Tuesday, January 19, 2010
Master of his domainPosted by Chuck Brownson
Once upon a time, there was a man named Jack. Jack was an ordinary man working for an ordinary beer maker in the upper Midwest when it was decreed by the king that Jack should move westward. "Go west, through Fargo and Butte, Missoula and Coeur d'Alene, and make a left at Spokane," he was ordered and Jack obeyed. "Continue on I-90" he remembered, and "stop before you fall into Puget Sound." You see, Jack was a good boy but Jack had been cursed since he was young. From the time of his birth, Jack was stricken with a last name no one could pronounce. While all the other boys and girls got to be Smiths, Johnsons, and Bavasis, Jack was a Zduriencik. As one of the few "Z kids" in the school, he was always last when roll was called, last to go to recess and eat lunch, and last in the yearbooks -- right next to the teachers. When the Bavasis, the Sabeans, the Minayas and the Moores got to be general managers, Jack was forced to be an assistant in ... Milwaukee. His only friend was Bernie the Brewer.
Because no one liked Jack (or perhaps because everyone did), Jack was sent to Seattle to reform a team that had recently afflicted with heavy contracts to bad baseball players such as Richie Sexson, Carlos Silva, and Jose Vidro. Yuniesky Betancourt was his starting shortstop and Jeff Weaver made 27 starts and had a 6.20 ERA. It seemed as though all was lost in the Great Northwest. The sun began to set earlier than in other parts of the country, the basketball team skipped town in the middle of the night for (gasp!) Oklahoma, and people looked forward to (gulp!) professional football. (They had to because their college football team was awful, too!)
But Jack was a sly one, he was! While the Minayas, the Sabeans and the Moores were working on their P.R. skills, spending spending money without consequence, and cozying up to the media, Jack was studying baseball. Jack figured out what few in his profession knew before him -- that defense was undervalued and that he could rebuild more quickly by focusing on playing defense well. And Jack had more chips left than others realized. He still had King Felix of the Great Northwest, Ichiro-san, and The Cupless Wonder.
Few paid attention when Jack traded a broken pitcher and a replacement level outfielder (if that) for Franklin Gutierrez and stuck Gutierrez in center field. Some heads began to turn, however, when he took advantage of Jarrod Washburn's incongruous first half and traded him to the Tigers, inexplicably managed to extricate the abominable Betancourt from the club, and replaced him with Jack Wilson, the majors' best defensive shortstop by UZR. Still, the Mariners ended up with just 85 wins and most just patted Jack on the head and said, "Good job, son! But you were over your head last year! You'll regress to the mean next year," not knowing really what "regress to the mean" (ahem!) means.
|**The extension for King Felix has made Jack Z the new Lord of the Manor** (Icon/SMI)|
The season ended and most expected the teams from the large cities to gather up all the bounty in the land, as they usually did. Jack made some inquiries into signing John Lackey but was stymied by the big boys from Boston. It was seen as a nice signing when Jack was able to deal for Chone Figgins, disentangling him away from his demonic division adversary. Though 32 years old, Figgins is an excellent hitter, base runner, and defensive player who should be well worth the nine million dollars per year Jack will pay him. Many scoffed, however, when Jack signed the arbitration-eligible Gutierrez to a four year, $20.5 million contract. The critics fail to realize, unfortunately, that it will likely be Jack who has the last laugh as Gutierrez has averaged more than 20 runs above average defensively each of the last three years, according to UZR. He's been nearly valuable on defense on average over the last three years as Raul Ibanez was on offense last year.
He signed Wilson to a team-friendly two year contract but heads really turned when he managed to rescue Milton Bradley from exile in the City of the Wind while managing to get Jim Hendry to take Silva and most of his contract. Unfortunately, Jack still wasn't taken seriously by many until he was able to trade three decent prospects for the tremendous Cliff Lee, a true ace for the rotation.
Most thought Jack was through. Jack was tired. He'd been working long hours and had done more than anyone had ever expected. Most told him it was time to rest. "It's ok, Jack! You've made it! You've proved to those Bavasis, Sabeans, Minayas, and Moores that you belonged here with them," they told him. But Jack was undeterred. "No! I must continue," he insisted. "I will not stop until I bring a contender to the woebegon lands!" (henceforth known as Seattle). And when most thought that Jack had nothing left, when they thought that he couldn't top the deals for Bradley or Gutierrez or Lee, the signings of Figgins or Wilson, Jack showed those men what true will really was.
"You see, in order to rule," he began, "you don't have to have guns or weapons or money. (Ok, a little money helps!) You don't have to have shortstops or center fielders or closers! You just have to have the will to do what the others won't." And he struck. He signed King Felix of the Great Northwest to a contract smaller than the one the big boys from Boston doled out to Lackey less than two short months earlier. Felix is another true ace, one of magnificent ability, sporting a blazing fastball and a wicked change up. He's just 23 years young and should get better and he's already better than Lackey, no slouch himself. "But Lackey's a veteran with a track record. He's a workhorse!", the naysayers exclaim. Little did they know that King Felix actually has thrown nearly 40 more innings over the last four years than Lackey. His strikeout to walk ratio is better, his home run rate is better, and his ground ball rate is among the best in the game.
While it's true that no one else had the opportunity that little Jackie Z had to sign him, King Felix could have opted not to sign as well, banking on a much larger payday down the road. And Jack now has two aces instead of just a few poker chips; he has great defense all over the diamond, and an improving offense. Once everyone else's bug, Jack is now baseball's windshield. Though others may still be unable to pronounce his last name, (the "d" and "i" are silent!) everyone now knows who he is, for he is Jack Zduriencik, king of baseball's general managers.
Chuck is a lifelong Cardinals fan who welcomes comments below or via email at chuckbtht AT gmail DOT com.