Thursday’s pre-spring training media luncheon was the last chance for those of us grounded in the Pacific Northwest to ask questions of the Seattle Mariners’ brass before they pack up their bags and head to Arizona for spring training. So naturally all the attention was on the big guns, general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, who were the final two speakers of the day.
However, what I found to be the most startling admission didn’t come from Dipoto or Servais. Instead it came moments earlier from someone I didn’t even think would be worth recording, assistant general manager Jeff Kingston. Kingston is someone I wouldn’t have been able to pick out of a lineup before a name card was placed in front of him, and now that his brief stint as interim GM is long over I fully expected him to recede into the background.
But if Kingston was merely there to serve as one of the opening acts to the two headliners, it was a comment from him that struck me the hardest.
“One of the toughest decisions that I had to make was how to handle Mike Zunino and Chris Taylor,” said Kingston, who served as Seattle’s interim general manager from the time the Mariners fired Jack Zduriencik last Aug. 28 and hired Dipoto on Sept. 28. “The biggest takeaway that I got from talking to some of those players and the feedback I received was: Where we failed as an organization was in our consistent communication to the players, and to those two in particular. It’s hard enough to hit in the major leagues — arguably it’s the hardest thing to do in professional sports — and when our players were getting messages from different voices and different ideas of what they should and shouldn’t be doing from a hitting standpoint, it really made it difficult on them.”
It was an astounding admission of culpability, particularly from someone who spent a grand total of one month at the head of baseball operations. There’s no way Kingston is solely to blame, if he’s responsible at all.
But his mea culpa illustrates just why everything Dipoto and Servais have said about culture change and communication is so important for the future of the Mariners.
Zunino and Taylor were two of Seattle’s biggest disappointments in 2015. They’re young players who rocketed through the minor leagues, with Zunino beginning the season as the starting catcher and Taylor making a case for being the regular shortstop. The hope was they could, at 24, be part of a young core that would bury the Mariners’ reputation for being unable to develop quality position players.
Instead, Zunino and Taylor flopped. Zunino, the former third-overall pick in the amateur draft, batted .174 and struck out in 34 percent of his plate appearances. Taylor, who has a .315 career batting average in the minors, hit .170 and fanned in 30 percent of his. Rather than leading the Mariners into 2016, it’s a very realistic possibility both begin the season at AAA.
But according to Kingston, the likes of Zunino, Taylor and the rest of Seattle’s unending list of prospect flameouts at the major-league level are not the problem. They are merely the symptom of a disease, and its eradication is at the top of Dipoto’s and Servais’ priority list.
Since being hired Dipoto has stressed the need for the Mariners to improve their communication throughout the organization. He’s talked about the need to have a common terminology that spans the majors all the way to rookie ball, making the transition easier when players move through the levels.
The first step in making that happen occurred during the first week of January. That’s when the Mariners held a hitting summit at their complex in Peoria, Ariz. Coaches and players from every level of the organization were brought together to learn the language and get on board with Dipoto’s philosophy of controlling the strike zone.
Among the players who attended were Zunino and Taylor.
“The biggest thing for me is the ability to communicate,” Dipoto said. “If we’re effectively communicating up to down and side to side, then the ball doesn’t drop. The players always know where they’re supposed to be, they’re always in a position to succeed.
“It’s all going to be about the culture that we develop,” Dipoto added. “We will make strategic mistakes, we will have injuries, every team does. The one thing we cannot do is we can’t allow our culture to rattle.”
Dipoto is the one who brought this philosophy to the Mariners organization. Servais and new director of player development Andy McKay are the ones charged with implementing it.
But it takes someone like Kingston, one of the holdovers from the previous regime, to know whether the new philosophy is making a difference.
“Seeing Jerry and Scott and Andy come in and have the hitting meeting, the hitting summit we had in January, and see how that worked, it’s a huge emphasis for us to be on the same page from the major leagues all the way down to the Dominican Republic,” Kingston said. “I’m extremely excited and confident that we’re already there from an organizational standpoint as far as what our message is going to be from an offensive standpoint, from a defensive standpoint, from a pitching standpoint. That’s pretty exciting for me.
“It goes back to the old saying: You have to be pulling on the same side of the rope.”
That means no more mixed messages for young players like Zunino and Taylor once they reach the majors.
And the Mariners are banking it will give their young prospects an environment in which to succeed, rather than repeat the failures of the past.
Check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at http://www.heraldnet.com/seattlesidelines, and follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.