SEATTLE — Call off the search. It appears the Mariner scapegoat has been located.
No, it’s not the general manager whose litany of questionable personnel decisions is mounting — not yet to the extent of his reviled predecessor, but not exactly a Billy Beanesque resume, either.
Jack Zduriencik’s role in this melodrama, that of lame-duck architect, was clarified a day earlier. Or at least he is believed to be a lame-duck — no one in the organization would speak to the length of his contract, other than to finally confirm Zduriencik would be back next year.
It doesn’t appear to be the brain trust at the top. Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong by all indications are bulletproof no matter how precipitous is the decline of the product or the dissatisfaction of the fan base.
Nor does it look like an ownership change is imminent in the wake of the death of Hiroshi Yamauchi, given Lincoln’s recent comment to the Puget Sound Business Journal that Nintendo of America has no plans to sell its stake in the Mariners.
As usual, the buck is stopping at the bottom of the power spectrum. Eric Wedge, who astonishingly couldn’t win with the poorly conceived roster he was handed — equal parts miscast veterans and wet-behind-the-ears youngsters — sounded Wednesday every bit like a manager who knows the end is near.
Indeed, like one intent on pushing matters to the breaking point.
Wedge spoke out bluntly about being left to dangle in the breeze, with an expiring contract and no clarification on his status. He also said he believes the team is knocking on the door of success — a topic of much debate these days — and he wants to be part of the breakthrough.
“I’m a strong man, and I’m going to be fine either way. But I’d like to see this thing through,’’ he said, adding: “I’m here to help these kids become good, solid big-league players, and hopefully solid citizens in Seattle. So if that is not enough for them, then so be it.”
It would be hard for an organization to paint itself into a corner more than the Mariners have, as they head into the winter of their discontent. At a time when fans could be celebrating the breakout potential of impressive young guns Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, instead the focus is on the apparent dysfunction in the front office.
If Zduriencik is indeed signed only through 2014 — and it would be nice for someone in authority to not only clarify his status, but to explain why his return was warranted, based on four straight losing seasons — then it opens up myriad potential headaches.
First of all, if Wedge is not retained, then Zduriencik would be entrusted with the job of hiring his third manager in five years. That fact alone would serve to scare away potential candidates; even more problematic is the fact that few prospective managers would want to risk hitching their wagon to a general manager who might be gone at the end of their first year, if not sooner. That would leave them, well, dangling in the breeze.
Then there’s the matter of a lame-duck GM trying to justify his continued employment. That can lead to decisions that are counterproductive to the longterm best interests of the organization.
For the worst-case scenario, one needs look no further than 2008, when Bill Bavasi, in a win-or-else situation, signed Carlos Silva to a four-year, $48 million contract and traded Adam Jones and Chris Tillman to the Orioles for Erik Bedard. Of all the rotten moves by the Mariners in their decline years, none haunts them more than the latter.
If Zduriencik is going to be given a last shot to see his rebuilding job through, I believe Wedge deserves the same opportunity. The two have seemingly been in lockstep the past three seasons, with Wedge uncomplainingly — indeed, enthusiastically — dealing with the inevitable pitfalls of forever going young.
As with any manager, you can nitpick Wedge’s lineup decisions and in-game strategy, but not his passion and commitment. I’ve heard it said that he’s lost the team as the M’s stumbled down the stretch, but I have seen no signs of that. Instead, I’ve seen a ballclub that is paying the price for youth, injuries and inadequate talent.
And yes, it has been ugly. I don’t quite share the confidence of Wedge, who said, “If somebody else is sitting in this seat tomorrow, they’re going to be in a decent situation moving forward, really.”
But I also don’t see anybody coming in, under the circumstances already described, better equipped to give it a go. Nor should Wedge’s health issues be a factor in the decision, as he adamantly stated.
“I feel great,’’ he said. “I feel like I’m 33 years old again. My best managing days are ahead of me, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”
Spoken like someone who realizes he is about to be the designated scapegoat.