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Overhaul is just beginning for Mariners

Overhaul is just beginning for Mariners

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Seattle Mariners made the offseason's biggest splashes with some major player acquisitions. But these moves ought to be seen in context, as just one step in a long-term plan for the betterment of this franchise.

General manager Jack Zduriencik is operating with this underlying premise: "Why can't we be as good as anybody?" Based on what Zduriencik has accomplished in 17 months on the job, based on the positive direction that has been set, the GM's side of that question is already winning.

The Mariners had already produced a remarkable turnaround from 2008 to 2009, a 24-game improvement. They encored with the best winter in the Major Leagues, obtaining a left-handed ace, Cliff Lee, and extending the contract of their incumbent ace, King Felix Hernandez. They got free-agent infielder and lineup catalyst Chone Figgins, who was the daily double acquisition, being added to the Mariners lineup, and subtracted from the roster of the Angels. They traded for outfielder Milton Bradley, who has obvious talent, but temperamental tendencies. Bradley will be presented with a much more benign atmosphere in Seattle than he experienced with the Cubs. If he performs as he did with Texas in 2008, rather than as he did with Chicago in 2009, all will be well.

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Casey Kotchman, a splendid defensive first baseman and a line-drive hitter, was another addition. Brandon League was brought in to bolster the bullpen. Highly useful players such as Eric Byrnes and Ryan Garko will provide quality depth. And before all of this activity, Zduriencik had already begun upgrading the team's defense by acquiring center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and shortstop Jack Wilson. The Mariners are being tailored to the nature of their home, SAFECO Field, around pitching and defense.

This is a major overhaul by any standard and not done in a spendthrift manner. The Mariners' 2010 player payroll may be slightly less than in 2009. Only the blink of an eye ago, this club was losing 101 games. Now, it must be considered nothing less than a genuine postseason contender, even against the Angels, winners of the AL West in five of the last six seasons.

But this is just the beginning for the new Mariners, and for Zduriencik's organizational blueprint. All of this personnel activity, which has transformed the Seattle club, will not necessarily be the long-term rule of thumb for this organization. This is going to be an organization relying on tried and true baseball methods.

"We wanted to be as competitive as we could be, as quickly as we could be," Zduriencik said Friday in an interview with MLB.com. "But I do think that as we move forward this organization ought to be built around the players that we acquire through the Draft or through international signings, and our Minor League system. That's what we'd really like to have. And then you pick up pieces here and there along the way that help you. But if you're going to sustain any kind of really good club for any length of time you have to do it by player development and scouting. And that's what we hope to do.

"Effectively here, we were able to do some things as quickly as we did, and that kind of accelerated things. But at the end of the day, we're going to have to be successful with what we draft and develop."

This is both Zduriencik's belief and background. He has a long history in scouting and he came to prominence in nine years with the Milwaukee organization, arriving as director of scouting, and playing a key role in drafting the talent that eventually allowed the Brewers to break a 26-year postseason drought. For his work, Zduriencik was named Executive of the Year in 2007 by Baseball America, the first non-general manager to win that award.

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That sort of accolade mostly makes Zduriencik uncomfortable. Between his exemplary work in Milwaukee and Seattle, the public record of his acumen and intelligence is clear, but his modesty trumps everything in any discussion of his work. A successful general manager, Zduriencik says, gets the credit for the work of many people behind the scenes, at every level of his organization. As proof of that, Zduriencik lists the people to whom he is grateful in Seattle and Milwaukee. It is a very long list, but its length is matched by its sincerity.

It is Zduriencik's high regard for the rest of the Seattle organization, in fact, that leads him to the "good as anybody" goal. He sees the total Seattle package and it represents the distinct possibility of long-term success.

"We wanted to bring in guys with character, we wanted to make this a desirable place for players to look at and say: 'I'd really like to play there,' " the GM says.

"[Manager] Don Wakamatsu has lived up to all my expectations. We've got a great ownership group here. We really have good leadership in [chairman and CEO] Howard Lincoln and [president and chief operating officer] Chuck Armstrong. It's a great city with a great ballpark in a wonderful area of the country. So why can't be as good as anybody? Why are there restraints?

"Obviously, finances are finances and there are always going to be clubs that have more [money] than you have, but this should be a place where players look at it and say: 'You know what? That's a good place to be.' "

For now, things are going so well that Zduriencik sees the need to sound an occasional cautionary note. With all their improvements, the Mariners are not a push-button operation. "We'd love to have a 40-home-run guy in the lineup -- we don't have that," Zduriencik notes. And if there is no doubt about the top of Seattle's rotation, there can be questions about the rotation's depth. Getting Erik Bedard back from shoulder surgery sooner rather than later would be extremely helpful.

And then there's the AL West, an increasingly tough neighborhood, regardless of how much the Seattle club has improved. "It's an under-rated division, but it won't be as we move forward, because the Angels are a real good club," Zduriencik says. "Texas, I think, has improved and Oakland has made some very nice pick-ups and they already had very good young pitching last year. If Ben Sheets comes on and is really good they have a chance to be really good, too."

And as Zduriencik points out, offseason accolades don't actually count in the standings. "I've never seen a trophy passed out in the Hot Stove League yet," he says with a smile.

True enough. The Mariners did everything they could do with their offseason and now the 2010 season will reveal how much they have improved. But the encouraging thing for Seattle baseball is that this should be just the beginning of a long, long stretch of better days.

Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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