LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The moves the Seattle Mariners made at the 2010 baseball winter meetings weren’t sexy.
They didn’t swoop in and steal Carl Crawford. They weren’t bidding on Cliff Lee. General manager Jack Zduriencik didn’t make a massive three-team, 11-player trade like he did two years ago.
The Mariners were minor players on a tight budget at the swanky Swan and Dolphin Resort
Perhaps the biggest splash came when Seattle brought back former catcher Miguel Olivo, signing the free-swinging free agent to a head-scratching 2-year, $7 million contract.
So was there anything optimistic to take from the meetings?
Yes, there was a moment on Wednesday when the always-controlled and cautious Zduriencik took a break from creatively not answering questions about possible moves to talk about the attitude amongst the young players the Mariners were likely to rely on this season.
In the days before, he used the phrase: “No one is on scholarship” a few times.
But on that day, he expanded on what that meant to him and to the young players. What followed was 10 minutes of Zduriencik speaking with passion and emotion about the idea of what it takes to not just be a major league player, but to be a good or even great major league player.
“If you are not preparing yourself, and you are not coming in here and realizing that this a whole lot more than just stepping on a major league field and living a major league life, then you are missing the message,” Zduriencik said, his voice raising. “And you aren’t promised anything.”
Zduriencik said he delivered this message to several young players at the end of last season’s 101-loss debacle.
Why? Were those young players guilty of such attitudes?
“It was to grab talented players and get their attention,” he said. “There was nothing hostile about the conversations. It was heartfelt, with care, with how a player views himself.”
But the message to players like Justin Smoak, Michael Saunders and Adam Moore went beyond Zduriencik’s words.
They could see it in Zduriencik’s actions with Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez.
Under the previous front office, they were labeled the shortstop and second baseman of the future. They were given healthy contract extensions, and played without any real threat of losing their job.
What transpired was complacency, and both players regressed.
Betancourt bulked up and his defense faltered. At the plate, he was still swinging at just about any pitch tossed his way. Betancourt was not a better player than when he debuted in the big leagues; in a lot of ways, he was worse.
Lopez continually showed up to spring training in poor shape, and his range at second base diminished to the point the Mariners took a top free agent third baseman – Chone Figgins – and put him at second base, then moved Lopez to third.
At the plate, he continued to swing early and often. He showed signs of power, but became infatuated with it.
Even after he set career highs in home runs and RBI in 2009, the Mariners tried to trade him in the offseason.
When Zduriencik took over, it only took a half-season for Betancourt to be dealt. The Mariners finally traded Lopez this offseason, opting to acquire a pitcher who has never pitched in the big leagues as opposed to picking up the $4 million option for a one-time All-Star.
It was Zduriencik’s way of saying, “These attitudes may have been accepted in the past, but won’t be tolerated anymore.”
Baseball people like to use the term, “he gets it,” when a player has an understanding of the commitment it takes to be a good major league player.
Raul Ibañez gets it. It’s why he’s still playing.
“It’s about people that want to improve,” he said to me a few years back. “It’s part of your personality. It’s because you love doing this and you have this unquenchable thirst to do this. It goes beyond baseball to whatever you feel passionate about. You put everything you have in it to find ways to improve.”
Not every player does. Betancourt didn’t get it. Lopez seemed to get it at times.
But Zduriencik isn’t waiting around for players to figure it out on their own. Instead, he’s forcing the issue by delivering these messages.
“You need to realize how important what you’re doing is to your life and your career,” Zduriencik said. “You’re in the big leagues and you have a nice income, but do you really realize how important this is for you to be successful?”
For guys like Smoak, Saunders and Moore, these next few seasons will be important in their development. If they are going to be successful big league players, they can’t afford to waste them.
“You don’t get these years back,” Zduriencik said. “When I’m young I can create what I’m going to be, but if I let that go by me, I can’t reach back when I’m older.”
The words were genuine and heartfelt. You can tell he cares and wants his players to be great.
He may even want it more than some of the players.
As long he’s with the Mariners, he will continue to deliver that message.
“As a GM of the ball club, it’s my responsibility for the guys on this club,” he said. “I might not be right, but I have the right to address it.”
Of course, even if Zduriencik, new manager Eric Wedge or his coaches deliver the message continually, it’s still up to players to deliver.
“At the end of the day, none of us can make them do it,” he said emphatically. “We can present it to them. We can get their attention. But they have to act upon it.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners