How early is too late?
That question gnaws at Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik as he watches his club, a trendy preseason pick as a World Series contender, free fall its way through the season’s opening weeks.
Zduriencik doesn’t hold to the game’s long-held protocol that a club must play 40 or 50 games in order to make any legitimate overall assessment.
“I just think it’s an ongoing evaluation,” he said. “I’ll look at 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60 games. It’s always ongoing to figure out exactly where you’re at, and what your club is doing.”
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And, yes, Zduriencik has concerns after watching a club he still views as having postseason-level talent lurch along at 11-17 while settling into last place in the American League West Division.
What’s gone wrong?
“I even said in the wintertime,” Zduriencik recalled, “that as high as the expectations were, it’s really all about players producing. So no matter what your history is, you have to come out and live up to your potential.”
And that’s just not happening.
It’s hard to identify anyone beyond longtime staff ace Felix Hernandez and right fielder Nelson Cruz, the club’s big offseason acquisition, playing at or above anticipated levels.
The Mariners, despite adding Cruz, rank 13th among the 15 American League clubs in scoring. A pitching staff that led the league last year with a 3.17 ERA currently ranks 10th with a 4.31 mark.
And a bullpen that last season protected slim leads with fierce tenacity is currently cratering with three walk-off losses in the past seven games.
The growing debate is this: Are the Mariners simply laboring through a tough stretch? Or are they experiencing a very mean regression to the norm after last season’s surprising success?
“We’ve proved that we can perform,” Zduriencik asserted. “A year ago, our pitching was very good. Some of those guys aren’t performing to that level.
“We’ve added to our offense (in the offseason), but some guys have started a little bit slow. All right. That’s understandable. I think you have to be patient and understand that happens.”
But that patience is fraying quickly.
The Mariners shook up their underperforming bullpen earlier in the week by demoting Yoervis Medina and Tyler Olson to Triple-A Tacoma. They also recalled Chris Taylor to replace Brad Miller as the starting shortstop.
“We made a couple of moves the other day,” Zduriencik said, “because we thought they were the right thing to do at the time. And we’ll continue to look at it.”
Trades are possible. So is a further use of the Tacoma shuttle.
“You always have to have your antenna up,” Zduriencik said, “but what I’d like for this club to do is for these players to get better, for these players to perform.
“If you’re underperforming, you’d better figure out why. It’s a nice club. I don’t think anybody disagrees, but there have been parts of it that have let us down. It’s time to tighten the belt, and let’s get rolling.”
Make no mistake: Zduriencik is putting this on the players: figure it out, and figure it out soon, or expect further changes.
“I still believe this is a good ballclub,” he said, “and I do think we’re going to get it turned around. But we’ve said this for a long time: Guys aren’t on scholarship. Guys have to produce.
“If you believe you’re a good ballclub, and I think these players believe they are, then you have to produce.”