the status of the pro football team that plays its games down the street. The Seattle Seahawks, with deep-pocketed ownership and rabid fans consistently rocking one of the great stadiums in the land, are regarded as a destination point for players, coaches and executives.
The Mariners offer all of that for its next general manager, and more: If the GM puts together a roster that wins a World Series, it’ll be an accomplishment worthy of a statue.
Jack Zduriencik leaves Seattle without a statue, which seems almost unfair. He gave his manager seven or eight of them every time they took the field.
WORST MISTAKES OF THE JACK ZDURIENCIK ERA
1. Acquisition of outfielder Milton Bradley, whose troubles both on the field and off it were no secret. Bradley’s toxic presence poisoned clubhouse.
2. Shoddy homework on trade that sent Cliff Lee to Rangers turned into P.R. nightmare that cost Carmen Fusco, Zduriencik’s longtime friend, his job as pro scouting director.
3. Free agent Chone Figgins, guaranteed $36 million over four years, was seen as a top-of-the-order catalyst. He hit .227 and was released after three seasons.
4. Of six first-round draft choices signed since 2009, the only success has been the development of starting pitcher Taijuan Walker.