Jack Zduriencik has shown patience, skill in first half of 5-year deal as M’s GM

Jack Zduriencik is a very patient man.

We know this because he has spent 24 years scouting and developing talent at the major league level. If you weren’t patient going into the job, you certainly become it upon leaving. Rental car companies will do that to you.

So Zduriencik would not be someone who would take a progress report at the 30-months stage of one’s tenure at the helm of a big league franchise to assess performance. But then again, that’s our job so he doesn’t need to.

The conclusion of April marked the 30th month completed since Zduriencik signed his five year contract back in October of 2008, exactly midway through.

What has the man fans now call “Jack Z” or “Trader Jack” accomplished? Where has he shined and where has he failed? What have been his biggest missteps?

It’s one column but we’ll try to cover those 30 months with as close to a complete review as possible.

When Zduriencik took over as captain of the Mariners ship in the fall of 2008, he inherited a 101-loss club bogged down with bad contracts and under-performing veterans. Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre, Jose Vidro, Miguel Batista, Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva — you get the idea.

Also, the team wasn’t a cohesive unit. There were evidently some major underlying team chemistry issues that reared their ugly heads. Oh, and the farm system was as dry as the Sahara.

Other than that, though, the organization was in fine shape.

It was a daunting task, obviously. Thankfully, with his scouting background, Zduriencik knew just where to begin. His goal immediately was to get younger and more talented at every level of the organization. It started with the farm system.

The Draft

Zduriencik has had two drafts with the Mariners and is approaching his third in which the Mariners have the second pick overall. All told, of the 98 players drafted, the Mariners signed 64. Of those 64, players such as Dustin Ackley (2009’s No. 2 overall pick), Nick Franklin (No. 27  in ’09), Rich Poythress (No. 51 in ’09), Kyle Seager (No. 82  in ’09), Taijuan Walker (No. 43 in ’10) and James Paxton (No. 104 in ’10) have now climbed the ranks of Mariners prospects.

When he first took the helm, the top names were C Jeff Clement, OF Wladimir Balentien and recent No. 1 draft picks Phillippe Aumont and Josh Fields, both pitchers.

Brandon Morrow, another top pick from 2006, had completed his second season with the ball club and was no longer a “prospect”. Those were Zduriencik’s biggest assets and there really wasn’t much else.

According to analysts like MLB.com’s Jonathon Mayo and Prospect Insider’s Jason Churchill, the Mariners current top 10 prospect list is far ahead in terms of talent from where it was three seasons ago. That list includes Ackley, Michael Pineda (who is 6-2 with a 2.16 ERA this season), Franklin, Walker and players like OF Guillermo Pimentel, OF Johermyn Chavez, P Blake Beavan and P Dan Cortes.

With improved talent, seven of the Mariners nine affiliates had winning seasons in 2010 while two of those — AAA Tacoma and mid-A Clinton — won their respective league championships. The success showed just how far the farm system has come in three short seasons.

Trades

Franklin Gutierrez, 28, is one of just a handful of Mariners on the current 25-man roster who is under club control through 2013. That list includes players such as 2010 Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, 3B Chone Figgins, 1B Justin Smoak, Pineda, P Jason Vargas, P Doug Fister, P Aaron Laffey, OF Michael Saunders and recently brought up rookie outfielders Carlos Peguero and Mike Wilson.

Gutierrez — unlike Saunders, Peguero or Wilson — wasn’t brought along through the Mariners farm system. He was acquired by Zduriencik in the 2008 offseason because of it.

In practically his first move as GM of the Mariners, Zduriencik completed (perhaps authored) a 3-team, 12-player deal that yielded the M’s not only Gutierrez, but Vargas, AAA 1b/OF Mike Carp and subsequently current shortstop Brendan Ryan (acquired this past offseason in a trade with the Cardinals for minor league pitcher Maikel Cleto, another asset gained from the deal) all for closer J.J. Putz (now with the D-Backs), journeyman reliever Sean Green, OF Jeremy Reed and minor league infield prospect Luis Valbuena (sent to Cleveland for Gutierrez).

