Commentary

With new leadership in place, M's look to regroup from disastrous '08

Originally Published: November 21, 2008
By Larry Stone | Special to ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- At his introductory press conference Wednesday, new Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu held up a drawing his 10-year-old daughter, Jadyn, had given him for the occasion.

Scrawled lovingly in crayon were the words: "Knock 'em dead.''

Wakamatsu suggested that the Mariners might want to adopt that as their slogan for 2009. It seems a fitting phrase for a team that has watched its status as one of the most vibrant, charismatic and successful teams in baseball get knocked dead -- or at least moribund -- over the past five years.

In the 2008 season, the Mariners hit rock bottom, losing 101 games as a poorly conceived roster fell victim to clubhouse turmoil and relentless underachievement. It cost manager John McLaren and general manager Bill Bavasi their jobs in midseason, and just added another layer of misery to the malaise that is enveloping the Seattle sports scene. Has anyone seen the Sonics lately? Or the Seahawks and University of Washington Huskies, for that matter?

To get out of the way all the tired clichés that are obligatory in every story about Seattle: Mariner fans have become as bitter as a bad batch of Starbucks coffee; the M's on-field performance last year was as scruffy as a grunge rocker; every day it's pouring rain on their baseball hearts. Not even Bill Gates could buy his way out of this mess. There, that should just about cover it, unless you want to throw in a lame joke about a Boeing jet in a tailspin.

But now, finally, hope is on the horizon. Or, at least, change is, and that's as good a place to start as any.

Bavasi -- whose poor personnel decisions, from Rich Aurilia and Richie Sexson to Carlos Silva and Erik Bedard, have become sad local legend -- has been replaced by Jack Zduriencik, a 57-year-old scouting whiz who was instrumental in rebuilding the Milwaukee Brewers. It is Zduriencik's vision, or lack thereof, that will largely dictate whether the Mariners -- just seven years removed from a 116-win season -- experience a renaissance; so far, he has shown a combination of boldness, imagination and open-mindedness that has many fans encouraged. Of course, he has yet to acquire any players other than two who were signed out of independent leagues.

Yet Zduriencik, in barely three weeks on the job, has already begun transforming the organization. Scouting director Bob Fontaine -- responsible for the much-lamented decision to bypass University of Washington star and Seattle-area native Tim Lincecum in the 2006 draft in favor of Cal's Brandon Morrow -- was fired. Benny Looper, who had spent 23 years in the Seattle front office, most recently as vice president of player personnel, quit the organization rather than accept a demotion. He is now an assistant general manager with the Phillies. Greg Hunter, director of player development, was reassigned to the pro scouting department.

In their places has come a string of new hires -- Tom McNamara, former Brewers' scout, as scouting director; Tony Blengino, Zduriencik's assistant in Milwaukee, as a special assistant to the GM; Pedro Grifol, promoted from within to director of minor league operations; Tim Tolman, the former Nationals' third-base coach, as director of minor league instruction.

Zduriencik put Blengino in charge of creating a new department of statistical research, a sign that the Mariners are going to lean more on sabermetrics than they have in the past. That came as welcome news to many in the stats-minded blogging community who correctly predicted a negative outcome for many of Bavasi's moves -- including the so-far disastrous trade for Bedard that cost the Mariners several top prospects in addition to All-Star reliever George Sherrill.

[+] EnlargeDon Wakamatsu
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonDon Wakamatsu, right, takes over a Mariners team that had the worst record (61-101) in the American League last season.
"We want to take all the information at our disposal and combine it with our scouting,'' Blengino told the Seattle Times.

But the most anticipated announcement by Zduriencik -- "the crown jewel of what we tried to do,'' in the GM's phrase -- was the hiring of Wakamatsu, who becomes the first Asian-American manager in baseball history.

The initial reaction locally was much the same as it was with Zduriencik's hiring -- Who???? But as with the GM, Wakamatsu -- who has a Japanese-American father and Irish-American mother -- is highly regarded by those inside the game. Though some fans have expressed skepticism that his hiring was driven by the team's Japanese principle owner, Nintendo chairman Hiroshi Yamauchi, the truth is that Wakamatsu has been on the industry's managerial radar for years. He was a finalist for the Texas Rangers job that went to Ron Washington two years ago. Zduriencik said that Wakamatsu was on his short list of potential managerial candidates five years ago when Zduriencik was aspiring to be a general manager.

By all accounts, Zduriencik was given the final authority to make the call on Wakamatsu -- bypassing, among others, popular former Mariners second baseman and current White Sox bench coach Joey Cora. That can be perceived as a sign that Zduriencik will be given more autonomy than some suspected. Red flags went up among some potential GM candidates when team president Chuck Armstrong indicated, during the general manager hiring process, that the new GM would have less power than Bavasi.

"If your management style is not collaborative and inclusive and you want to fly solo and do this on your own, you are not going to be our GM," Armstrong told MLB.com in October. "That's not going to work here.

