When the Mariners finished 71-91 last year I was devastated. Those Mariners began their year looking like they should improve on 2012’s 75-87 season, but they were bad: a poorly assembled collection of guys playing out of position, a terrible bullpen, and offense challenged. It was a stop-gap team of aging veterans on one-year deals assembled to ease the development of the young players assembled by General Manager Jack Zdurencik. It failed miserably. The team was lousy, it was painful to watch and it was boring. I was tired of Zdurencik and manager Eric Wedge, I wanted them both gone. When it was revealed Zdurencik received a double super secret contract extension I was disgusted and ready to leave the Mariners reservation.
Today the team stands at 65-55, a half game behind the sputtering Detroit Tigers for the second wild card spot. They’ve vastly diminished the leads Oakland and Los Angeles hold in the division and first wild card races. They boast first-class pitching and an offense that is inconsistently effective, but for most of the past ten days or so has been effective enough. Raul Ibanez has been replaced by Robinson Cano. A Fernando Rodney led bullpen is the best in major league baseball. Felix Hernandez is clearly the best right-handed pitcher in the world.
If I’m going to blame Jack Zdurencik for the team’s failures, he also gets my acknowledgement for his success. Though his tenure includes some bone-headed decisions like the Fister trade and signing Corey Hart, he’s made a number of key decisions that led to this year’s success.
Felix Hernandez Extension–If Zdurencik and the corporate big boys hadn’t come to terms with Felix last year we’d be having a different conversation this summer: when and where will they trade Felix? Today we’re talking about the historic nature of his 2014 performance and how it measures up against Pedro, Clemens and Ron Guidry. I like this conversation better.
Lloyd McClendon Hiring–On ESPN 710 earlier this week there was this great conversation about whether McClendon or Zdurencik was more responsible for the team’s success. I’ve really enjoyed McClendon. He’s molded the team to fit his personality. He is transparent. He is honest. It seems clear that if a player is not up to the required task he’ll be somewhere else. Ask Justin Soak and Erasmo Ramirez. It seems obvious McClendon is a key component of this team’s success. I’m glad Zdurencik had the foresight to bring him to Seattle.
Robinson Cano signing–I was not among those who criticized the signing of the Yankee slugger for a Brinks truck full of dough, and I have not been disappointed. Though the power numbers are down, Cano has performed every bit as well as I would have hoped at bat, in the field and in the clubhouse. Yes, Cano is performing well, but it is clear he has a leadership role on this team that makes him incredibly important. Scott Weber’s excellent analysis of Cano’s performance so far over at Lookout Landing make’s this clear. I believe his value goes beyond the stats.
Fernando Rodney signing-Last year the Mariners bullpen was a wreck. The most blown leads of any ‘pen in the major leagues. No clear leader. They threw too many balls and gave up too many homers. When Zdurencik signed Fernando Rodney to a two year deal I was skeptical. The 13-year veteran had a brilliant year with the Rays in 2012, and a much less successful season with them in 2013. Despite Rodney’s tendency to dance on the high wire, he’s provided solid performance and leadership out of the bullpen. Regardless whether you like his cap tilt or his bow and arrow act, his 35 saves is tied for 2nd in the major leagues.
Trading for Austin Jackson-When the Mariners began the season with Abraham Almonte in centerfield I held my breath. In my view Almonte was too inexperienced at the major league to have the responsibilities of center and leadoff hitter on him. When they shipped his shrapnel riddled major league corpse down to Tacoma in May and replaced him with the equally inexperienced James Jones my heart stopped. Though Jones was refreshing for a few weeks, it became clear the team once again overreached for a player who wasn’t ready to be in the bigs. The M’s simply have few major league solutions for a shortage of outfield talent. When Jack Z. was able to trade for a quality veteran centerfielder like Austin Jackson, a playoff veteran from an annually contending team, and give up only Nick Franklin I developed a new appreciation for Zdurencik’s trading acumen.
Today, at this moment, this team is in an entirely different place than it was in 2013. One need only look at attendance figures to know fans also realize this. Last year the team drew 1,761,546. After 66 home dates the Mariners stand at 1,651, 826. With 15 home games remaining is it possible they could draw two million? The last time the M’s drew that many was 2010. They’d need to average a tick over 23,000 per game and their current per game average is just over 25K, a number that’s likely to tick up if the team remains in the playoff chase.
The Mariners are better, the club’s fortunes are improved. It doesn’t mean things are perfect. I still remember August 27, 2007 when the Angels came to town, with the M’s three games behind them in the division race. They were swept at home and lost 15 of 17 in a bitter collapse. This team is much better than that one.
Barring a monumental el foldo, Jack Zdurencik assembled some important pieces for this team going forward. It seems likely the Mariners won’t collapse; their pitching is simply too good for that. They may not make it to the playoffs, but I have every reason to believe they can. Regardless, Zdurencik put together a roster good enough, and intriguing enough for next year to earn a contract extension.