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Jack Z. and the Great Prospects Peril

Otto Greule Jr

Earlier this week, I was doing a radio hit in Seattle and one of the co-hosts asked me to evaluate Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik. Well, the easy answer is that Zduriencik's been pretty terrible. In his four full seasons at the helm, the M's have been outscored by 388 runs. They're on pace to fare slightly worse this season. In the single most relevant barometer, Zduriencik has failed.

What about specific reasons for the Mariners' struggles, though?

The Chone Figgins contract was an unmitigated disaster. No getting around that one. Nobody saw it coming. But Figgins has essentially been the club's only high-profile free-agent signing, and the deal drove off a cliff and sank to the bottom of a canyon and exploded in a giant fireball. Just like in the movies.

The other best reasons are that Zduriencik's prized prospects haven't panned out.

For the last two or three seasons (including this one), key roles have been filled by Justin Smoak, Dustin Ackley, and Jesus Montero ... and all three have been disappointing. From 2011 through yesterday, Smoak's got a 95 OPS+, which is unacceptable for a first baseman. Ackley's OPS+ is even worse (90), but he's a good-fielding second baseman so he's actually been a good player since joining the M's in 2011 ... oh, except he was outstanding as a rookie, but wasn't as good last season and has been worse this season. Montero hit okay last season but has also struggled this season, leaving open the question whether he'll hit enough to stick as a Designated Hitter. Which seems an important question, since he seems lost as a catcher (and the Mariners' top prospect is a Triple-A catcher).

Ackley was a first-round draft pick, while Smoak and Montero came to the M's in high-profile trades. When you're rebuilding, these are the moves you have to get right. Right?

Young baseball players, though ... Man, they're tough to figure. Sure you've got your Ken Griffey Junior and your Bryces Harper. But once you get past the can't-miss prospects and into the might-miss prospects, you get a lot of misses. This struck me again just this morning, whilst reading this fine essay. It wasn't so long ago that Carlos Gomez and Fernando Martinez were considered of roughly the same value. Now one of them's playing like a big star, and the other's looking for gainful employment.

Today, Paul Goldschmidt leads the National League in runs batted in. Two years ago, Paul Goldschmidt was a No. 11 prospect.

Not a No. 11 prospect in baseball. The No. 11 prospect in the Diamondbacks' organization. Here are the guys who were ranked ahead of Goldschmidt in the Baseball America 2011 Prospect Handbook: Jarrod Parker, Tyler Skaggs, Matt Davidson, Chris Owings, Marc Krauss, A.J. Pollock, Bobby Borchering, Wade Miley, Pat Corbin, Keon Broxton.

Some of those guys (especially) the pitchers you know about. Some of those guys, you will know about. And a few of them might never appear in your optic nerves again. Just to be real clear about this ... Today, Paul Goldschmidt is probably one of the best dozen or so first basemen on this planet, and two years ago he wasn't considered one of the best 100 minor-league players in America.

Again, my point being that a prospect (or so the saying goes) is just a guy who hasn't done anything yet.

In the 2010 Prospect Handbook, here were editor Jim Callis's top three prospects:

1. Stephen Strasburg
2. Jason Heyward
3. Mike Stanton

Not bad, huh? This prospecting business is easy! Let's keep going!

4. Jesus Montero
5. Pedro Alvarez
6. Dustin Ackley

At the time, Montero was still a Yankee farmhand; Smoak, who took the 16th spot on Callis's list, was still a Ranger. Before long, though, Montero and Smoak would join Ackley on the Mariners. What a collection of outstanding prospects! These guys can't miss!

Except all three of them have, to varying degrees. Did Jack Zduriencik get the wrong guys? It's easy to say that now, and perhaps difficult to remember that Zduriencik got his job with the M's because of his sterling reputation as an evaluator of young talent. He served for years as the Brewers' Director of Scouting, and was named Major League Executive of the Year by Baseball America in 2007, as the Brewers were churning out prospects like so many widgets.

Five years ago, if you'd polled a large group of insiders and asked them to select five guys who should be in charge of drafting and player development, I'll bet Jack Zduriencik would have been on that list. So now three young players haven't panned out (yet). Is it Jack Zduriencik's fault? Or do these things just happen sometimes?

It's routinely said that Zduriencik's on the hot seat. This is understandable. He's made some moves that haven't worked, and we might have seen some of those coming. He seems to have jettisoned any real commitment to objective analysis, and the acquisitions last winter of veterans Jason Bay, Kendrys Morales, and Michael Morse were questionable, at least.

But Jack Zduriencik was hired to rebuild a weak farm system. Quickly, he stocked the system with three outstanding prospects. They've all become major leaguers, but not particularly good major leaguers. Now the system's loaded once more with three outstanding prospects: catcher Mike Zunino, and pitchers Taijuan Walker and Danny Hultzen.

I'm not at all convinced that Jack Zduriencik is a good general manager. But I suspect he hasn't lost his ability to measure young talent. He just needs those three guys to play better than those other three guys.