"We think the most successful form of management is one that major decisions are not made in a vacuum by one person. When ideas are discussed as a group, so that everybody in upper management has had a chance to have their say, then the best decisions can be made."

Zduriencik said, however, that the managerial decision was ultimately his.

"I listened to everyone's opinion,'' he said, "but we didn't put together a voting chart. … I asked them for their opinions; they gave me their opinions. But when the day was said and done, I went with the guy I felt most comfortable with."

Wakamatsu, like Zduriencik, is a major league newcomer at his job (as would have been each of the four GM and seven managerial finalists). That's a telling sign that the Mariners could be headed toward a youth-oriented rebuilding stage after four last-place finishes in the past five years. Both men, however, insist that a restructuring can be accomplished without giving up on the 2009 season. The Mariners can hardly do any worse than they did in 2008, when they signed Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract, traded the farm for Bedard -- and became the first team in history to lose 100 games with a payroll over $100 million.

"Our job is to give this club the tools it takes to win," Zduriencik said Wednesday after introducing Wakamatsu, whom he envisions as a budding managerial star in the image of Joe Maddon.

"What would I like to do? I want to win now. I'd also like to build for the future, and that is through our draft picks and through acquiring players in different ways. But if it's possible and if these guys are healthy and they are ready to play, we're going to be competitive this year."

Wakamatsu, who since 2000 has worked for every team in the AL West -- two years as a minor-league coordinator and roving catching instructor with the Angels, five years as a coach with the Rangers (four as Buck Showalter's bench coach) and the past season as Oakland's bench coach -- expressed similar sentiment.

"I think we can win. I'm not sitting here telling veterans that 'Hey, we're going to try to rebuild here.' And Jack's saying the same thing. We're going to try to win right away. Whether we can or not, I think it's going to take a lot of work this winter."

Don't look for the Mariners to get involved in any of the big-name free agents like CC Sabathia or Manny Ramirez. Been there, done that and are still paying the penalty. The biggest free-agent name who might be on their radar is Ken Griffey Jr., though Zduriencik has yet to tip his hand on whether the team's biggest star ever will get a victory lap at Safeco Field.

[+] EnlargeFelix Hernandez
AP Photo/Elaine ThompsonFelix Hernandez was 3-5 with a 4.11 ERA in 14 starts after the All-Star break in '08.
Zduriencik is more likely to make a splash in the trade market, with Gold Glove third baseman Adrian Beltre, a free agent after next season, looming as his top trade chip. J.J. Putz, an All-Star closer in 2007 but injury-riddled last season, is another player who could potentially be dealt, though that would muddy the M's plans to put the hard-throwing Morrow into the rotation. If Bedard, who underwent shoulder surgery in September, recovers sufficiently to pitch well in the first half, he is likely to be traded by the July 31 deadline. Bedard, who won just six games last year and didn't pitch after July 4, is a free agent after the season and has shown little affinity for his current team.

Remaking the roster won't be easy, because Zduriencik inherits nine players with guaranteed contracts adding up to $76 million. That doesn't even include Bedard, who will make $7 million, or ace Felix Hernandez, who will probably command about $7 million himself via arbitration. In other words, the M's have $90 million committed to less than half a roster -- and some of those big contracts are virtually untradeable.

Wakamatsu is basing much of his optimism on being able to squeeze better performances out of the talent on hand. The Mariners, however, appear likely to lose one of their top offensive players, free-agent outfielder Raul Ibanez, who hit .293 with 23 homers and 110 RBIs in '08. Ibanez has expressed a desire to play for a contender, and the Mariners have not yet indicated a strong commitment to re-signing him.

One of Wakamatsu's main projects, as a former catcher himself, will be resurrecting M's catcher Kenji Johjima, who slumped badly (.227, seven homers, 39 RBIs) in 2008. Johjima became a lightning rod of controversy after being given an inexplicable three-year, $24 million contract extension in April that was reportedly dictated by Yamauchi.

Another issue for Wakamatsu will be perennial All-Star Ichiro Suzuki, an apparent source of much clubhouse tension last year. According to a report in the Seattle Times, an unnamed source said that animosity toward Ichiro was so great within the team, the source feared the player might be physically attacked.

Wakamatsu didn't want to get into specifics on the Ichiro matter or other supposed clubhouse rifts, but declared: "If there are problems, then we're going to deal with it.''

In addition to restoring harmony to the Mariners' clubhouse, Wakamatsu and Zduriencik must retool an offense that ranked 13th in the American League in runs and on-base percentage, while figuring out a way to close the team's 39-game deficit to the Angels. The Mariners also need to find a first baseman, a designated hitter and perhaps two outfielders.

Good luck, fellas. Knock 'em dead.

Larry Stone is the national baseball writer for The Seattle Times. Click here to visit the Times' Web site.

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