Back in July, in those heady days when the world was all atwitter with anticipation that the Nationals were finally going to be free of Jim, I did a little post mostly stolen from Will Carroll on the potential replacements out there. At the time, I said I would make Mike Rizzo my choice to take over, and I still feel that way, but if there was one other candidate out there who tempted me as possibly a better choice than Rizzo, it was Jack Zduriencik, former Brewers AGM and as of about two months ago the new Seattle Mariners GM.
As Brewers scouting director from 1999 to 2008, Zduriencik's drafts were incredible, getting Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, Yovani Gallardo, and Rickie Weeks in one 3-year span, not to mention Ben Sheets, Matt Laporta, Matt Gamel, J.J. Hardy, Manny Parra, Dana Eveland, and Corey Hart. In 2007, he became the only non-GM to be named Baseball America's executive of the year. It was his savvy drafting and player development that made the small-market Brewers the perennial contender they are.
Since arriving in Seattle, he's done nothing but make one good move after another.
He resisted the urge to hire a major league retread for manager and bucked a famously meddling ownership group (who wanted Joey Cora), hiring veteran minor league manager Don Wakamatsu. I don't know that much about Wakamatsu, but this is a case where the mere willingness to break from convention and do something new is a good sign.
He created a bunch of position flexibility and addressed his glaring first base problem (where playing time in 2008 was shared by an awful group led by Richie Sexson, Miguel Cairo, Bryan LaHair, Jose Lopez, and Jose Vidro) with a nifty little platoon of Russell Branyan on the strong side paired with Chris Shelton, all for $2 mil.
He let aging, lead-gloved Raul Ibanez go, but not before offering him arbitration and turning him into two draft picks.
In the Rule 5 draft, he grabbed Reegie Corona to fill another utility spot on the bench and better yet got lefty reliever Jose Lugo, whose groundball and strikeout numbers project him as at least a good LOOGY and maybe much more. Lugo could be the best pick in the whole rule 5 in retrospect.
And the real head-turner is the blockbuster 3-way deal shipping out closer J.J. Putz, reliever Sean Green, outfielder Jeremy Reed, and second-baseman Luis Valbuena for outfielders Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, pitcher Aaron Heilman, and a whole slew of prospects: first-baseman Mike Carp, outfielder Ezequiel Carrera, and pitchers Maikel Cleto, and Jason Vargas.
Gutierrez, a fabulous defender, takes over in centerfield. He won't hit a ton, but his fantastic defense will make him a solid contributor overall and help flyball pitchers like Jarrod Washburn, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and Brandon Morrow.
Chavez is another plus defender who will be a solid fourth outfielder. Heilman has a chance to use the extreme change of scenery to turn his career around either as a starter or late-innings reliever. Carp is a promising bat who will have a chance to take over from the Branyan-Shelton band-aid. Cleto was the #8 prospect in the Mets system with a 97 mph fastball and good command, and Vargas is an interesting guy who will compete with Lugo for a lefty reliever role. Even Carrera has potential with plus defense and plate discipline.
Taken together, this is a team that is getting younger and restocking it's system while ALSO getting better at the big league level. He's shown the ability to target undervalued commodities and piece them together into a roster that's more than the sum of it's parts. Now this is how you do it. I'm rooting for Z and the M's, if nothing else so I can live vicariously through a team that at least for the moment looks like it has a far better idea what they're doing than Jim and the Nationals.