The Hot Stove league had just started to simmer when they announced the signing of All-Star infielder Chone Figgins. A couple weeks later, while the baseball world was fixated on where Roy Halladay would land, the Mariners swept in and grabbed All-Star pitcher Cliff Lee as part of the Halladay deal.
And now this week, on a day when most teams were completing one-year deals with arbitration-eligible players, the Mariners again stole the headlines by locking up their other ace pitcher, Felix Hernandez, to a five-year extension that will keep him in their rotation through the 2014 season.
The man behind all those moves is 59-year-old Jack Zduriencik, the oldest general manager in the Major Leagues, but among the newest to hold the GM title.
Zduriencik, the son of a steel mill worker from Western Pennsylvania, brought his tireless work ethic to the Mariners in 2008 after the club posted its first 100-loss season in 25 years. If the first 15 months of his tenure are a sign of things to come, then happy days are here again at Safeco Field, which has not hosted a postseason game since 2001.
As the start of Spring Training approaches, the assurances Zduriencik made on the day he was introduced as the GM are being fulfilled, and the team is back on the right track.
"I think Jack and Wak [manager Don Wakamatsu] have done a tremendous job changing the culture in Seattle," Rangers GM Jon Daniels said. "They've got a pretty clear plan and everything they have done has fallen into place. They are going to be a tough team to score upon, especially in that ballpark. They're emphasizing pitching and defense and are doing everything they can towards that. There's no doubt they've made the division tougher."
Mariners staying busy
|Transactions since 2009 season ended|
| Nov. 4: Claimed right-handed pitcher Yusmeiro Petit off waivers from the Diamondbacks.|
| Nov. 11: Re-signed outfielder/designated hitter Ken Griffey Jr.|
| Nov. 20: Signed free-agent catcher Eliezer Alfonzo.|
| Dec. 8: Signed free-agent infielder Chone Figgins to four-year contract.|
| Dec. 10: Signed free-agent outfielder Corey Patterson, re-signed free-agent shortstop Josh Wilson and claimed pitcher Kanekoa Texeira from the Yankees' Trenton farm team in the Rule 5 Draft.|
| Dec. 16: Acquired left-handed pitcher Cliff Lee from the Phillies for right-handed pitcher J.C. Ramirez, right-handed pitcher Phillippe Aumont and outfielder Tyson Gillies.|
| Dec. 18: Traded right-handed pitcher Carlos Silva to the Cubs for outfielder Milton Bradley and re-signed free-agent outfielder Ryan Langerhans.|
| Dec. 23: Acquired right-handed reliever Brandon League, along with Minor League outfielder Johermyn Chavez, for right-handed pitcher Brandon Morrow.|
| Dec. 28: Signed free-agent catcher Josh Bard and right-handed reliever Chad Cordero to Minor League contracts with invitations to Spring Training.|
| Jan. 6: Re-signed utility infielder Chris Woodward to a Minor League contract that included an invitation to Spring Training.|
| Jan. 7: Finalized a trade with the Red Sox, acquiring Casey Kotchman for Bill Hall, a Minor League player to be named and cash.|
| Jan. 8: Signed center fielder Franklin Gutierrez to a four-year contract extension.|
| Jan. 13: Signed free-agent first baseman Brad Nelson.|
| Jan. 15: Claimed first baseman Tommy Everidge off waivers from the Athletics.|
| Jan. 19: Reached agreement, pending physical, with right-handed pitcher Felix Hernandez on a five-year, $78 million contract.|
Astute trades and free-agent signings that helped change the clubhouse chemistry are among the decisions that indicate Mariners management hit a home run by selecting Zduriencik from a long list of candidates to run the organization's baseball operations.
So much improvement has been made in such a short time in fact, that "In Jack We Trust" has become a popular slogan in the Northwest.
"It's flattering, but I blush when I hear that," Zduriencik said. "This is not about me. I am the front guy in the baseball department, the guider of the ship, if you will. But this is a team effort, from ownership on down."
Since moving into the GM office at Safeco Field on Oct. 22, 2008, the Z-man has made so many changes that only eight of the 44 players who appeared in at least one game during that forgettable season are still in the orgazation -- Hernandez, Ichiro Suzuki, Jose Lopez, Mark Lowe, Ryan Rowland-Smith, Matt Tuiasosopo, Rob Johnson and Ryan Feierabend.
"Honestly?" Zduriencik said. "I didn't know that. But when you lose 100 games, you have to do a lot of things. You open every door to try to bring in the right players. Some of the players you bring in, you send right back out, as we did with [Aaron] Heilman and [Ronny] Cedeno last year."
