If you’re a Mariners fan looking for a sign of progress beyond the participation ribbon, juice box and orange slice awarded the seasonal finish, here’s one: The franchise payroll is going up.
General manager Jack Zduriencik didn’t say how much, but the mere fact that he said it Tuesday afternoon was fairly remarkable. If attention is paid these annual Mariners obituaries, the answer to the question of payroll is always deferred, avoided and generally dispatched, a small but tangible symbol of the dithering that has been a franchise hallmark.
The figure at the beginning of the season was about $90 million, which sounds OK, but was ranked 21st among 30 team in this Los Angeles Times compilation. So the Mariners were a bottom-third team. They added some payroll with mid-season trades and, at 87-75, were about team No. 11 in performance. Which means that, for a dramatic change, the Mariners got bang for buck.
Still, $90 million is nowhere close to the club-record $110 million in 2008, a number the media-revenue-wealthy Mariners can easily afford. But rather than hem and haw about a payroll increase, Zduriencik said he has the commitment.
“We don’t know the exact number, but I’m encouraged about our payroll,” he said at Safeco Field in a wrap-up press conference with Lloyd McClendon. Yes, the payroll could go up $1.98, but the fact the Zduriencik was emboldened not to dither suggests that CEO Howard Lincoln had seen enough to open the door a crack to his House of Secrets.
Lincoln, in fact, visited Zduriencik Monday morning in the office after the season ended Sunday one game short of a shot at the playoffs.
“He congratulated us on a nice season,” Zduriencik said. “He was disappointed, like all of us, but he had really nice things to say about myself and Lloyd. He was encouraged by what we saw.”
The scene represented a 180-degree reversal from a year ago, when manager Eric Wedge, before concluding a 71-91 season, said he was not coming back, and then offered an almost daily pre-game diatribe about the front office and ownership.
“Let me be clear here: the contract is not the reason I’m not coming back here,” Wedge told reporters after he was denied more than a one-year extension. “If they’d offered me a five-year contract, I wouldn’t have come back here. It’s where they see the club. They being Howard, Chuck (Armstrong, retired president) and Jack. And where I see the club and my vision for the future . . . it’s just different. And that’s about as plain as I can make it.
“And having consistency. You have to have consistency with personnel. Every time you turn over, you start over again, to a certain extent.”
Beyond his walk-off loss, Wedge never was specific about the personnel decisions with which he sought consistency. But the fracture was so unpleasant that at the same wrap-up presser a year earlier, Zduriencik refused to refer to Wedge by name.
So to see Zduriencik and McClendon engaging in deferential patter with one another was fairly remarkable. Winning, of course, makes everything easier. Whether it has made anyone smarter will be the test for the off-season.
Maintaining a competitive payroll has not been much of an issue among discerning fans. The issue was upon whom the money was spent. Nearly every club can point to misspent payroll, but the way the Mariners stacked the dead wood is the biggest reason they remain 13 years removed from the playoffs.
Regarding the pursuit of talent that will end that drought — since 2003 the Mariners and Toronto Blue Jays are the only teams that have failed to make the playoffs — Zduriencik stated the obvious.
“We’d like to add some offense and a starting pitcher,” Zduriencik said. “We’ll explore every option.”
After the tandem interview ended, McClendon was asked how he parsed his obvious need for offense. He said what all successful teams need is veteran, proven hitters in the 3-4-5-6 lineup spots. In Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager, the Mariners have two.
“We need two,” he said.
He still believes in CF Austin Jackson as a leadoff hitter. He knew Jackson from their days together in Detroit, and said his September fade was due to fatigue and a problem with his swing. Both, he said, are fixable.
With Dustin Ackley apparently reaching maturity as a solid two-hole hitter and nearly a major-league average left fielder, and Mike Zunino solid behind the plate, the Mariners are reducing their needs to a manageable number.
“Last spring we didn’t know who our left fielder, center fielder, right fielder, first baseman or shortstop were going to be,” he said. “We have a lot of those answers now. I like where we are. I think we’re going to be able to accomplish some more specific things in spring training.”
If they first accomplish the specific tasks of hiring a quality starting pitcher and two veteran hitters with the increased payroll, McClendon can get specific about putting away the participation ribbons.
Hultzen regaining health
LHP Danny Hultzen, out all season after rotator cuff surgery, was reported by Zduriencik to have thrown well in the instructional league. He had surgery Oct. 1 a year ago and recently threw 25 pitches against live hitting.
“They said it was really impressive,” Zduriencik said. “He feels really good and is now shut down. He’s finished for the fall. He showed an average fastball, really good curve and changeup. He was confident and his delivery is sound. So he’ll go home and come back in January and be ready for spring training.”
Hultzen, the first-round pick in the 2011 draft, should be full go.
“This kid has been through a lot this year,” he said. “The fact he’s been on the mound in instructional league is enough.”
“We’re not counting on him, no,” said McClendon. “But having said that, it’s going to be pretty exciting to see him out there on that mound, no question.”
Dustin Ackley will see a specialist for options regarding his left ankle . . . Taijuan Walker will pitch a little in the Arizona Fall League, but James Paxton will not . . . Jesus Montero was returned to the 40-man roster Monday after his suspension for a verbal altercation with a team scout at a minor league game, and DH/OF Corey Hart was cut to make room. Montero will spend the off-season in Peoria with his family and under supervision during a program that “should help him in many areas, on the field and off,” Zduriencik said.