We talk a lot about player performance, their values, their worth relative to salary, and the context in which they help the team win. Through the conversation on player value, we infer a lot of things about our beliefs of the team’s management, though, I realize, we rarely state those things outright. So, since it’s a pretty slow period in Mariner-land, I figured now would be a good time to lay out my personal feelings on the Mariner front office, how they operate, what they do well, and what they could do better. Keep in mind, this is my opinion, and Derek, Jeff, and Jason may not agree with anything or everything that I write. So, try not to take this as the USSM decree on the organization. This is Dave’s opinion, for better or worse.
Bill Bavasi is remarkably honest and personable.
This may not seem like that big of a deal, but you’d be amazed at how far this can go in cultivating good relationships with other teams, agents, and players, and how beneficial that can be in the long run. The M’s have done a very good job at building relationships throughout the game, keeping lines of communication open, and gaining respect from other ballclubs. You’d be hard pressed to find too many people who will say a bad word about Bill Bavasi as a person, which is in stark contrast to the end of the Pat Gillick era, when about half the organization basically hated the other half.
As a whole, the Mariners value young players.
It might be hard to remember, what with the constant Jeremy Reed trade rumors, but the M’s philosophy has shifted significantly the past few years from a win-with-veterans attitude to one where players under the age of 25 are no longer looked at with disdain. Did the M’s acquire a lot of 30+ players this offseason? Yes, but with the exception of Washburn and Johjima, all were signed to one year contracts. The team is going into spring training with Lopez, Betancourt, and Reed comprising a third of their opening day line-up. Whether it was a wise decision or not, they jettisoned Yorvit Torrealba and replaced him with Rene Rivera. Can you imagine any circumstance where Pat Gillick would have traded the “proven veteran” in order to create a spot for a 22-year-old with little experience above Double-A?
The team spends a lot of money.
For as much grief as the organization gets for being a money-making machine (and they are), the team’s payroll is still consistently among the upper tier of organizations. They may not spend all their net revenues on the roster, which is a topic for another day, but they spend more than enough to build a contending team. Yes, we wish they’d spend a little more, considering that they’re running one of the most profitable sports franchises around, but they’re spending enough. Unlike a number of other cities, the payroll is not the problem.
Bob Fontaine is a terrific scouting director.
Replacing Frank Mattox with Fontaine is the management level equivalent of pinch hitting Richie Sexson for Wiki Gonzalez. Fontaine’s going to strike out some and isn’t the best scouting director around, but he’s pretty darn good, and, well, I’ll let the Mattox-Wiki comparison speak for itself. Fontaine is a skilled talent evaluator who isn’t beholden to a philosophy. He’s not blindly drafting every 6’8 lefty from the Midwest because of a pet theory that they develop well. He’s got his guys finding players, whether they be in high school or college, and drafting players they know they can sign. For the first time since the end of the 1990s, the Mariners are actually returning value on their draft picks.
The front office wants to win. Really.
Howard Lincoln has been villified for some of his remarks the past several years about building a contender instead of trying to win the world series. People have taken his comments to mean that the M’s would be happy to win 90 games every year and never win a championship, and from that, a hatred for the upper level front office has been born. It’s misguided, however. Lincoln’s comments basically echo the Billy Beane philosophy – build as good of a regular season team as I can, year in and year out, and let the playoffs sort themselves out. Whether people want to believe it or not, there are just far too many unpredictabe events in multiple short playoff series to actually build a championship club ahead of time. The best thing you can do is give your team as many good chances in the postseason as possible, and that’s exactly what Lincoln was referencing.
The M’s, as an organization, really want to win a World Series. But they’re not going to give away talent to increase the chances of winning one by .01 percent in any given year. They understand the cost/benefit analysis leans away from making crazy deadline deals, and they’ve done a good job at making smart decisions in the face of public outcry. Remember, the Lowe/Varitek for Slocumb deal has done far more damage to the team than any number of Andy Benes acquisitions could hope to make up for.
They evaluate players based on their best case outcome.
