Not since the club’s inaugural season of 1977 have the Mariners used as many as eight rookies in a game, as they did Monday in the 6-5 win over Toronto.
The Mariners have either discovered how to reverse the aging process (watch for the infomercial on late-night cable) or they are pushing most of their franchise chips into the pot.
The card game has a couple years to play out. But general manager Jack Zduriencik’s contract does not. He’s up for renewal this off-season.
Judging by the comments of club CEO Howard Lincoln, in attendance Wednesday to meet Hultzen and Miller, he likes Zduriencik’s bet.
While declining to discuss the GM’s fate, he did say this: “Jack’s done a fabulous job.”
Is that the dreaded vote of confidence, or expression of sincere management conviction?
Hard to say. But if Hultzen’s view means anything, it’s a part of why he’s here instead of preparing for his senior year at the University of Virginia.
“I looked into (the roster),” Hultzen said. “The Mariners value young players. They don’t hold ’em back.”
Certainly, that’s true this year, which is a big contrast with the past, when management perpetually fooled itself by thinking it was a veteran free agent or two from solid contention (see Silva, Carlos; Spiezio, Scott . . . I’ll stop here; you know the drill).
Then again, the Mariners had relatively little choice, given the flameouts of veterans such as Milton Bradley, Chone Figgins and Jack Cust, as well as the disappointments of Ichiro and (until lately) Franklin Gutierrez. Still, the the abrupt and mostly productive arrivals of so many youngsters could be interpreted as Zduriencik feeling pressure to show his hand now as a way to save his job.
“Regardless of my contract situation, this is how I do things,” he said on the field before the series finale with Toronto. “I’m not changing now. We try to be competitive, by bringing a guy like (pitching star Cliff Lee in 2010). But above all, we have to have a foundation (of quality farm-system prospects). Otherwise, you’re always playing catch-up.”
The stockpile grew a little more Wednesday with news that the final player in the trade-deadline deal with Detroit was Chance Ruffin, a well-regarded relief pitcher taken with the 48th pick in the 2010 draft. An All-America pitcher at the University of Texas, Ruffin, 23 next month, was rated by Baseball America as the Tigers’ seventh-best prospect.
Ruffin, who pitched a couple of games for the Tigers and had a 1.84 ERA at Triple A Toledo, saving nine games in 10 tries, joins minor league infielder Francisco Martinez and two players Mariners fans have become acquainted with: Left fielder Casper Wells and lefty starter Charlie Furbush. The quartet came in exchange for starter Doug Fister and reliever David Pauley.
Along with Hultzen (who moved off reliever Chris Ray), Ruffin was put on the 40-man roster (dropping Aaron Laffey) and in uniform Wednesday, striking out home run leader Jose Bautista. Early returns on the four-for-two deal are promising, as are most of the rookie additions.
Hultzen Wednesday said all the right happy-to-be-here things. Zduriencik added one more point.
“These guys ought to be excited with this organization, because they won’t be up against three or four veteran free agents,” he said. “And we’re excited not only because of their talent, but because we (control their contractual rights) for five or six years.”
Once the commitment to go young is made, the guy in the crosshairs in the manager, who is charged with winning. But Zduriencik said manager Eric Wedge knew the job was dangerous when he took it.
“He’s in his first year here, and he knew where we were going and accepted it,” he said. “He’s been through this before in his time with Cleveland. He understood that once we reach a certain point (of competitiveness), the resources will be there.”
That point always will be a matter of skepticism among a fan base jaded by a 10th year without playoffs. And the fact remains that while the kids have proven an amusing distraction from the 17-game losing streak that killed the season, a few good weeks of one summer means little, particularly given the Mariners’ dubious personnel history.
One had only to look Wednesday night on the mound for a reminder. Blue Jays starter Brandon Morrow in 2006 out of Cal was once held nearly in the same regard as Hultzen is now. Taken fifth in the first round by the Mariners instead of Tim Lincecum, the eventual two-time National League Cy Young Award winner from the University of Washington, Morrow was whipsawed by the Mariners between the rotation and the bullpen to no good outcome (8-12 record, 3.96 ERA in three seasons, none longer than 70 innings).
Traded to Toronto for reliever Brandon League and outfielder Johermyn Chavez, Morrow got his health and head together together as a starter (10-7, 4.49, 146 IP last season; entered Wednesday 8-7 4.55, 126 IP this season). Even though League became an All-Star closer, Morrow will be forever remembered in Seattle as not being Lincecum, and not being handled well by the club. And Morrow showed he hasn’t forgotten; he struck out 12 in dominating his former team, 5-1.
Much randomness attends baseball careers, which explains a lot of why there is such high attrition among MLB GMs, managers and scouts. But the best of them know the chance to succeed is to grow a team’s own talent.
Zduriencik admits to “stubbing his toes” on a number of his moves on the major league level. But the early glimpse of what he calls his foundation is worth a contract extension sooner than later.
No sense in letting him go to Toronto to flourish.