When a new general manager takes the reins of a club, it’s not uncommon for him to overturn the entire baseball operation, bringing in his own people. In fact, it’s practically standard operating procedure.
Doug Melvin followed that blueprint when taking over as GM of the then-downtrodden Brewers in September 2002. With one notable exception, that is.
Melvin saw no reason to displace scouting director Jack Zduriencik. To the contrary, he could only find reasons to keep him.
“I’ve said before that that probably the best decision I made after coming here was keeping Jack Zduriencik,” Melvin says.
It’s difficult to argue that point, considering the job Zduriencik and his staff has done in helping make the Brewers competitive again at the major league level. A glance around Milwaukee’s 2007 roster provided compelling evidence of the prowess of the club’s drafting.
First baseman Prince Fielder, first round, 2002. Second baseman Rickie Weeks, first round, 2003. Shortstop J.J. Hardy, second round, 2001. Third baseman Ryan Braun, first round, 2005. Outfielder Corey Hart, 11th round, 2000. Budding ace Yovani Gallardo, second round, 2004. On many occasions during the ’07 season, the Brewers had eight homegrown players on the field.
“No doubt about it, he deserves almost all the credit for the young players we have,” Melvin says. “The players he has drafted are making an impact at the big league level.”
Rebuilding an organization almost exclusively through the draft is no easy task. Making Zduriencik’s job even more difficult, during the eight drafts he has conducted for the Brewers, he never had the benefit of an extra pick. Because the Brewers forfeited three second-round picks by signing free agents, Zduriencik had only 21 picks over the first three rounds in his eight years in Milwaukee. By comparison, Atlanta had 40 picks and Oakland 39 over the first three rounds over that period.
The success of Zduriencik, 56, and his staff has not gone unnoticed, as he has lost two of his top scouts, Tom Allison and Bobby Heck, the last two years. Allison was named Arizona’s scouting director in 2006 and Houston hired Heck in that role after the ’07 season.
As they say, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. To further flatter Zduriencik, Baseball America has made him the first non-general manager to win our Major League Executive of the Year award.
When asked what makes Zduriencik so effective as a scouting director, Allison pointed to his background as a teacher and coach. Zduriencik has a bachelor’s degree in education from California (Pa.) and a master’s degree in physical education from Austin Peay State. Zduriencik coached high school football in his hometown of Pittsburgh and later in Tarpon Springs, Fla., and also coached football and baseball at Austin Peay.
“He’s a consummate teacher. So, he has that tough teaching love,” Allison says. “Jack always conveyed to his staff what is expected of them. He leaves no doubts about that.”
Zduriencik credits his teaching and coaching background as the foundation for forming the principles that made him a successful scouting director. He also paid tribute to Joe McIlvaine, the scouting director when Zduriencik got his first scouting job with the Mets.
“He had a great feel for players,” says Zduriencik, who later became the Mets’ scouting director. “He had a very similar demeanor to Doug in that he was always there for you and always listened. That’s one of the things I’ve always tried to do.”
Without question, Zduriencik values the opinions of his scouts. Area scout Tom McNamara was adamant in 2002 that Fielder was the Brewers’ man with the seventh pick of the draft. Critics insisted Fielder was a fat kid who would eat his way out of baseball, but McNamara had gotten close to the power-hitting teenager and witnessed his commitment to the game and staying in playing shape.
Zduriencik stuck by McNamara and the Brewers took Fielder, who made the scouting department look pretty smart in ’07 when he became the youngest player ever (23) to sock 50 home runs in a major league season.
Bruce Seid, the Brewers’ West Coast crosschecker, has been with Zduriencik since his first year in Milwaukee. Seid remains impressed with Zduriencik’s thoroughness in scouting players, his willingness to listen to his staff and his dedication to making the Brewers a winning organization.
“I’ve worked for a lot of scouting directors over the years, and sometimes you wonder if they’re really listening to you, and valuing what you say,” Seid says. “Jack listens to his scouts. That makes you want to go out and work even harder.”
Allison says Zduriencik’s mantra is for his scouts to be concise, convicted and above all else right in their assessments of players. So his scouts can almost count on Zduriencik digging deep into their assessments of nearly every amateur they see. He habitually does so with a one-word reply: “Really?”
That seemingly innocuous response to a scout’s opinion is Zduriencik’s way of seeing how strongly his scout feels about a player.
“We don’t take any of this for granted,” he says. “There are so many things unexpected that happen in that draft room. I tell our guys, when the day is said and done, just be right.”
There is ample evidence that Zduriencik and his staff accomplish that mission more often than not.