Lincoln confident in long-term plan for Mariners
Chairman stays course with Zduriencik after Wedge's unexpected departure
SEATTLE -- Mariners chairman and CEO Howard Lincoln says he was "surprised and disappointed" by Eric Wedge's resignation last week, but indicated Tuesday that he's fully confident in the team's direction going forward under general manager Jack Zduriencik.
Lincoln, speaking to MLB.com, reiterated that the club had fully intended to have Wedge return for another season as the manager, but was committed now to finding new on-field leadership and expected Zduriencik to wrap up that process in November after the conclusion of the World Series.
"We're disappointed about how this season has gone," Lincoln said. "We came out of Spring Training with really high expectations, which I think were reasonable. You know as well as I do what happened. It was a very disappointing season and frustrating for everybody. We want to win. Jack wants to win. I want to win. Our owners want to win. And Eric wants to win. So we were all in this together and I'm disappointed that he's still not with us."
Lincoln said the perception that Zduriencik wouldn't be able to find a qualified manager due to being on a one-year contract extension of his own after five years as GM didn't mesh with the number of phone calls and resumes coming in from interested applicants.
Lincoln said there have been situations in the past where managers had longer-term deals in place than the general manager, without any issue.
"Here's the way I look at this thing," Lincoln said. "If I have confidence in Jack, he will remain as the general manager. If I don't have confidence in Jack, he won't be the general manager, regardless of the term of his contract. That is reality. So it becomes a real distraction when you say, 'Gee, if we give the manager five years, shouldn't we give Jack five years?' It doesn't work that way. But in this particular situation, we never got to that point [with Wedge]."
Both Wedge and Zduriencik were offered one-year extensions last offseason. Wedge declined his offer, believing it wasn't a strong enough endorsement to a manager in charge of a young, rebuilding team. Zduriencik was going to talk to Wedge about his situation again -- along with numerous other baseball issues -- in an annual postseason meeting on Monday.
Instead, Wedge asked to talk to Zduriencik last Thursday, then submitted his resignation the next day, telling the media he and the team no longer shared the same vision. After reporters wrote that the primary issue appeared to be the lack of a long-term contract, Wedge insisted Saturday that wasn't the case and he wouldn't have taken a five-year deal, even if offered, because of a different vision of the team's future from Zduriencik, Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong.
Asked to clarify, Wedge said: "It's just about sticking with the kids that you believe in, adding to it and being patient. Sticking with the program. And having consistency. You have to have consistency with personnel. Every time you turn over, you start over again to a certain extent."
But Lincoln said those comments actually melded exactly with the way the Mariners' front office continues looking at things as well.
"I was surprised because Eric had met with me in early September and everything seemed to be fine," Lincoln said. "And I was disappointed because we really did have a process in place that would have allowed him to stay. One of the things I'm also disappointed in was that he said in his parting comments that his vision going forward was different than ours. And that's not true.
"His vision, of focusing on young talent, nurturing that talent, being patient, staying the course, bringing in veterans to help … all of that, as expressed, is exactly the vision we have -- Jack, Chuck and I. That was the vision all of us bought into throughout the season and it's the same vision today. Nothing has changed."
What also didn't change was the team's losing record, as expected progress in Wedge's third season never materialized and the club finished 71-91 after improving to 75-87 the year before.
Lincoln said he's "a very competitive person and it frustrates the hell out of me when we have these losing seasons." And he knows he's not alone there, as attendance finished just slightly above the 2012 record low at Safeco Field at 1.76 million, which ranked 25th out of the Major League's 30 teams.
"We want to win," he said. "I know how frustrated the fans are. No one is more frustrated than I am. But we have to be patient and stick with the program we have invested so much in. We can't switch horses, change gears, whatever you want to call it now. That's not a good idea."
Which is why he's sticking with Zduriencik and his long-term plan.
"I have confidence in Jack going forward," Lincoln said. "Chuck does as well. Our ownership group does. Has Jack made some mistakes in trades? Absolutely. He knows all the mistakes he's made and all the good things he's done. But Jack has done a great job of developing, drafting and trading for young talent. I score him very high on that.
"He's done an excellent job of reorganizing our player development system," he said. "And he's done a fair job in putting together a Major League roster. We expected to be further along than we are with these young players. I echo what Eric said. We have to be patient. But as I look out there, there are a lot of things that I like. I like all those young players around that infield. I like these young pitchers. We stepped up to the plate with Felix Hernandez last February. Hisashi Iwakuma has been a delight. We've got Taijuan Walker and [James] Paxton and [Brandon] Maurer and [Erasmo] Ramirez, those are good things to have. We just have to be patient."
Lincoln knows that's a tough sell, however, and the process needs to be sped up by bringing in a better mix of veterans.
"We have to do a good job this offseason of surrounding that talent with free agents, there's no question about that," he said.
To that end, the club will have money to spend with Hernandez and Iwakuma the only veterans locked in for next season. Expiring contracts to Chone Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez, Joe Saunders, Kendrys Morales, Raul Ibanez and Kelly Shoppach will free up about $31 million, though Zduriencik told 710 ESPN Seattle on Tuesday he plans to give Morales a one-year qualifying offer of about $13.5 million that will either guarantee his return or bring Seattle a first-round compensatory Draft pick if he signs elsewhere.
"We have a lot more flexibility with some of these contracts coming off.," Lincoln said. "So we have the ability to do more things than we've been able to do in past seasons. Jack is in the process now of trying to figure out where he wants to go and it's really too early to figure out where our payroll will end up. We were over $91 million this last season.
"But I think the most important thing for fans is to understand our ownership group is prepared to spend money when it makes sense. We certainly did that with Felix and we're prepared to do that with other free agents. The key is to get the right free agents. And that seems to be harder than one would think."
Zduriencik made a good deal in trading Jason Vargas for Morales last offseason and hit big by re-signing Iwakuma and Ibanez. But the acquisition of Michael Morse for John Jaso didn't pay off, nor did putting faith in Gutierrez staying healthy in center field, Jesus Montero developing at catcher and veterans like Saunders and Aaron Harang being able to provide a bridge to the up-and-coming pitching talent.
"I think Jack has made some good calls, but he'd be the first to say that some didn't work out," said Lincoln. "That's the nature of the beast. General managers don't bat a thousand and it's so easy to second guess. But I have confidence in Jack Zduriencik. We hired him with the expectation it would take a period of time to develop this young talent and I think he's done that and it's just a matter of time to see this finish itself off."
Lincoln said the recent death of Hiroshi Yamauchi, the former majority owner, will have no bearing on the club going forward. Yamauchi had already transferred his interest in the club to Nintendo of America, whose current CEO is Satoru Iwata.
Lincoln, the former CEO of Nintendo, continues to represent those interests and he and Zduriencik, Armstrong and executive vice presidents Bob Aylward, Kevin Mather and Bart Waldman meet with a group of 16 local minority owners each month at Safeco Field.
Day-to-day baseball decisions fall under Zduriencik's control, but Lincoln said major budgetary decisions -- such as Hernandez's contract extension -- are run past Nintendo leadership as well as Chris Larson, the largest of the minority owners, to make sure everyone is on board.
"After Mr. Yamauchi's death, having talked to the executives at Nintendo in Japan, there are no present plans to sell Nintendo's majority ownership interests in the Mariners," Lincoln said. "That's about all I can really say. Nintendo made a commitment through Mr. Yamauchi to this community. We feel very strongly that that commitment has to be maintained and sustained with Mr. Yamauchi's passing. And I think if the Nintendo CEO, Mr. Iwata, was here, he would tell you the same thing."