On May 4, 2012, Twins starter Carl Pavano delivered a sinker without enough sink to the inside half of the plate. Jesus Montero, the Mariners' catcher, braced his 230 pounds against his planted left leg, torqued his midsection and uncoiled. The ball tore through the damp Seattle air on a trajectory that entranced all of the men in attendance who had devoted their lives to baseball. As it passed over the retreating Twins outfielders' heads, it still appeared to be rising.
Montero knew it was a home run. Up in his box behind home plate, Jack Zduriencik, the Mariners' general manager, knew it too. So did Chris Gwynn, a 10-year big leaguer whom Zduriencik had recently hired as his club's director of player development. "That baby's gone," Gwynn shouted to Zduriencik. "Way out."
It was not. This was Safeco Field. The ball caromed off the top of the wall in left centerfield, just to the right of the 388-foot sign. As he neared first base, Montero realized that the home run trot he had comfortably settled into had been premature. He accelerated for second, and when he secured the stand-up double that everyone knew should have been more, he grimaced and shook his head.
"He hit it—well, just about here," Zduriencik is saying 11 months later. Zduriencik stands next to a row of tall, circular bar tables that roughly sits where the left centerfield wall stood for the first 14 years of Safeco's home run--usurping existence. This season the fence is 17 feet closer to home plate in left center—Montero's fly would now land in an open-air patio—and at least four feet closer everywhere from just beyond the leftfield foul pole to right center.
Montero's shot last May, and the memory of scores of others like it, convinced Zduriencik and his staff that the Mariners' overly capacious home field, combined with the dense marine air of Seattle, while a boon to the pitching staff, was stunting the development of the organization's young, every-day players. Zduriencik, 62, knows what an elite young hitter looks like. He was a scout for a quarter century, and as the Brewers' director of scouting between 1999 and 2008 he drafted future sluggers Ryan Braun and Prince Fielder. Since becoming Seattle's G.M. before the '09 season, Zduriencik has steadily accumulated offensive talent that came with similarly high expectations. His big league roster features four 26-and-under players—Montero, second baseman Dustin Ackley, outfielder Michael Saunders and first baseman Justin Smoak—who as prospects ranked in the upper third of Baseball America's Top 100 list. At Triple A, Seattle has two players on the current B.A. list, catcher Mike Zunino (ranked 17th) and middle infielder Nick Franklin (79th). Overall, Baseball America ranks the Mariners' system as the game's second best, behind only the Cardinals' organization.
But there has been a troubling trend in Seattle: The highly touted hitting prospects who have reached the majors have not performed up to their billing, not even close. The Mariners' standing on the AL runs leader board has not changed during Zduriencik's four years in charge: last, last, last and last, to go with four bottom-two finishes in the AL West. The old dimensions, the Mariners' brass believes, did more than punish their young players' statistics. The pitcher-friendly park wreaked havoc on their plate approaches, even on their psyches, as they struggled to clear the faraway fences. "When you start altering your swing, trying to overcompensate, hit the ball farther, harder, then you get into bad habits," says Zduriencik. "Those are some of the things we saw."
The 26-year-old Smoak, who had an .849 OPS in parts of five minor league seasons but has an OPS of .676 in 298 games as a Mariner, concedes that Safeco's spaciousness could be discouraging. "You're not having a great day at the plate, you go up there for your third or fourth at bat with the game on the line, and you fly out to the warning track to left centerfield," he says. "And you know you got it."
Around the time of Montero's home run that wasn't, Zduriencik instructed his assistant, Jeff Kingston, to expedite a study of Safeco's offense-dampening environment. Kingston and three analysts spent months charting every ball hit in the stadium between 2009 and '11. They found that Safeco's dimensions suppressed home runs to left center and center by nearly 50% compared to the average ballpark. The club decided it was tired of being an outlier. It wanted a park that played fair.
With the new dimensions, the Mariners expect to see 30 to 40 more home runs at Safeco per season. (The 116 hit there last year were the fewest among the 14 AL parks.) That's 30 or 40 for the Mariners and their opponents combined, Zduriencik and Kingston point out; they did not tailor the reconfiguration to fit the skill sets of any of their young hitters. Still, the redesign came at a key moment for the franchise. With the physical barriers moved in, and the psychological barriers perhaps removed, the Mariners' virtually unmatched young talent is expected to blossom.
Outfielder Michael Morse has seen a team like this before. In December, Zduriencik acquired the 32-year-old slugger from the Nationals, and when he joined the team this spring he felt the same vibe he felt two or three years ago in Washington. Like the Mariners now, the Nationals then were coming off a string of losing seasons but were stockpiling prospects who would form the core of a team that won 98 games last season and is a World Series favorite this year. "It's the same kind of feel we had in Washington," Morse says. "A lot of guys with a lot of talent, but we weren't too sure of ourselves. Then we put it all together. They know they're good. I think that's the same kind of feel we've got going here.
"This team could be the next Nats, for sure," Morse adds. "One hundred percent."
April 8, the day of the Mariners' home opener, also happened to be Felix Hernandez's birthday. After the game Hernandez's teammates presented him with a cake decorated with sports cars. When Hernandez had arrived at the ballpark that afternoon, he had been greeted by centerfielder Franklin Gutierrez. "How old?" asked Gutierrez.
"Twenty-seven," said Hernandez.
