The skies are blue, the weather is finally warm, and the best part of a baseball season is ready to begin. But for the Seattle Mariners, a return to the field does not mean the happy resumption of a playoff run.
Seattle brings a 36-51 record – the worst record in the American League and fifth-worst record in big league baseball – into its 7:10 p.m. game tonight against the Texas Rangers. The Mariners are 161/2 games behind in the American League West. Third-place Oakland is 71/2 games ahead of Seattle.
Sure, the Mariners weren’t expected to win the division. But this?
So far, 2012 harkens to the 101-loss seasons of 2008 and 2010, which should cause Mariners fans to feel a chill as cold as an April night game at Safeco Field. Seattle is on pace to lose 95 games, the same as in 2011.
But is this season different? The more pertinent question is whether the Mariners are a better organization than they were at the low point of 2008, when the team found it necessary to fire manager John McLaren and general manager Bill Bavasi.
The answer from Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge is yes. And their feeling is backed by two observers not drawing a paycheck from the team – ESPN’s Keith Law and Baseball America’s Conor Glassey.
“It would be hard to be in worse shape,” said Law, a former assistant to the general manager in Toronto and now an analyst.
“They are definitely in a better place. Whether that’s going to be good enough for ownership, whether that’s good enough for the fans, is a different question.”
Glassey said the Mariners are better simply because the talent at the minor league levels has improved.
“Absolutely it’s better,” Glassey said. “Just look at the prospects they have now. They have talent. It’s so much better than 2008.”
The Mariners are 249-324 since Zduriencik took over. But to measure an entire organization based solely on major league wins and losses is incomplete. The quality of prospects, and number of prospects, in the minors matters because that will ultimately aid in future success.
Zduriencik lamented the lack of talent throughout the system when he was hired, and made restocking the minors his top priority. He says the talent level is getting better, though slowly.
“I do think we are better,” Zduriencik said. “We are three-and-a-half years into this. This is our fourth draft. It takes five to seven years to get it where you would like to have it.
“I do think we’ve done a nice job of acquiring talent.”
Wedge shares Zduriencik’s assessment.
“I’m a little careful about saying night and day,” he said when talking about the past. “For me, it’s (an) extremely positive situation. I believe in our system. I believe in Jack. I believe in our minor league system. I believe in our kids. I believe we are doing it the right way.”
Part of their certainty stems from how dire things were under Bavasi. In the fight to win in a hurry at the big league level, Bavasi sacrificed his minor league resources.
Trading away promising young players such as Shin Soo-Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera in minor deals for Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard was costly.
Giving up Adam Jones, now a two-time All-Star, and four other players for the oft-injured and now departed Erik Bedard is a wound that continues to fester.
And it wasn’t just trades. Poor drafts under Bavasi and scouting director Bob Fontaine compounded the problem.
The most egregious mistake came in 2005, when the Mariners went with need and took USC catcher Jeff Clement with the third pick of the draft and passed on Troy Tulowitzki, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen and Jay Bruce.
“That sets you back,” Law said. “The opportunity-cost of a failed pick that high is pretty significant. You lost a chance to a get at least potential above-average player and possibly a superstar.”
Law also mentioned the mistake that Bavasi made in 2008, taking reliever Josh Fields with the 20th overall pick.
“You don’t pick a college reliever in the first round unless you have a really good team at the big league level,” Law said. “The Mariners did not.”
Said Glassey: “If you have a bad draft, it almost takes two years to build back from that.”
The combination of poor drafts and questionable player moves left the organization bereft of young talent.
“They had so many bad drafts from earlier in the decade, and some of the trades and signings that didn’t work, the bottom finally fell out,” Glassey said.
The result was that Zduriencik was left to pick up the pieces by adding new pieces – talented pieces.
The organization’s talent was ranked 24th out of 30 major league teams in Zduriencik’s first year. It’s now rated sixth by Baseball America.
Starting in 2009, he drafted Dustin Ackley with the No. 2 overall pick, added shortstop Nick Franklin later in the first round, and then picked Kyle Seager in the third round.
Along the way, he drafted pitchers Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, and this year catcher Mike Zunino – the most decorated college player of 2012.
He also picked up touted prospects Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero in trades, while landing promising relievers Tom Wilhelmsen and Steve Delabar as low-risk free agents.
“They are doing it the right way,” Glassey said. “I think they are on the right track. Just look at the number of prospects.”
Zduriencik remains pragmatic. Improved depth of talent is good. But that, plus wins, would be better.
“I’m not satisfied at all, but I think we do have a nice foundation,” he said. “We have some really nice pieces that are still going to emerge and help us get to where we want to get to.”
And that place is one that is currently occupied by the leaders of the American League West, the Texas Rangers.
In 2008 the Rangers posted their fourth-consecutive losing season but were on the verge of becoming a playoff contender, thanks to high-quality drafts and shrewd trades. Now, they’re aiming for a third straight American League pennant and have a farm system that is cranking out top prospects.
“The Rangers are scary,” Glassey said. “They’ve got this good team at the big league level, and they have one of the best farm systems in all of baseball.”
Unlike other teams trying to build from the ground up – the Rays, Royals and Pirates are prime examples – the Mariners have the benefits of a newer stadium, consistent ownership and financial resources.
“Seattle is not a poor team,” Law said. “It’s not poor ownership. They are in a newer stadium. They are in a market that will certainly support them once they are good again.”
Draft well, build talent from within and then complement that talent with a free agent or two.
It’s the method Zduriencik believes in, even now when it looks like the Mariners have not made much progress.
But Zduriencik can see it. And outside observers Glassey and Law can see it.
Still, the process takes time.
“I understand that patience is limited. It’s just not evident that the strategy is not right,” Law said.
“The strategy is right. It’s just taking longer than people thought.”
Wedge understands that and won’t give in to shortcuts.
“If you are going to take the path less traveled, it’s going to be more painful, it’s going to take longer, it’s going to be more difficult,” he said. “That’s why most people don’t do it – because of the pressure of the press, the fans, the doubting Thomases, which is fine. That comes with the territory. I have no problem with that. I have thick skin and broad shoulders. It’s my job, and I hope the heat comes on me more than anybody else. I’m not going to give in to the fight.”firstname.lastname@example.org @RyanDivish