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New manager? OK, but this is still about the new GM

Don Wakamatsu has the support of his family (in this case a note from his daughter) as M’s GM Jack Zduriencik looks on.  (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Don Wakamatsu has the support of his family (in this case a note from his daughter) as M’s GM Jack Zduriencik looks on. (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)

Selling his new managerial hire to the press on Wednesday, Seattle Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik made much of the fact that Don Wakamatsu had played or coached in every organization in the American League West, the insinuation being that he’ll have trenchant insights into the M’s rivals.

Yet when asked, from his viewpoint as bench coach for the Oakland A’s, what went wrong with the 2008 Mariners, Wakamatsu did everything but plead the fifth and slide out the alley door.

“I wasn’t in the dugout,” he said. “I’m really thinking about next year right now.”

Hmm. So apparently fixing the wrongs of 2008 aren’t relevant to getting it right in 2009.

Good to know.

To be fair, Wakamatsu probably doesn’t want to risk alienating any of his new players by throwing them under a bus, where they would find many of Yuniesky Betancourt’s double-play relays from last summer.

Besides, the rearview mirror can be a scary vantage.

What little hot-stove palaver Zduriencik’s search generated zeroed in on the fact that his short list of seven candidates included no one with previous major league managing experience. The accepted notion is that good-ol’-boyness rules in baseball and that GMs are always recycling familiar names who were busts elsewhere rather than taking a chance on a newbie.

But it isn’t really true. In the last 20 years, not counting interim caretakers, American League teams have hired 73 managers; 47 of those have been first-timers.

The average first lifespan of those rookies: three years.

Subtract the four prominent successes in that group – Mike Scioscia of the Angels, Ron Gardenhire in Minnesota, Mike Hargrove in Cleveland, Cito Gaston in Toronto – and that average dwindles to two-years-and-a-mid-August firing.

More frightening is Seattle’s recent history in the fresh-face sweepstakes.

John McLaren. Bob Melvin. Bill Plummer.

Yes, Melvin became Manager of the Year in his rebound gig in Arizona. But it almost makes you wish Zduriencik had tried to lure Sparky Anderson out of the retirement home. Or Connie Mack from the Great Beyond.

This is not to paint Don Wakamatsu with failure before he fills out his first lineup card, but only to stress that the odds are long, the leash short and the pressure considerable to produce quickly – perhaps more so on the anonymous hire than on the reclaimed.

And frankly, neither Zduriencik nor Wakamatsu did themselves a favor by rejecting the idea that Project Mariners is a complete rebuild.

“It’s possible,” Zduriencik said, “if these guys are healthy and they are ready to play, we’re going to be competitive this year.”

Wakamatsu seconded the motion and based it on the many predictions a year ago that the Mariners would win 90-95 games – ignoring, curiously, that they lost 101 games with their $117 million payroll instead.

“This is a young, talented team,” he insisted.

Well, the M’s are not all that young and their latent talent mostly has been for clubhouse dysfunction – dubious work habits, cultural splintering, superstar envy and a franchise player who has disdained the mantle of leadership. This is the real challenge for Wakamatsu, a baseball lifer with an 18-game major league career who called himself “a Crash Davis.” If his impact on the Mariners is anything like his movie alter ego’s on the Durham Bulls, Zduriencik will have himself a winner.

The vetting was certainly thorough. The new GM claimed to have sought opinions not only from former bosses like Scioscia and Buck Showalter, but even long-ago college teammates and lowly clubhouse attendants – keepers of the darkest truths.

“One thing Buck told me was, “You won’t beat him to the ballpark, and he’ll be there when you leave,”’ Zduriencik said.

OK. But John McLaren kept long hours, too. Just saying.

The fact is, because he’s the man who acquires the talent, the more important name in the revival of the Mariners is Zduriencik, whose approach in his early days on the job has been impressive. His rapid retooling of the front office and scouting departments may have cost the M’s some good and loyal servants, but will result in much-needed new eyes – and ears. His homework on Wakamatsu was so intense as to suggest that, having finally become a GM at age 57, he is not going to blow it with a shortcut or a hunch or an old-boy hire.

Just as encouraging is his creation of, to put it indelicately, a geek squad. Statistics-based analysis is no longer a new thing in baseball and the M’s have had their own computers in the past – and an old scout like Zduriencik is not going to abandon his bird dogs. But it is a sign that he’s willing to turn over every stone and listen to every perspective.

And it also hints at the possibility that, unlike anything they’ve done in the past, Mariners management wants to establish an identity of how they want to play and how they want to build a ballclub, both in skills and character.

“I’m going to be consistent,” Wakamatsu said, “and I’ll adapt to the talent we have.”

That may sound like a contradiction. But if Jack Zduriencik does his job, chances are Don Wakamatsu will keep his.