The Jack Zduriencik Era is Over
December 18, 2009 at roughly 10:40am Pacific. The rumor that the M’s had swapped Carlos Silva for Milton Bradley of the Cubs had just been confirmed, and there were unconfirmed stories and quotes from unnamed sources floating around on the still-new platform of Twitter. One of those rumors, one that no one could actually source, was that the deal was a straight swap – despite somewhat unequal contracts and even more unequal 2008 stats, Zduriencik possibly rid himself of the entirety of Silva’s contract. Jon Heyman harshed our buzz and said the M’s were sending $6m to the Cubs, but that wasn’t until 10:45. About 48 hours before, Zduriencik pried Cliff Lee away from Philadelphia for a package headlined by Phillippe Aumont and JC Ramirez. He turned the M’s worst starter into a Cy Young favorite at a cost of a couple of decent prospects AND somehow come out with a league-average bat with the potential for a lot more. It still sounds impossible, even when you know exactly how bad everything went on and off the field. At 10:40am on 12/18/2009, I, and I suspect many other M’s fans, thought the only real worry the M’s had about their GM is that he might ascend to another plane of existence, or force MLB to make rule changes to restore competitive balance (“Jack, you’re not allowed to look directly into other GMs eyes anymore, because wheeeeennnn ok, MLB will allow the Mariners to begin each game with a 2 run lead.”).
For those who’d suffered through the previous GM’s tenure, or for those who came later, all of this optimism must seem pretty strange. We’re the fanbase that’s always waiting for the other shoe to drop, waiting for the next punch to land. There are fans who sincerely believe 2015 is the most disappointing season in M’s history, but I don’t think anyone who lived through 2010 dizzying fall could see 2015 as comparable. The M’s have had plenty of disappointment, even in their greatest years. But there was something about watching a team we believed in too much become the laughingstock of the league – from WS expectations to historically inept – that’s made it hard to invest too much in any M’s team that’s come after it. Let’s be clear: this is MY fault, OUR fault and not Jack’s. But while we all high fived and breathed a sigh of relief when Bavasi left, my feeling’s different now. The intensity of my fandom’s been permanently restricted; I simply can’t be the kind of fan I was at 10:40am, December 18th, 2009 anymore.
A big part of that might be age and life and the way 518 losses in 5.5 years rewires your brain to spare you some pain. But a part of it is that we fell too hard for the idea that the right executive is all you need. That a General Manager can remake an organization, from top to bottom, relatively quickly and have everything just work out. We see this all the time – Cardinals fans believe in their org, and Astros fans will tell you more than you wanted to know about their vaunted Process. But the more you look into them, the more you see just how extensive change needs to be. The Cards aren’t the Cards because of their GM, they’re where they are because of dozens or hundreds of people. A leader can be vital in creating and nurturing a culture that works for player development or pro scouting, but it takes an entire organization to make it work. As fans, we thought at one point that Zduriencik was a kind of cheat code – his blend of scouting acumen and willingness to listen to newfangled metrics would blend the best of old school and new and make the Cardinals look like the St. Louis Browns in short order. Instead, what we saw was a front office that seemed to be at war with itself. Instead of creating a culture, the GM created a growing list of enemies. Nearly every group – from Pro Scouting to Player Development was overhauled, and nothing much seemed to change.
Today, Ryan Divish tweeted out the two words that felt inevitable and overdue.
— Ryan Divish (@RyanDivish) August 28, 2015
Kevin Mather released the kind of statement that always accompanies moves like this, and so the M’s search begins in earnest. The new guy (or gal) inherits a farm system in the bottom third in baseball, and with a very good but aging and expensive core. There are a number of strategies the new group could employ, from Astros-style teardown to using their new revenue to essentially buy their way out of rebuilding years. I’ll be a fan, and I look forward to writing about the differences between the new crew and the old one, but I think we’ll all going to look at the early moves – and feel differently about the early moves – than we did back in the heady days of 2008-2009. For now, Jeff Kington will lead the team, while Kevin Mather reviews his list of experienced candidates. Kingston won’t be the permanent GM, which recalls the days in the Bavasi-Zduriencik interregnum when ownership blocked a trade and the M’s couldn’t really begin to retool in earnest. The M’s and fans just have to get through a string of games that feel even more useless than most Septembers’. After that, we’ll try to feel optimistic again.
I’ll end with a stab at optimism: The M’s front office was incapable of building a team to reliably compete in the AL. The M’s realized this and made a change. Realistically, the M’s are further from their goal of competing in the medium term than they were before the year started, but even this helped clarify things and point a way forward. We knew before the year that the M’s had risks at the catcher spot, the bullpen and CF, and those risks have ended up sinking the season. The risks have turned into a shopping list or a player development challenge. Someone else will figure out what to do about these issues, and I’m excited to see what they do. I’ll just never be excited as I was in December of 2009 again.*
* Seriously, what does it say about the M’s that the best many of us have felt about the club in a decade or so came in the offseason?