The Feed and the Long View
I’d like to take a different angle on the Feed — “what does this all mean?”
Short term, it’s a mixed bag, but there’s reason for hope. Take the Garica trade (woo-hoo!). I think they’re realistic, but some of the things I’ve continually harped on don’t seem likely to change (minor league depth to cover for things like the rotation collapse, working free-talent avenues harder, building a complete 25-man roster with useful, fitting parts, that kind of thing).
The most encouraging part was knowing that the team wants to win, but is trying to build a minor league system that can support a sustained competitive team. We talk about stars-and-scrubs, but this is how you want a team to build for a World Series title: develop stars, prospects for trade or who’ll become role-players on the cheap, and use your money to fill the holes around them. Then drink champagne and fly the pennants.
So when they talk about being buyers or sellers, that’s scary, but it’s almost irrelevant. They do want to put wins on the board, and keep people turning out at the park. They’ve got to keep people buying season tickets, and that’s where .400 seasons really hurt their bottom line. If getting to .500 this season requires them to sacrifice (say) Choo, that’s something the ownership’s going to want to go for, and I’m going to scream about.
It’s unlikely they’re going to continue on this mini-tear and expend significant resources on a division pursuit. And I think that even if that happened and the offer was rich enough, they still might punt on one of their marketable players.
I’m also encouraged by the last two years, and the cuts of guys like Boone and Olerud, Aurilia and whoever else. Bavasi’s shown he’s perfectly willing to get his rifle and go put Old Yeller down, whether it makes people cry or not. Duquette and others may be too impersonal, but there are times you need a GM to have no heart, or else you’re signing broken shortstops to 10-year deals that’ll cripple your team.
In the short-term, they know what we know. They look at the rotation and don’t see anyone they can count on to be a good, reliable starter for next year. And like me, I they’re worried it’ll be tough to come up with good solutions. The 2006 team’s going to be a weird one, depending on how well those things get patched up (and, again, that’s where my concern about the organization’s poor history in assembling the Duchscherer-type talent comes up).
After that, who knows? Looking down the road two years is tough. Three or four, we can’t and shouldn’t pretend to have any clue. Jeremy Reed could be a superstar centerfielder, and he could be mainlining Jack Daniels in the back of the Winger revival tour bus. There’s no way of knowing it. Miguel Olivo could be a Mike Piazza-lite clone who can throw. Or he could be Piazza without the bat, playing backup in Rochester.
That’s when the hidden side of this comes in.
I’m encouraged by a lot of things that aren’t getting play in the mainstream press. Bavasi’s got faith in Bob Fontaine, and Fontain’s got a record to prove it. He’s building an army. We’ve talked here a lot about how the Mariners have a huge economic edge on other teams, and how they might apply it to building a better team. This is one way to do it.
By putting more people on the ground, investing heavily in area scouts, cross-checkers, and so on, they know more about every person they’re looking at in the draft than their opposition. That’s amazingly valuable information. We can talk a little about the depth/breadth distinction at some point (Rob Neyer wrote a really good column about this I’d like to dig up and revisit). It makes your picks more valuable than another team’s. If you’re drafting a junior college guy in the 10th round that three good eyes have seen, you’re much more likely to turn that into a player than essentially flipping a coin between single-scout reports.
They can pay for the travel expenses. They can offer good scouts in other organizations more money, or more vacation time to be with their family, or a dozen other ways they can use their resources to make life better for those guys.
For all my reputation as a stathead, I agree with Bavasi that the farther you go down, the more you rely on good scouting. I think there’s a lot more that can be done using projections/etc, but I also think that a really good organization knows these things even without using the same kind of vocabulary. That is, Betancourt not striking out is one kind of a good prospect, and that he’s totally different than a possibly equally-good prospect who is more patient drawing walks and also strikes out more. In stathead terms, we might talk about comperables and profiles in the same way a scout attaches a set of names (“He’s a Jeff Kent-like player, with a Keith Ginter downside”).
However, rebuilding a farm system is at least a three year project, and often takes five to really see the effects, even if you go from incompetence to excellence. The question may end up being whether Bavasi & Co. can keep the major league club winning enough to have job security and reap the benefits.
There are a couple things I’m still concerned about with player development:
The M’s have seen some really good guys leave the organization lately, like Kerfeld, who did a fine job in indy league scouting. Is that normal turnover, or could those losses have been prevented?
What about the Dobbs/Bloomquist guys? Dobbs is a great guy, and if he wants to turn into a coach or something I think he’ll do well. But the organization fell in love with his swing when he couldn’t hit, and so he ended up a wasted roster spot.
A couple years ago the Pacific Rim operation was the envy of the rest of baseball. Now it seems like players we should have been after and who’d have helped have gone elsewhere. Is international scouting getting tougher, and if so, did the M’s make a decision not to try and remain the top organization out there because it was too costly, or because they saw an opportunity domestically?
Do they understand that a modest free agent signing may not be worth the draft pick you give up? Do we have to put up Conor Jackson pictures throughout the offices to serve as a constant reminder, or what?
The draft is risky and that can’t be controlled. You can make the best bets possible, but teams with bad scouting organizations luck out, while teams can draft all the best players and have them all get hurt, or go to college, or explode. There’s no guarantee that four years from now, the Mariner system will have superstar players pushing to replace Sexson and Beltre.
And even then, say it’s 2008 and the Mariners have a great young core of superstars. Do they make the right free agent choices? I’m worried about that, too. We’ll see in the next couple of years, but I’m worried they’ll commit to players they pursued this last off-season like Pavano, who are a lot of money for a little upgrade. I don’t know, though.
Bavasi may have the worst of all possible fates: to take the blame for rebuilding an aging, shaky team he was handed, and unable to see the fruits of the scouting organization they’re constructing.