TEMPE, Ariz. – The new general manager in Seattle, and his new field manager, could have started the overhaul just about anywhere.
The Seattle Mariners were a wreck, and maybe it'd be best to assume they still are, at least until they prove otherwise.
Maybe one winter doesn't soothe all the little crises and heartbreaks of 101 losses, or the dysfunction they bear. In fact, you can be sure of it.
He's about a week from opening day and general manager Jack Zduriencik answers the phone and says, "You said you're curious? So am I."
Yeah, this could go anywhere, in any direction. Only six months ago, you could have argued the Mariners were more fouled up on the field than in the clubhouse, or the other way around, and never been wrong.
The neglect, the wastefulness, the failure (the 39-game deficit) were systemwide, indoors and out. That's why there is a new GM and a new field manager, and why there are some new players in places, and why they've hired a couple veteran chaperons (and why the franchise lost money last year, its first deficit in a decade at the new ballpark.)
All things considered, a little composure might be in order.
You know, like, it's time to grow up and make pitches and take smart at-bats. It's time to show up in shape. It's time for accountability, every day. In some cases, it's time to become sturdy big league ballplayers. In others, it's time to be that again.
Yeah, it's a long way back from 101 losses and a near-$120 million payroll.
The short-term plan was to get younger (and more athletic) in spots, wiser in others, and ask the guys left to be better ballplayers and teammates. The long-term plan, for the moment, is to see how the short-term plan works out.
It's why there are still a half-dozen relievers competing to be the club's closer with barely more than a week left until opening day, despite manager Don Wakamatsu's strong preference to go with one man.
And it's why it could all look so different in just a few months, by which time some or all of Erik Bedard, Jarrod Washburn, Adrian Beltre, Miguel Batista and others could be traded as part of an all new short-term/long-term plan.
Wakamatsu said he didn't think that would be necessary.
"I think we're awfully good," he said Saturday afternoon. "I think we're better than people give us credit for."
And that would be two different things. The Mariners could be better than expected, maybe even a lot better, and still not be awfully good.
"I'm a little bit anxious to see what it looks like," Zduriencik said.
What's so interesting about this, these Mariners, the club that's playing back from a six-month exercise in humiliation, isn't all that different from those Mariners, the club that many expected to hang with the Angels. Can a little attitude adjustment raise their on-base percentage enough to make it a reasonable offensive team? Could it keep Bedard on the field and effective and find them a closer? Could everybody stop grousing about Ichiro and do their own jobs?
Maybe. It's a longshot. But, maybe.
Six months from now, when they've played another season, and they've proven to be mostly grown-ups and decent, hard-working ballplayers, Zduriencik is looking forward to a trip through the clubhouse, previously fractured.
"When the season ends," he said, "I want to look each one in the eye and say to them, 'I'm proud of you.' If I could do that, that's all I can ask from these guys."
He's been in and around the game for a very long time. He became a scout going on three decades ago. So Zduriencik, who recently turned 58 and waited that long for this job, talks about fanciful stuff like character and trust and looking people in the eye, even when players are generally thinking about real stuff like, "Pay me."
Ultimately, if the Mariners are to make any progress toward being even mediocre again, it'll have a lot more to do with Washburn and Brandon Morrow than the GM. It'll be about the bullpen, and the career crossroads of infielders Yuniesky Betancourt and Jose Lopez, and outliving some of the contracts handed out by previous management.
"There were a lot of things here that didn't work," Zduriencik said. "I would suspect some of these players are embarrassed by what happened a year ago."
Now, he said, "You're not going to go from Mickey Mouse to Mighty Mouse overnight," but there's no reason to be completely goofy about it, either. He'll expect them to conduct themselves reasonably, to play the game, to want to earn those handshakes.
Sure it's corny. How'd cool work for them? How'd selfish go?
"I'm pulling for these guys," he said. "I want them to be successful. I realize what that means to them. Winning, the things that come along with winning, that sustains players for a lifetime. And they're mature enough to know what that means."
Well, everybody's curious.
- Jack Zduriencik