The Mariners finished the 2009 season with an 85-77 record, a MLB-best 24-win improvement, and Zduriencik's approval rating rose steadily during the campaign.
It soared even higher with his latest move, agreeing with Hernandez on a five-year contract extension.
The search for the eighth GM in franchise history was well under way before Jack Zduriencik's name surfaced -- during separate conversations Mariners president Chuck Armstrong had with Commissioner Bud Selig and former Twins GM Terry Ryan.
"Both spoke very highly of Jack," Armstrong recalled. "I started talking to other people and they all said the same things about him. He is well-regarded in our industry."
So well-regarded that in 2007 Baseball America selected Zduriencik as its "Major League Executive of the Year," the only time a non-GM has been chosen for the award.
He quickly moved up on the Mariners' candidates list, eventually becoming one of the four finalists. At the end of the day -- one of his favorite expressions -- Z-man had moved to the front of the class.
"One thing that stood out in our interviews, and still does, is how prepared and informed Jack is," Armstrong said. "He knew things about our organization that I thought I was the only one that knew. I sat there going, 'Wow!'"
Armed with a briefcase stocked with information, and an impressive resume, Zduriencik rose to the top of the list, landing a job he had wanted for a long time. But not one to toot his own horn, he simply stayed the course in the job he had at the time and bided his time.
"Jack works hard, is very well prepared, and uses all the tools available to him," Armstrong said. "He has the experience of an old-time scout, and the new-age, sophisticated statistical analyses."
|The Jack Zduriencik File|
|Born: Jan. 11, 1951, in New Castle, Pa.
|Education: Bachelor's Degree in education from Cal-State Pennsylvania; Masters Degree in physical education from Austin Peay State University.
|Playing career: Second baseman in the Chicago White Sox farm system in 1973-74, playing for the Gulf Coast (Fla.) White Sox and Appleton (Wis.) Foxes.
| Personal: Wife, Debbie, and daughter, Kimberly.
| Front-office career:
|1980-89: Area scout, Mets.
|1990: National cross-checker, Mets.
|1991-93: Director of scouting, Pirates.
|1994-95: National cross-checker, Mets.
|1995-98: Director of Minor League operations, Mets.
|1998: Special assistant to general manager, Mets.
|1998-99: Director of international operations, Dodgers.
|1999-2006: Director of scouting, Brewers.
|2006-08: Special assistant to GM and director of amateur scouting, Brewers.
|2008: Special assistant to the GM for player personnel, Brewers.
|2008-present: Executive vice president and general manager, baseball operations, Mariners.|
| Career highlight: In recognizing his ability to find, draft and develop young players for the Brewers, he became the only non-GM to be selected as Baseball America's "Major League Executive of the Year" in 2007.
|Hobbies: "I like to golf once in a while, but mostly I use my time off to spend time with my wife and our family. Debbie and I go to dinner every Friday night. That's our 'date night' and we share what's going on. Our daughter, Kim, is a nurse practitioner in Pittsburgh and we're very proud of her. I wish we could see her more, but she will come out to Seattle this season."|
|Mission: "I'd love to be able to say I can turn it over to my subordinates to run their departments as best they can. I want to do that. I will lead, I will guide and I will suggest, but they may have better suggestions than me. So I have to be open to that. My goal is to create a team. I can tell you sincerely, when this is said and done, this is going to be a team from top to bottom."|
As a result, a team that was called such things as "hapless" and "dysfunctional" just two seasons ago, is now regarded as a threat to unseat the Angels atop the American League West this year.
Indeed, the improvement made in 2009, and additions to the roster this offseason, have returned the organization to respectability after four last-place finishes in the previous five seasons.
Whether it happens in 2010 or later, Zduriencik is determined to build a championship team in Seattle.
"I expect to win," he said. "I expect this group of people to be successful, the front office, the scouting staff, the player development staff and the guys on the field. You are playing the game to win. You are supposed to win, and that is what we intend to do. We want to be as good as we can be for a long time.
"I believe that by working together, we can make the Mariners a model franchise."
The Z-man's roots
Born on Jan. 11, 1951, in New Castle, Pa., some 50 miles west of Pittsburgh, John A. "Jack" Zduriencik grew up in an environment where hard work and sports went hand in hand.
The area produced some terrific athletes, including such stars as Terry Hanratty, Mike Ditka, Joe Namath, Tony Dorsett and Pete Maravich. Former Pirates manager Chuck Tanner and six NFL coaches, including Chuck Knox and Marty Schottenheimer, were raised in the New Castle area.
"It was a steel mill community and most of the jobs were steel mill related," Zduriencik said. "In fact, that was my summer job when I was growing up. Everybody I worked with were tough Western Pennsylvania, blue-collar type people.