That deal has provided the Mariners with the backbone that currently supports the franchise.

Other deals, especially Zduriencik’s series of Cliff Lee swaps, have hastened the team’s future. Lee was obtained for three prospects — pitcher Aumont and J.C. Ramirez and outfielder Tyson Gillies — while he was later traded (along with reliever Mark Lowe) for four.

In comparing the two deals, Zduriencik clearly not only bought the M’s time but more talent to add to that backbone that he had already started.

Gillies, Aumont and Ramirez are still in the Phillies’ organization at class AA. Aumont is now a reliever after the Phillies attempted to reinstate him as a closer, Gillies injured and hasn’t played yet in 2011 and Ramirez a promising starter. However, the players received from the Rangers in early July of last season — 1B Smoak, pitchers Josh Lueke and Blake Beavan (both at AAA) and 2B Matt Lawson (dealt this winter to the Indians for reliever Aaron Laffey) — are all farther along. Smoak and Laffey, in particular, are proving to be key components for the team’s future.

Those three trades have been wins for Zduriencik. There have been others as well. He swapped catching prospect Jeff Clement and SS Ronny Cedeno and four minor league pitchers to the Pirates for SS Jack Wilson and P Ian Snell. With each team now without one of their returns, the trade stands as a virtual push.

He’s done what many figured was impossible in getting able-bodies for free-swinging SS Betancourt and inconsistent veteran starter Washburn. Those returns included pitching prospects Cortes, 24, Luke French, 25, and Mauricio Robles, 22, all of whom are at AAA.

Even deals such as the headache swap (Silva with 2 years and $24 million still left on his contract, for Cubs outfielder Milton Bradley) and the trade of pitcher Brandon Morrow for reliever Brandon League and now AA prospect Chavez have their supporters even if in minority.

If we’re keeping score, of Zduriencik’s significant deals most would agree that Zduriencik has won five, lost one (Morrow deal) while two stand as pushes. It’s quite evident that Jack Z has shown a keen aptitude for making deals that better the club’s future.

Free Agency

The one area where there hasn’t been much, if any, flash from Zduriencik has been in the free agent market.

Most of his tenure so far as the Mariners GM has seen him focused on purging the roster of overpaid and under-performing veterans so adding similar contracts clashed with that priority.

As a result, just one large free agent signing has been made in his tenure — infielder Chone Figgins to a 4-year, $36 millon deal with a club option for a fifth in 2009. The rest have been underwhelming “bargain hunting” style deals such as for DHs Jack Cust and Russell Branyan, P Erik Bedard, C Miguel Olivo and bench/role players like Mike Sweeney, Adam Kennedy and Jaret Wright.

In so doing, the Mariners have trimmed their payroll from roughly $110 million in 2008 to just over $88 million this season with nearly $30 million coming off the books at the end of the season (Milton Bradley contract plus payments to Cubs for Carlos Silva, Jack Wilson, David Aardsma and Jack Cust among others).

The successes of Zduriencik in the free agent market may not lie in who he has signed, so much as who he has not signed. Each year there are always big ticket free agents whom fans clamor for because of their perceived star power. The thinking is that by signing a player like Jason Bay (who was one of those big free agent names in the 2009 offseason), your team is immediately better.

Perhaps. But while in that thought process some people often forget that the player has the choice of who to sign with and the price may not always be smart for the club as it moves forward.

Zduriencik has declined to make any such moves and in so doing, the Mariners have been freed of more bad contracts than they have taken on. And unlike his predecessor who extended players like 2B Jose Lopez, C Kenji Johjima and Betancourt, Zduriencik’s extensions have been essential ones: Hernandez and Gutierrez.

Because of all of these moves — the draft picks, the trades and free agent signings or lack thereof — the Mariners are in a much better position now and for the future after just 30 months of Zduriencik’s leadership.

And soon that patience which has been so paramount for Zduriencik, may not be needed.

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