Long before Jack Zduriencik had one of those impossibly long titles – executive vice president and general manager, baseball operations – he was a baseball fan, and a realist.
When asked in spring training where he thought the Seattle Mariners stacked up in the American League West, his answer was always the same.
“I always said ‘We’re the fourth best team in our division – we lost 101 games,” Zduriencik said. “I wouldn’t ever talk about our record this year, I never concentrated on it. What I wanted were players who played hard and cared about this franchise and this community.
“Talent wins, and until we raise our talent level we need maximum effort. I think the fact that we’ve played 31 one-run games, come from behind so many times this season – that speaks to the character of a team.”
No one would mistake the 2009 Mariners with the 2001 team – this team has scored fewer runs than anyone in the game most of the season. But as importantly, these aren’t the 2008 Mariners, either.
For one thing, they’re 35-34 instead of 24-45 heading into their 70th game tonight.
Zduriencik, however, must separate the fan from the GM occasionally, and he knows that the Mariners’ record on June 23 isn’t the yardstick by which to measure progress in the franchise.
So, in his mind, what is the state of the Seattle Mariners?
“The pitching has been wonderful, and I have to credit (pitching coach) Rick Adair and (bullpen coach) John Wetteland,:” Zduriencik said. “You look at the work they’ve done with Jarrod Washburn, Erik Bedard, Felix Hernandez, David Aardsma – it’s been remarkable.
“So many pitchers have stepped up for us. Players like Garrett Olson, Jason Vargas, Chris Jakubauskas.
“That pitching has allowed us to stay in games all season. “
The fan in Zdurienck reappears, and he smiles at a thought.
“Offensively, what you’d love to have is one more big bat in the middle of the order. If we had that, we might make it a lot more interesting in the American League West,” he said. “Right now, we have to hope some guys get hot – guys like Ken Griffey Jr. and Adrian Beltre.
“A win like Friday night’s, when Griffey homered to tie the game, that’s contagious. Players come in the next day proud to wear the uniform, and they want to get after it again. That’s part of an identity we’re building.”
The operative word there is “building.” Zduriencik, in his first season as GM, knows this team is very much a work in progress.
“You look at our minor league system, we don’t have a Felix Hernandez waiting in Triple-A, we don’t have that player that everyone says can’t miss. We have guys we’re counting on, and they’ll get their opportunities,” he said.
“If I’m in Tacoma right now, I know opportunities are available in Seattle. We’ve already had examples – Jason Vargas, Garrett Olson, Sean White, Mike Carp, Chris Woodward, Denny Stark. What you hope for in any system is the opportunity to advance, to play well and get that chance.
“You look at this roster – Rob Johnson, Franklin Gutierrez, David Aardsma, Russell Branyan – they all got opportunities and seized them,” he said.
More opportunities are coming.
“With Endy Chavez out for the season, we have to look at the big picture with what we do. You take a young outfielder like Michael Saunders, He has to be ready for the jump to the majors, and he has to be ready to succeed here,” Zduriencik said. “Timing is always a factor with young players. You don’t rush players just to take a look. That’s not fair to the player.”
What Zduriencik wanted to see, beginning in spring, was a change in the approach of some players – an acceptance of accountability. For that, he relied upon manager Don Wakamatsu.
“Don has made a statement at times this year: That’s not acceptable. This isn’t what we expect,” Zduriencik said.
“In January, he said the level of expectations was going to be raised. The bar was going to be higher. We want you to be a Mariner. We’d love you to be here for years to come, and some of you will dictate that for yourselves. Some of you will want to be here and some of you won’t want to be here.
“But we are raising the level of expectations over what we want these guys to become. We want them to be professional, we want them to be prepared and approach this game in the right way. We’re not going to accept anything less.
“In the end, talent wins games. But you have to prepare to win, you have to play hard, and that’s what I’ve wanted to see,” Zduriencik said.
He’s well aware that the game can be seen from different perspectives. Zduriencik saw that last week in San Diego.
“If I’m sitting with (Padres GM) Kevin Towers and we make two bunts that they misplay, I’m saying ‘That’s great on our part’ and he’s saying, ‘We can’t field a bunt.’ ” Zduriencik said, laughing. “But, the perspective is that you don’t give up. You’re hoping for a break, that somebody misplays a ball, that you hustle and something good happens.”
Asked about the trading deadline, Zduriencik returns to GM mode.
“We aren’t aggressively pursuing anything, but I listen,” he said. “Other teams call or I call them – it’s what GMs do. I want to stay in this race as long as possible, and I want to keep the big picture in mind. You have to think not only about right now but down the line, what’s best for this club?
“I want to be as good as I can be with this ballclub right here, right now. I want this club to stay in it and who the hell knows what will happen? An injury to another club or another player somewhere else changes an awful lot of things.”
AT THIS POINT
The Mariners’ record after 69 games the past nine seasons:
Place = position in AL West; GB = games behind in AL West; GA = games ahead in first place of AL West