"They worked hard and for long hours. You watched how hard everyone else worked, and you did the same thing because you knew you weren't going to succeed if you didn't get after it."
When asked at his introductory press conference to describe his work ethic and approach to his job, he said, "I'm probably a 24/7 guy, and to some degree, a little no-nonsense. I like to get right down to it. Let's not waste each other's time. There's a job to be done here. The hours are valuable. I like decisions. I like information.
"I am demanding, but fair."
Zduriencik loved sports, especially baseball, growing up and became good enough to receive a contract offer from the White Sox after graduating from California University of Pennsylvania with a degree in education.
The 5-10, 165-pound infielder signed a contract and spent two seasons in the low Minors, primarily with Appleton, Wis., batted .143 and hit no home runs. He was released at the end of the 1974 season.
"That's why I'm in the business end of the game," he said. "I was a fill-in player. I had a lot of heart and a lot of desire. I gave it everything I had. I got a break and played in the Minors until someone called me in and said, 'Jack, we're releasing you.' I had to take another avenue in life."
It was goodbye baseball and hello football.
Zduriencik's high school football coach, Jack Bushovsky, was the head coach at Austin Peay State University and offered Zduriencik, a quarterback/linebacker in high school, a job as the receivers coach.
The offer was accepted, but a couple of years later, Zduriencik returned to his passion -- baseball. His first gig was coaching the baseball and football teams at Clairton High School in Pittsburgh, followed by a coaching stint at Tarpon Springs (Fla.) High School.
While in Florida, a Mets scout recommended Zduriencik to Joe McIlvaine, the Mets' GM.
An ensuing interview with McIlvaine went so well that Zduriencik was offered a job as an area scout, covering Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
"I wasn't sure what to do," Zduriencik said. "At the time, I wanted to be a college baseball coach."
But he accepted the Mets offer, packed up and moved his family -- wife Debbie and daughter Kimberly -- to Oklahoma.
The scout who recommended Zduriencik was Carmen Fusco, a longtime buddy from New Castle, and now the Mariners' director of professional scouting.
Climbing the ladder
After spending seven seasons as an area scout with the Mets, Zduriencik branched out and eventually worked in every department in a Major League operation, traveling the country and the world to find talented baseball players for the Mets, Pirates, Dodgers and Brewers.
"I have done all the jobs, including scouting director, international director and area scout," Zduriencik said, "so when I am sitting in a meeting with our staff, I can look at a guy and know exactly what he's going through. I can relate to them."
That all-around experience has helped make a smooth transition into the hottest seat in any front office a seemingly smooth one.
"Jack has a lot of experience in evaluating talent and how that talent needs to be developed," said Wayne Krivsky, a former Reds GM and now an assistant to Mets GM Omar Minaya. "That puts him a leg up on some of the competition. He is well-versed in that area, and has worked with a lot of good people."
Zduriencik values the knowledge he has received along the way, gathering information that he hopes will turn the Mariners into a perennial playoff contending team and someday a World Series champion.
"There are so many things you learn from so many different people," he said. "You take a little from everybody and add your own ideas. I even go back to my college football coaching days."
Zduriencik believes, among other things, a team can't win without a good center fielder, a quality closer, power pitching, and a shortstop capable of catching baseballs hit up the middle. He also understands that there is no such thing as too much information and he insists that in-house information stays in-house.
"Jack keeps his business to himself and is very close-to-the-vest," Krivsky said. "He doesn't like the competition to know what's he's doing."
That explains the surprise the baseball world had when he quickly signed Figgins in early December, and when he swooped in to grab Lee as part of the three-team Halladay trade. It was also a surprise when he swapped right-handed pitcher Carlos Silva to the Cubs for left fielder Milton Bradley.
Last season, he acquired center fielder Franklin Gutierrez and closer David Aardsma in trades and signed free agents Russell Branyan, Mike Sweeney and Ken Griffey Jr., all of whom played key roles on the field and in the clubhouse.
"We are trying to put the best club on field for our ballpark," Zduriencik said. "I hope, as we move forward, the players we develop, the guys we are drafting and signing, here and internationally, ultimately will be what this organization is all about."
In the meantime, he continues to build the team via trades and free-agent signings, adding pieces to the Minor League system as well.
"Jack has the ability to listen, take in all this information, and make a decision on what he thinks is best for the organization," Wakamatsu said. "He has done everything in the game and that's where a lot of his understanding on how to build a team comes from. He has paid his dues and built great relationships along the way."
As Krivsky said, "They got the right guy."
Jim Street is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.