Jack Zduriencik, executive vice president & general manager of the… (Otto Greule Jr. / Getty Images )
Reporting from Seattle -- Jack Zduriencik is not your typical general manager.
He smiles more than he frowns, for example, and he laughs easily and frequently.
If you didn't know better, you'd figure Zduriencik was running the playoff-bound Philadelphia Phillies or Milwaukee Brewers.
Instead, he's in charge of the Seattle Mariners, who are on pace to lose more than 90 games this year after dropping 101 last summer.
The Mariners were last in the majors in scoring and hitting a year ago, and they're last in the American League in both categories this season, when they also endured a franchise-record 17-game losing streak.
Oh, and did we mention they haven't been to the postseason since 2001?
So why is this man smiling?
Well, for one, he recently signed a multiyear contract extension. For another, he's still confident in his master plan, one he got away from last year.
After spending $117 million on the AL's losingest team in 2008, a performance that cost then-GM Bill Bavasi his job, Mariners management decided to go in another direction. Rather than playing the expensive and uncertain free-agent lottery, they decided on a plan to cut payroll by about 20% over the next three seasons and invest that money in player development.
Zduriencik (pronounced Zur-EN-sik), a former scouting director for the Dodgers who rebuilt the once-dismal Brewers farm system, was brought in to guide the program.
"We're going to build this thing and we're in the process of doing that now," he says. "I think the plan is clear. You're going to see a lot of young kids."
The jury is still out on how that's working. But it's got a better chance for success than the quick-fix strategy the Mariners tried in 2010.
Knowing that Seattle's spacious ballpark has been one of the toughest places to score over the last four years, Zduriencik tried to build his club around pitching, speed and defense. It looked good on paper, too. With a pitching staff headed by Cliff Lee, Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard; a defense that featured three Gold Glove winners; and an offensive catalyst in former Angel Chone Figgins, the Mariners were the sexy pick to win the AL West.
Instead, Bedard missed the season with injury, Lee was traded in July, Ken Griffey retired and Figgins batted a career-low .259 as the punchless Mariners finished last, costing Manager Don Wakamatsu his job.
"I can't give you a reason for what happened," Figgins says. "You look at paper, everybody looks good until the season starts. You never know which direction it will go."
Zduriencik remains committed to a defense-first strategy and says now that he didn't really expect last year's club to compete. He also claims he never took his eye off the team's long-term reconstruction.
"Any time you build an organization, you have to be realistic about where you're at," he says. "We were trying to do some things at the big league level and some things worked out real well. Some other things didn't.
"But we never really got away from our plan. And that was to build this thing from the ground up. That's what we're in the process of doing."
So, after starting five players with six or more years of big league experience on opening day last year, Seattle started five rookies in last week's series with the Angels. Four members of the starting rotation are first-year players as well, leaving Seattle with the fifth-youngest roster in baseball.
Gone are the likes of Griffey, Lee, Bedard, Milton Bradley, Casey Kotchman, Russell Branyan, Jack Wilson and Eric Byrnes, only one of whom is younger than 30. In their place, the Mariners have Michael Pineda, Dustin Ackley, Mike Carp, Trayvon Robinson and Kyle Seager, none older than 25.
The Mariners say they are intent on protecting those young players too, especially the pitchers — even if they have to challenge convention to do it. Last year, the team created the unusual position of director of sports science and performance, then hired Harvard-educated doctor Marcus Elliott to fill it.
If sabermetrics changed the way baseball defines performance, Zduriencik thinks Elliott's approach to fitness — which included removing the weights from the Mariners' minor league weight rooms — will revolutionize conditioning.
No one knows whether any of this will pay off with a title, but the Mariners' frugal management has given Zduriencik at least two more years to find out.
"Any general manager will tell you, you make decisions and do what you think is the very best," he says. "Sometimes you get really surprised by a player. Sometimes you get very disappointed.
"I think we've turned the page, and the direction is clear."