"Twenty-seven!" repeated a genuinely surprised Gutierrez. Even though Hernandez has been a major leaguer for nine years and already has 99 wins and a Cy Young Award on his résumé, he is just 27 months older than Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals' ace who has been key to Washington's rise in the National League. Zduriencik's plan was always to build a staff around Hernandez, and that was confirmed in February when Seattle signed him to a seven-year, $175 million extension that will keep him locked up through 2019.
To find the pitching talent to surround Hernandez, Zduriencik turned to what he knows best: good old-fashioned scouting. In an age of quantitative analysis—which the Mariners embrace—Zduriencik was sure that what mattered most were his people on the ground. "You sit in a room with all your scouting people, you let them know how important they are, that they are really the lifeblood of what we're trying to do," he says.
Without the benefit of having obvious phenoms available to them with the No. 1 pick in back-to-back drafts, as the Nationals did with Strasburg and Bryce Harper, those scouts have given the Mariners what is widely considered to be the best quartet of starting pitching prospects in baseball. They've hit on their high picks: Danny Hultzen, the 6' 3" Virginia lefthander selected second overall in 2011, reached Triple A in his first season as a pro and is now ranked by Baseball America as the game's 29th best prospect.
They've hit on lower picks, too. In 2010, Seattle drafted 6' 4" lefty James Paxton out of Kentucky in the fourth round. Paxton is 87th on B.A.'s '13 list. Earlier in that draft, with the 43rd pick, the club took Taijuan Walker, a 6' 4" high schooler from Yucaipa Calif. Less than a year before, Walker was mainly a shortstop and basketball player. ("I was a dunker, a high flyer," he says.) Now the 20-year-old is 18th in B.A.'s rankings. One advance scout says Walker's repertoire, which includes a 98-mile-an-hour fastball and a big spike curve, makes him look like "Dwight Gooden, Bob Gibson and J.R. Richard all in one."
The Fantastic Four, as they are known in Seattle—the fourth is 22-year-old Brandon Maurer, a 6' 5" 23rd-round pick in 2008 who made the Opening Day roster—spent much of last summer together in Jackson, Tenn., with the club's Double A affiliate. As a group they struck out 8.8 batters per nine innings last year. The Mariners are betting that pitchers with that kind of stuff won't mind pitching in a tighter yard. "Who cares?" says Hernandez. "We pitch on the road, we pitch in small ballparks. We just gotta make good pitches."
Zduriencik does not say he has modeled his club after the Nationals—at least no more so than to say that yes, any team would like to jump to 98 wins and emerge as a perennial favorite for the next half decade or more. To match Washington's success, Zduriencik knows he must do more than assemble a surplus of prospects and put them in a ballpark in which they feel comfortable.
One of the crucial moves in the Nationals' development was to turn several of their young assets into a single mature one: In December 2011 they traded four highly regarded prospects (pitchers A.J. Cole, Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock and catcher Derek Norris) to the A's for lefthander Gio Gonzalez. They signed Gonzalez through '16, for $42 million. Last season he finished third in NL Cy Young Award voting.
Zduriencik nearly made a similar move in January when he agreed to trade four players, including Walker and Franklin, to the Diamondbacks in return for Justin Upton, the 25-year-old slugger who is signed to a reasonable contract ($38.5 million) through 2015. Upton exercised his no-trade clause, however, and is now playing alongside his brother, B.J., in Atlanta. But Zduriencik won't hesitate to try for another blockbuster, and his players know it. "It would have been a little bit of a bummer, having my buddy Taijuan leave," says Maurer. "But if it's going to make the team better...."
Another of the Nationals' finishing touches was robust participation in the free-agent market enabled by ownership's endorsement of a drastic payroll increase. (Washington spent $37 million in '07; its outlay is $118 million this year.) Zduriencik has never met the Mariners' owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, the 85-year-old former president of Nintendo, but he has assurances from CEO Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong that the club, which has an $84 million payroll this year, can bump that up when the time is right. "When we get to the point—and we may be getting very close to it right now—when all of these kids are ready to perform on a daily basis and become qualified big leaguers, I do think this ownership group will allow us to do some big things," Zduriencik says. One target could be Morse, who will be a free agent after this season. The 6' 5", 245-pound outfielder, who spent four seasons with the organization before being traded to Washington in '09, used his kingslayer swing to hit six home runs in his first 10 games back with the Mariners.
Zduriencik notes that the Mariners made a major free-agent bid this winter, if anyone doubts them. "We made a strong attempt to invest in a very prominent free agent—without mentioning any names, because he's not our property—and it didn't work out. But that's an indicator of where we're going with this." The player was Josh Hamilton, who signed for five years and $125 million with the Angels.
The Mariners' prospect surplus means they don't need all of them to reach their potential to contend. "I would be foolish to say, This is when [we're] going to arrive," says Zduriencik. "The only thing you can do as a general manager is to try to accumulate as much talent as you can, let the coaching staff and minor league staff do their thing and let it jell."
The players know it won't happen overnight. "It's going to be a challenge this year," Hernandez says. "But it's going to come. Just need to be patient. It's going to come."
Once upon a time, Seattle was home run heaven: In each of its last three years as the Mariners' home, the Kingdome ranked first or second among 30 big league parks in yielding homers. But since opening in 1999, Safeco Field has ranked in the top half in homer-friendliness just once: 2004, when it was 14th. Here's how Safeco stacked up in its last five seasons before this year's wall-shortening (above).
[The following text appears within a diagram. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual diagram.]
LEFT CENTER 390'