BY John Hickey 11:25PM 07/04/2010

Not Jack’s fault: It’s the payroll

Despite shedding expensive vets, M’s GM had to cut even more

Jack Aduriencik Seattle Mariners 2010

Jack Zduriencik

More than three months into a massively disappointing 2010 season, the Mariners are still operating an offense that is stuck in the mud.

Wheels spin, but progress is minimal.

Not only was the fate apparent from the start of the season, it’s almost as if the flaws were woven into the fabric of the team general manager Jack Zduriencik put together in the off-season.

He and manager Don Wakamatsu wanted a team that could pitch and play defense. It was the path of least resistance, given that Seattle led the American League in earned run average last year.

That path, however, was really the only one open, given that club CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong decided the player payroll was going down – again.

It was $117 million in a disastrous 2008 of just 61 wins. In 2009, it was trimmed to $100 million, yet the team improved to 85 wins.

Cutting payroll and getting vastly better results is unusual. Cutting payroll to make money is the corporate norm, especially with another bad forecast for the economy in 2010, as well as an anticipated dip in attendance from the Safeco-record-low of 2.2 million in ’09.

Not only were the ’09 Mariners offensively challenged, they would lose first baseman Russell Branyan and his 31 homers because of Branyan’s continuing back troubles, as well as his desire for a two-year guaranteed contract. Adrian Beltre was lost to free agency and Boston, and catcher Kenji Johjima decided to finish his career in Japan and left.

The upside was that the money due Branyan, Beltre and Johjima, as well as the expired contracts of pitchers Miguel Batista, Erik Bedard and Jarrod Washburn, made for nearly $50 million coming off the books. The Mariners figured to have some cash to spend.

Looking back at midseason now, the wonder is why more money wasn’t directed toward propping up the offense.

The reality is that the Lincoln-Armstrong decision to cut the payroll to $93 million shackled Zduriencik  at a level evident as soon as the team assembled in Peoria, Ariz., for spring training.

Beltre, injured much of 2009, was offered a four-year, $36 million contract. He and his agent, Scott Boras, thought the Gold Glover and potential power source should get better. They turned it down. Zduriencik didn’t think twice. He offered the same deal to Chone Figgins, who brought defense and a high on-base percentage, although no power.

Zduriencik also extended the contract of center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, re-signed shortstop Jack Wilson two a two-year deal and, most important, induced Felix Hernandez to put his name on a five-year, $78 million deal.

The Mariners were offered a huge upgrade in the starting rotation — lefty Cliff Lee. The Phillies were adding Roy Halladay to their rotation and the Philadelphia minor league cupboard was bare. So the Phillies swapped Lee to the Mariners for three prospects – pitcher Phillippe Aumont, pitcher J.C. Ramirez and outfielder Tyson Gillies.

Doesn’t happen often that a former Cy Young Award (2008) winner still at the top of his game gets gift-wrapped and delivered into your mound. Zduriencik jumped. If you had his job, you would have done the same. Sure, Lee  was signed for one year and would be eligible for free agency after the 2010 season. But if the Mariners could replicate their highly successful 2009 season with him, that might convince the Arkansas ace that the Northwest was the place for him.

Trouble was, the offense, limited enough in 2009, was decimated by the losses of Branyan and Beltre.

Replacement choices were relatively few,  without taking risks on health (Vladimir Guerrero) or giving up the pitching and defense that was already on hand. The Yankees’ free agent DH, Hideki Matsui, wasn’t going to share a spotlight in Seattle with countryman Ichiro.

There was one chance to make up for the obvious lack of power. Outfielder Jason Bay, a B.C. native who was more than idly interested in playing in the Northwest, was a free agent after a 36-homer season with the Red Sox.

The decision to cut payroll eliminated a play for Bay. Given his weak first half with the Mets, maybe that wasn’t bad.

Zduriencik went another way — surprising all of baseball by sending unproductive starting pitcher Carlos Silva to the Cubs for outfielder Milton Bradley, a switch-hitter with a history of high on-base percentage and 20-homer power. He was also one of the most volatile, controversial figures in the game; Bradley’s disruptive behavior got him suspended for the final weeks of 2009. But Silva was a two-year bust in Seattle. His 8-0 start in Chicago doesn’t alter the fact that he was never going to be anything but a bust in Seattle.

There was roster space for either Bradley or Bay, not both. Each played left field and having one of them serve as the designated hitter wasn’t going to happen, because DH had been promised in November to Ken Griffey Jr. It was a low-budget, high-ticket-revenue decision that worked the worst way possible.

Griffey lost what little power he had shown in 2009, hit .184 and became a distraction. After Wakamatsu justifiably benched him in late May, a wounded Griffey abruptly quit the team with a written statement and no farewell.  The unpleasant conclusion to his stellar career embarrassed Griffey and the franchise nationally, and hurt feelings lingered in the clubhouse for a time.

Zduriencik came with up another surprise in late June, trading for the much-missed Branyan, who signed with Cleveland in the off-season. After recovering from a herniated disk in May, Branyan was ripping the ball again, enough for the Mariners to part with a couple of promising prospects in order to re-acquire a power lefty who proved last season that he was unbothered by Safeco Field’s anti-slugging conditions.

The Branyan rehire was another awkward episode for the club, because they were already out of contention in the AL West. For most teams as far behind as the M’s are at midseason, they unload vets for prospects and begin to look to next season. But Zduriencik didn’t want his stellar starting rotation further compromised by poor offense, nor did the club want a repeat of the the decay that made 2008 so horrible for fans and players.

But the move was one of desperation, created by the off-season decision to doom the offense by cutting payroll.

For the rest of July, we’re going to be hearing about teams wanting to trade for Lee. It’s the only sensible option for the Mariners, given how little was done in the offseason to make a good argument for him to stay beyond a season.

John Hickey is a national baseball writer for AOL FanHouse


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