By John Perrotto
When Jack Zduriencik speaks, there is a sense of urgency in his voice.
Then again, how could there not be?
The Seattle Mariners are coming off another bad season, the general manager has only one year left on his contract and his manager, Eric Wedge, walked out at the end of this past season while citing conflicting philosophies with Zduriencik over the direction of the franchise.
The Mariners have been averaged 94 losses over the last four seasons since Zduriencik became the darling of the industry during his first years on the job in 2009. The Mariners increased their win total by 24 in '09, improving to 85-77 from 61-101.
However, the Mariners dropped back to 101 losses in 2010 and have lost 97, 87 and 91 games the last three seasons. Zduriencik's plan to turn the Mariners into a playoff team -- they haven't been to the postseason since Ichiro Suzuki was a rookie in 2001 -- has yet to show any tangible signs of working.
"Everyone needs to step up," Zduriencik said. "Some of our young players need to step up and play up to their potential and I need to step up and put a better team on the field."
He certainly does.
Zdueriencik is not the most popular figure among Mariners fans these days and many were upset to learn in the latter part of the season that his contract had quietly been extended one year through 2014. He also didn't win over the fans by hiring Detroit Tigers hitting coach Lloyd McClendon as manager, the same man who had a 330-440 record as the Pittsburgh Pirates' skipper from 2001-05, though to be fair he had a dearth of talent to work with in those five seasons.
Zduriencik, though, believes McClendon is the right man for the job, though the other four managerial vacancies around the major leagues this offseason were filled by first-timers.
"He was young when he managed the Pirates and he admits he made some mistakes," Zduriencik said. "He spent eight years working on Jim Leyland's staff in Detroit. We all know what a great manager Jim is and I know Lloyd learned a lot during those eight years. He's a very impressive person and I feel he is the right man to lead our club."
It wasn't supposed to be like this in 2009, of course. After their big jump in the win column, the Mariners were expected to become regular contenders with the combination of the old school Zduriencik, who helped the Milwaukee Brewers end a 26-year postseason drought in 2008 as their scouting director, and new school manager Don Wakamatsu, who was willing to the many new ideas presented by statistical analyst Tony Blengino.
"We probably got ahead of schedule that first year when we won 85 games," Zduriencik said. "I didn't feel this would be a quick fix. I felt we needed to build a farm system and that's a process that takes time. I think we started to see some of the fruits of that labor this year. A lot of guys got some valuable major-league experience and played well. We have other guys who are capable of playing better than they have and need them to step it up."
The list of the Mariners' young players who have shined at the major-league level is shorter than those who have struggled.
The middle infield combination of second baseman Nick Franklin and shortstop Brad Miller showed potential as rookies in 2013. Franklin hit just .225/.303/.382 in 412 plate appearances but his 12 home runs and outstanding defense gave him 2.3 bWAR. Miller finished with 2.0 bWAR and a line of .265/.318/.418 in 335 trips to the plate.
Kyle Seager looks like a long-term fixture at third base. He has hit .260/.325/.418 with 45 home runs in 1,567 plate appearances over three seasons while contributing 7.5 bWAR.
However, highly touted catcher Mike Zunino struggled to a .214/.290/.329 line in 193 plate appearances as a rookie this past season. He joins of number of recent disappointments that include first baseman Justin Smoak, second baseman/outfielder Dustin Ackley and outfielder Michael Saunders and catcher/designated hitter Jesus Montero.
That is why the Mariners are again going through their annual late-autumn/winter rite of searching for bats. The fences were brought in at Safeco Field this year yet Seattle managed to score just five more runs, improving its total to 624 from 619 in 2012. The average of 3.85 runs a game ranked 12th in the American League and 22nd in the major leagues.
If the season started today -- and thankfully for the Mariners it does not -- their starting outfield would likely consist of Saunders in left field, Ackley in center and Abraham Almonte in right. That trio combined to hit 18 home runs in the major leagues last season, 12 by Saunders. Not surprisingly, the Mariners have been linked in rumors to Los Angeles Dodgers center fielder Matt Kemp and just about every free agent outfielder.
Scoring runs wasn't the Mariners' only problem this year. They also ranked 12th in the AL in runs allowed with an average of 4.65 a game, which placed them 26th in the majors.
On the bright side, the Mariners have two premiums starting pitchers in right-handers Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma, who went a combined 26-16 with a 2.84 ERA in 424 innings in 2013. However, the starting options beyond the top two are right-hander Erasmo Ramirez, who has yet to completely gain his footing in the major leagues, and prospects Taijuan Walker and James Paxton.
Walker is considered one of the top pitching prospects in the game and Paxton is also highly regarded. Another top prospect, left-hander Danny Hultzen, will miss the season after undergoing shoulder surgery. Thus, in addition to hitters, the Mariners ideally would like to also acquire two starters and closer insurance in case Danny Farquhar struggles after converting 16 of 18 save opportunities as a rookie last season.
"We need to make some moves this winter but I really believe we have a young core of players in place," Zduriencik said. "I don't think we're that far away from being good if we add the right players and the guys we already have in place improve."
If not, someone else will likely be trying to rebuild the Mariners at this time next year.
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.