Entering the 2008 Major League Baseball season, the Seattle Mariners were a trendy pick by many experts (myself including, though by no means am I an expert) to take the AL West crown from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
They had appeared to make great strides in the previous season, almost getting back to the playoffs after a number of rebuilding seasons. But alas, all was for naught.
The veteran players the Mariners were counting on to produce fell in line with the free agent acquisitions and flopped, horribly.
Richie Sexson got progressively worse as the year went on, Kenji Johjima decided he didn't need to produce once he got a long-term deal, and Carlos Silva showed why overweight pitchers in their 30's rarely produce.
Don't even mention Brad Wilkerson. His stint as a Mariner was so short-lived that most people don't even realize he was on the squad in the beginning of the year.
So where did it all go wrong? Was Bill Bavasi truly that bad a GM? Or did the lack of a true manager in the dugout doom the Mariners from the beginning? The answer, my friends, is neither. The broken cog in this machine is scouting and player development, a problem that has reared its ugly head again now that Pat Gillick is gone.
During Gillick's day, the Mariners developed some very good, championship caliber teams using shrewd trades and minor league promotions. His reign saw such luminaries as Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, Randy Johnson, and Alex Rodriguez take the field for the M's, turning them from bottom feeders into championship contenders.
Now that Gillick is retiring from the Phillies, most likely after they sew up the World Series, it is extremely unlikely that he will return to the team that he turned great.
So where does that leave the Mariners? Over the course of the winter I will be writing a series of editorials detailing what the Mariners should be looking for and analyzing the moves they make. Up first, the GM.
The hiring of Jack Zduriencik to be the new GM raised a lot of eyebrows and shoulders in Seattle, as most people remarked: "Who?" Looking into this relative unknown's background, we see a history and pattern that should be encouraging to Mariners faithful.
As the assistant to Doug Melvin in Milwaukee, Zduriencik focused on drafting and signing players into the minor league system who eventually were promoted and became stars.
This is exactly the tactic the Mariners organization needs to embrace. This year the Mariners had the 5th highest payroll in the league and finished next to last in baseball. Obviously big-name, big-price free agents are not the way to go.
These days most of the high-end talent is being wrapped up for long-term deals early in their careers, before they start falling off and demanding more money.
The Mariners have some young stars in places. Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Wladimir Balienten, Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, and Felix Hernandez are all either solid starters or future All-Stars.
The question marks are now in the aging sector of the squad, and what they will do with the expiring contracts and aging stars that are currently signed.
We shall see. After all, for a rebuilding team, the Hot Stove is the best time of the year. Why? Because huddled around a warm fire talking about the future gives even the biggest cynic hope.