Zduriencik takes task to Meetings
Mariners GM figures to be busy during annual event
SEATTLE -- After more than a month of living up to his reputation for having an around-the-clock work ethic, Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik will finally get to focus on the main event -- building a winning baseball team.The construction project resumes in earnest at the Bellagio in Las Vegas next week during the Winter Meetings.
Last season, the Mariners lost an American League-high 101 games, dismissed one GM, reassigned another and discarded two managers and virtually an entire coaching staff. In addition, the status of left fielder Raul Ibanez, the club's RBI leader and current free agent, remains unclear.Much work needs to be done, and Zduriencik realizes it will take time, energy and even some luck, to turn things around. Hitting a jackpot at the Meetings might be asking too much, but with most of the Mariners' baseball operations staff on hand, you can bet the organization will be prepared to act on a deal that would help get Seattle out of the AL West basement and eventually back into the playoffs. "There are a lot of ways you can improve your club," Zduriencik said. "If it happens [during the Meetings], that's great. But I'm not going to do anything just for the sake of doing something." If the diligent process he used to select manager Don Wakamatsu is any indication, the game plan Zduriencik has in mind for assembling an Opening Day roster should give Mariners fans reason to be encouraged. His thirst for information is so strong that he even telephoned clubhouse managers during his search for a skipper. Expect a similar approach during the Winter Meetings and in the weeks that follow as the roster takes form. The organization's top priority heading into the annual event is improving the offense. "I just left a club with a lot of power," said Zduriencik, who is a former Milwaukee Brewers executive, "and I don't think we have the kind of power we would like to have. Improving that area would be desirable for us." The Mariners hit 124 home runs last season, the third-lowest total in the American League, drove in 631 runs, which ranked next-to-last, and finished with a .318 on-base percentage, tying the Athletics for last place. Where to begin? First base: Among the options is moving second baseman Jose Lopez to first, something former manager Jim Riggleman did late this past season with mixed results. Lopez started seven games there but never was totally on board with the move, and late in the season said he preferred returning to second base on a full-time basis in 2009. The 25-year-old, who was signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2000 and began his career as a shortstop before being moved to second base four years ago, would provide some offensive production that otherwise isn't available at first base. He hit a career-high 17 home runs last season and drove in a career-high 89 runs, so a 20-homer, 100-RBI season is possible. Left-handed-hitting Bryan LaHair has a nice swing, but he has not shown the kind of run production teams look for from their first baseman. Trading for a run-producing first sacker might be the way to go. The Brewers are believed to be receptive to swapping Prince Fielder this offseason to bolster a pitching staff that needs at least one starter and a proven closer. A Fielder-for-J.J. Putz deal sure would get considerable attention and conceivably be a good trade for both teams. Over the past three seasons, the 5-foot-11, 270-pound Fielder has slugged 114 home runs, including 50 in 2007, and driven in 302 runs. Putz, meanwhile, emerged as a top-notch closer in '06, going 36-for-43 in save situations, and he had a career year in '07 with 40 saves in 42 chances. He was selected as the best closer in the AL. A series of injuries last season, beginning with inflammation in his right rib-cage area, resulted in a frustrating season for the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Michigan native. But he finished strong, going 5-for-5 in save opportunities in September. Strong-armed right-hander Brandon Morrow could move into the closer role. Though he currently is penciled in as one of the five starters heading into Spring Training, he has closer stuff. Left field: If Raul Ibanez unexpectedly accepts the club's salary-arbitration offer, other roster needs could be addressed. But if Ibanez rejects salary arbitration and signs with another MLB organization, the Mariners would either have to fill the gaping hole via a trade or free-agent signing or rely on either Wladimir Balentien, who batted .202 with seven home runs and 24 RBIs in 243 at-bats with Seattle this past season, or Mike Morse, who missed virtually the entire '08 season because of a severe left shoulder injury. Designated hitter: It wasn't for lack of effort that the Mariners' DH production was the lowest in the AL last season. Between them, managers John McLaren and Riggleman used 17 players in the DH role. They combined to hit .221 with a league-low 15 home runs and 77 RBIs. With Kenji Johjima likely regaining the starting-catcher role, based on his strong September -- batting .333 with two home runs and 13 RBIs -- the DH duties could become Jeff Clement's primary position. At 25, Clement would be one of the youngest DHs in the league, but the Mariners need more offense, and the left-handed hitter has a swing made for Safeco Field. So far, he has put too much pressure on himself and struggled big-time, striking out 66 times in 219 Major League at-bats. If not Clement, then perhaps Ken Griffey Jr.? The potential return of the former Mariners icon has the Mariners fan-base buzzing, but Zduriencik has yet to comment on the situation. Griffey, a free agent, has said several times that he would like to return to the Mariners, but with nine players already consuming $79 million next season, it would be difficult to sign him.
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.