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Originally published Wednesday, November 19, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Jerry Brewer

In Don Wakamatsu, Mariners take unprecedented journey

Well, if you had Jack Zduriencik and Don Wakamatsu in the Mariners makeover pool, congratulations, you've just won a trip to Japan to find...

Seattle Times staff columnist

Well, if you had Jack Zduriencik and Don Wakamatsu in the Mariners makeover pool, congratulations, you've just won a trip to Japan to find out whether owner Hiroshi Yamauchi is a real person or an ATM machine with human tendencies.

Really, now, whose Ouija board came up with those names? Zduriencik and Wakamatsu form the most unlikely brain trust in baseball. They represent a refreshing — and dangerous — new direction for this franchise.

The Mariners made Zduriencik a first-time general manager last month. Now he's caught the cub fever, picking Wakamatsu, the Oakland A's bench coach, to be the field manager.

With two rooks holding the highly-scrutinized jobs, this can only end in an extreme outcome: trendsetting success or a disaster that will make 101 losses seem glorious.

And the truth is, it's impossible to predict the result. All our reactions are based on hunches or history or the endorsements of those who know these men well. There's not a lick of solid evidence that clearly shows they will thrive. In addition, there's no substantial reason to think they will fail, either.

It's scary, the uncertainty, kind of like eating a young sushi chef's first fugu dish. It's thrilling, too, because the Mariners didn't go vanilla at a critical time in team history.

Which is why I hope it works.

The conservative M's have turned into mavericks.

How many times have you compared the Mariners to more progressive major-league clubs and huffed in disgust during the Mariners' 31 years? How many times have you watched curses be broken and pup franchises excel and new "it" teams emerge? How many times have you wondered when — c'mon, when! — will the Mariners become a long-term model franchise?

It was time to do something this bold, to realize 2001 was a millennium ago in sports time, to strip the ballclub down to its foundation and redo everything.

If nothing else, the symbolism is striking. They're not the same old Mariners anymore.

They're an alphabet soup of change, Zduriencik and Wakamatsu, two valuable role players who now get to be the leaders. Give them time; they won't be miracle workers. Allow space for mistakes, as long as they're not of the Bill Bavasi/Mike Hargrove/John McLaren variety. Prepare to appreciate their fresh approach and patience to build a complete roster instead of reaching for any ol' mediocre player who needs a new contract.

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Zduriencik would be wise to follow the Wakamatsu hire with a significant roster overhaul. Most signs point to such action. As a green manager, Wakamatsu can't be expected to win next season with an uninspiring group of players.

If Zduriencik wanted to attempt a quick fix, he would've opted for a proven, high-profile manager. He knew better. The Mariners didn't need a veteran skipper who'd sacrifice the future to win a few more games. They went down that road when Mike Hargrove started feeling the ax swinging over his head, and it led to, among many annoying miscalls, Brandon Morrow spending nearly two seasons in the bullpen when he should've been working to become a starter.

Since drafting and player development are Zduriencik's go-to skills, he required a manager with a similar focus. That's part of the reason his seven finalists were all up-and-comers eager to get their dream job.

Why did Wakamatsu win the sweepstakes? His experience helping the A's handle being young yet competitive couldn't have hurt. While speaking with reporters after his initial interview, Wakamatsu said he thought the Mariners could win sooner than expected.

"From the outside looking in, this is a club that a lot of smart people around the world predicted would win 90-something games," he said. "Were they wrong, or is it a situation where we may need to rethink some things?"

He spent much time with Zduriencik discussing the franchise's objectives, fearful of being the sacrificial manager charged with baby-sitting the boys during fruitless times until a better option became available. In the end, Wakamatsu was comfortable enough with their goals to take this job, so either he believes he can win quickly or he's grown confident that he'll be around when things turn.

The Mariners aren't finished gutting, but for a 101-loss team, they are blessed with some promising young pitchers. It's reasonable to think they can change their personnel and scrounge up 75 victories (which would be great improvement) in 2009 and set themselves up to be good in 2010. That's probably the best-case scenario.

The worst-case scenario? Both guys have no idea what they're doing, struggle mightily, and Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong move into safe houses.

The Mariners are sky diving with an untested parachute.

You might want to pack some anxiety pills for this journey.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com. For his Extra Points blog, visit seattletimes.com/sports.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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About Jerry Brewer
Jerry Brewer offers a unique perspective on the world of sports. Also check out Jerry's Extra Points blog, where he talks with readers about his columns.
jbrewer@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2277

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