Big League Stew - MLB

PEORIA, Ariz. — The preseason praise for Jack Zduriencik continues to come in waves.

But instead of being swept up for a ride with the early accolades, the second-year GM of the Seattle Mariners prefers to lay low and duck under the water.  

His early track record has been oft-repeated in the Mariners season preview.

First, the team went from 101 losses in 2008 to 85 victories in 2009, transforming the franchise's personality from surly to sunny along the way.

Zduriencik then had a widely-celebrated offseason, adding Chone Figgins(notes) and Cliff Lee(notes) and managing to shed the obscene contract of Carlos Silva(notes) on the Cubs, even though it cost the addition of Milton Bradley(notes) and all he entails.

"Jack's a genius," many have said.

So, how does the genius react to hearing that?

"I probably want to go hide," Zduriencik said in a sitdown interview with Big League Stew earlier this week. "I don't see it that way."

Zduriencik doesn't buy his hype because all of the positive feedback won't be worth the papers it's printed in if the Mariners don't turn it into action on the field.

"It's just all of us working together trying to put our heads together," said Zduriencik (which is pronounced "Zurr-EN-sick.") "I don't think we've done anything to reinvent the wheel. I don't think we've done anything that's earth-shattering. I think we've just tried to be baseball people and make very sound baseball decisions.

"And we haven't played a game yet."

Zduriencik, who just turned 59, does not lack confidence in his moves because he believes in the staff he assembled. He also believes in his own abilities. And he ought to.

In 1978, Zduriencik was a washed-up minor-leaguer — and a utility infielder at that — who never got higher than Class A with the White Sox organization. He was teaching school and coaching in the Pittsburgh area when he approached the scouting director of the Pirates, Murray Cook.

"I told him that I think I have something to offer," Zduriencik said. "I was a young guy with a lot of energy. I could still throw BP and hit fungoes and all those type of things."

Cook hired Zduriencik to run tryout camps in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, and to run "The Little Pirates," an American Legionesque team of the top Pittsburgh high school players.

"I started out making 10 bucks a week," said Zduriencik, who wasn't yet dreaming of running his own team. He was just happy to have a foot in the door.

"I was a baby stepper," he said. "I thought: 'I'm doing this and maybe Pittsburgh will hire me full time.' "

It was another dream come true for Zduriencik, who grew up in blue-collar New Castle, Pa., going to games at Forbes Field. Back then, he was awed by the likes of Roberto Clemente, Bill Mazeroski and Billy Virdon.

"Still, to this day, I consider myself a fan," Zduriencik said.

The Pirates job ran its course and, after coaching high school baseball and football for a couple of years in Florida, Zduriencik was hired as a scout by Joe McIlvaine of the Mets in 1982.

He became the scouting director for the Milwaukee Brewers in 1999 and eventually became the top aide to GM Doug Melvin. Zduriencik had his hand in drafting the likes of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder(notes), Yovani Gallardo(notes), J.J. Hardy(notes) and Corey Hart(notes).

With a winning résumé, a reputation for a tireless work-ethic and a friendly personality, the Mariners hired him in October 2008.

Even though he's ascended to near the top of an organization, Zduriencik still acts like one of the guys. During a recent simulated game for pitcher Felix Hernandez(notes), Zduriencik — wearing a team jacket and the proper batting practice cap — sat on the bench next to manager Don Wakamatsu and coach John Wetteland. You can see the trio in the pic above this post.

Jack's in charge, but his presence doesn't loom like doom and gloom. He wants the working environment to be professional but pleasant, fun, loose.

"We want to make this an organization that's desirable to come play for," Zduriencik said. "There's a tremendous responsibility here. I feel a great, I guess you’d say kinship with the fans and our ownership group. We’re trying to put something together here that will last a long time."

In the short term, what will the Mariners moves actually mean for 2010?

On paper, adding Lee and Figgins (and subtracting him from the defending AL West champions), looks great. The Mariners are emphasizing defense; Zduriencik says the team has five "elite" defensive players — shortstop Jack Wilson(notes), Figgins, first baseman Casey Kotchman(notes), center fielder Franklin Gutierrez(notes) and, of course, Ichiro(notes).

On paper, looking at run-scored differential, the Mariners should have won about 75 games in 2009. On paper, they were unquestionably lucky to go 85-77. Will they score enough?

"You can look at a lot of things on paper that indicates a [certain] outcome," Zduriencik said. "We've done some things on paper to help our club. By adding Chone Figgins, by adding Milton Bradley, I think we’ve addressed a couple of on-base percentage things that will help us."

But the game is played between the white lines, as the cliché goes.

"Talent wins, something I've said before," Zduriencik said. "But, I guarantee you that when guys share a very positive atmosphere for six months, or in some cases, seven, and they enjoy going to work every day, and enjoy pulling for each other, they go beyond anything that could show up in anybody's statistical analysis."

Dave's trek across the Cactus League continues. Follow him on Twitter — @answerdave.

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