TACOMA — The Seattle Mariners are looking at 67 games remaining of a schedule that figures to last longer than a dry graduation speech on a wet afternoon. Their 43-52 record puts them closer to the fifth-place team in the American League West, the Houston Astros, than to the first-place Oakland Athletics.
You’ll have a better chance of snagging four foul balls in one afternoon than watching the 2013 Mariners vault into contention.
But 67 games without a sniff of a playoff possibility doesn’t translate into 67 meaningless games. Between the resumption of the post-All-Star break schedule and the Sept. 29 season finale, the not-so-public front of the Seattle front office will collect evidence on whether general manager Jack Zduriencik and skipper Eric Wedge deserve to return.
Because Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong are not planning a town hall meeting with tomato-wielding fans anytime soon, we’re left to speculate.
My hunch? If the Mariners lose 90 or more games, Zduriencik is gone, and Wedge goes with him. They can point all they want to the strides the organization has made — subtle strides, infrastructure strides, strides not quantified in the standings — but 90 defeats, after two seasons that produced modestly improved records, will present a marketing department quandary that the most clever ad campaign won’t be able to solve.
A lot of wheels will have to go off the track for the Mariners to lose 90. The more likely scenario finds them playing at a .500 clip over the final 10 weeks, which would give them a 77-85 record and represent a third consecutive season in which they won more games than the previous year.
We tend to think of Zduriencik and Wedge as a team unto itself: Whatever happens, sink or swim, they’ll do it together. But it’s always possible Zduriencik could stay without Wedge, or that Wedge could stay without Zduriencik.
Let’s examine their work separately.
THE CASE FOR KEEPING ZDURIENCIK
He was supposed to overhaul a farm system depleted by a succession of misguided drafts, and he has delivered. Before Zduriencik arrived from Milwaukee, the Mariners’ typical 2008 batting order featured only two players developed on the farm: second baseman Jose Lopez, 24, and shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt, 26. Neither was a draft choice.
Sunday’s starting lineup featured six home-grown players no older than 26, and that’s not including another 26-year-old, first baseman Justin Smoak, who for all practical purposes was a minor league prospect when Zduriencik acquired him from the Texas Rangers.
The Mariners’ five top draft selections before Zduriencik were Matt Tuiasosopo, Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Phillippe Aumont and Josh Fields. Of the five, only Morrow — drafted before Washington Huskies ace Tim Lincecum — has been able to sustain a full-time career in the majors.
Under Zduriencik and nonpareil talent scout Tom McNamara, the Mariners have drafted third baseman Kyle Seager, shortstop Brad Miller, second baseman Nick Franklin, outfielder Dustin Ackley and catcher Mike Zunino. Waiting in the wings: Rainiers pitcher Taijuan Walker and Single-A homer-thumper DJ Peterson.
THE CASE FOR DUMPING ZDURIENCIK
The free agents he has picked up have been hit (Raul Ibañez) and miss (Chone Figgins). Same with his trades. The successes (Kendrys Morales from the Los Angeles Angels, for Jason Vargas) have been more than offset by the failures (starting pitcher Doug Fister to the Detroit Tigers).
I won’t dwell on a deal for Justin Upton that fell through, only because the outfielder listed Seattle in his no-trade clause. (Franklin and Walker were among those Zduriencik reportedly offered the Arizona Diamondbacks.) And that failed attempt to land the $125 million bust that is Josh Hamilton?
In terms of the bigger picture, malaise permeates the fan base. The last homestand began on a gorgeous summer night at Safeco Field, where Felix Hernandez was scheduled to face Bellarmine Prep graduate Jon Lester. Despite the lure of watching King Felix pitch against the Red Sox, who own the AL’s best record and always draw well in Seattle, fewer than 22,000 showed up.
It’s not Zduriencik’s job to sell tickets, of course, but a market’s waning interest in baseball is a reflection of the general manager hired to assemble a competitive team.
THE CASE FOR KEEPING WEDGE
His stoic dugout presence is a nice fit for young players still coping with the ups and downs of big league competition. These guys don’t need a manager who rants every time a bunt attempt is popped up and caught by the third baseman.
On May 20, when closer Tom Wilhelmsen dropped an easy-out throw from Smoak that would have sealed the deal at Cleveland, Wedge’s statuesque reaction showed somebody with the self-discipline of a monk.
Furthermore, Wedge has the handled the ancillary aspects of managing with superior professionalism. Dealing with the media before and after games, over the course of the regular season, requires 324 interview sessions. I haven’t heard him utter a word more strident than “hell.”
THE CASE FOR DUMPING WEDGE
This is the third time in three seasons that the Mariners have been reduced to an afterthought by the All-Star break. They teased us a bit in 2011, getting to July 5 with a 43-43 record that had them 21/2 games out of first place. Then they lost 17 in a row.
Slight upgrades in a season record — from 67-95 in 2011, to 75-87 in 2012, to a presumed 77-85 in 2013 — are simply that: slight upgrades, not enough to captivate fallen-away fans.
By the way, Jim Lefebvre guided the Mariners through a similar three-season run between 1989 (when they went 73-89) and 1991 (when they went 83-79, finishing over .500 for the first time in franchise history).
Lefebvre was fired, a gutsy decision that put in motion the events that brought Lou Piniella to Seattle in 1993. How did that work out?
In any case, the fates of Zduriencik and Wedge belong to the Mariners’ players, who seem to respect the baseball acumen of their GM and speak fondly of their manager.
If a clubhouse election were arranged on whether to replace Zduriencik and/or Wedge, with ballots anonymously submitted, I suspect the result would produce a landslide verdict to keep them.
But the direction of a baseball team shouldn’t be determined by popularity contests. The direction of a baseball team should be decided by, well, baseball contests. If the Mariners’ players are as committed to Zduriencik and Wedge as I sense they are, they’ll know there’s something at stake over these next 67 games.
It would behoove them to compete, and to compete like hell.