The club shares this trait with a large percentage of their fanbase. It’s a pretty common analytical flaw. It’s especially prevalent with people who talk about their organization’s prospects in glowing terms. Everyone is evaluated by what they might be, not by what they are. The Mariners have consistently handed out contracts that will only make sense if the player performs at the absolute peak of what can be expected based on their talent level. A player’s risk factor is a minor point in talent evaluation. You can see an obvious trend through the past several years of player acquisition. Risk abounds.
Richie Sexson and Raul Ibanez paid off. Adrian Beltre (after one year), Scott Spiezio, Ryan Franklin, and Shigetoshi Hasegawa did not. We don’t think Jarrod Washburn or Carl Everett will, but Matt Lawton certainly could, and we expect Kenji Johjima to pay off in spades. Take enough risks, you’re going to win a few, but you will lose too many to make it a good strategy. The M’s discount risk in player evaluation far too much, and as such, end up with a lot of clunkers who don’t meet their expectations.
They refuse to accept the concept of replacement level.
This certainly isn’t unique to the Mariners. Most clubs prefer not to have to explain to their fanbase why they are counting on Bobby Livingston as their 5th starter heading into spring training when they’re hawking several thousand dollar season ticket packages. It is the rare club indeed that is willing to tell their fans to trust them and throw Justin Duchscherer into a prominant role in a pennant chase. But the fact that most clubs in baseball would rather pay millions for players who have experience at sucking in the major leagues does not make it a worthwhile strategy. The plain fact is that the Mariners could replace a significant amount of the bottom tier of their roster with similarly talented players who cost a fraction of the price, and then spend the surplus on bringing in more upper tier players, and they’d have a better team for the same price.
But it’s a hard move to sell to the general public who equates the term minor league with scrub. So, instead of taking bold steps to build the most efficient roster possible, we get several million dollars of fan appeasement in the form of lousy bench players that people have heard of. There’s a saying in the IT world that no one ever got fired for buying Cisco, and it applies here. It’s an easy sell to your boss and the fans that you can’t be held responsible for Scott Spiezio falling apart because, well, he hit in the majors last year. If you’ve got Justin Leone hitting .189, however, you’re going to get ripped to pieces.
It takes some serious stones to build a roster knowing that you’re going to get hammered for its construction. You have to have faith that it’s going to work, and that in the end, it’s the right thing to do for the best interest of the franchise. There aren’t a lot of GMs in baseball who have that conviction. We don’t have one, that’s for sure.
They value the predictive power of ERA.
You can tie a significant amount of their bad decisions on pitchers directly to the value they place on ERA. Shigetoshi Hasegawa got a 2 year deal for posting a fluky 1.48 ERA, then predictably went in the tank. Joel Pineiro was projected as a frontline starter based on two seasons early in his career where his ERA was significantly better than his peripheral statistics. And now we get Jarrod “3.20” Washburn.
The team has to learn the fallibility of ERA. It’s not a good predictor of future performance, and as long as they keep leaning on it as a significant tool in deciding which pitchers to keep or acquire, they’re going to end up being disappointed.
They overestimate their abilities to discern character.
I want to make it clear that I’m not writing off the value of clubhouse leadership, hustle, or other intangibles simply because we have no way to measure them. I’m fairly certain that those things add value to a ballclub in ways that we have no ability to discern. However, my contention is that we aren’t the only ones who can’t predict intangibles ahead of time. The M’s have clearly and consistently made decisions on players based on character assertions that have been wildly wrong. Rich Aurilia was brought in because he worked harder than Carlos Guillen. Scott Spiezio was acquired because he was a clutch hitter. Eddie Guardado wasn’t traded because he’s a warrior who sets the tone for the bullpen. Jamie Moyer, Dan Wilson, and Bret Boone were valued for their veteran leadership.
And with all those intangibles running loose, the team was terrible. There were consistent complaints about a lack of leadership and desire to win, despite the fact that nearly half the players on the team were acquired for their abilities to lead and be winners. The sooner the Mariners realize they’re in the talent evaluation business and not in psychoanalysis, the better off they will be. It’s okay to believe in the value of clubhouse leadership but also admit that you have no idea how to predict it. Stop acquiring players because of their expected intangibles. It just doesn’t work.
Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln suck at public relations.
The M’s should seriously look into bringing in a minority owner just to be the face-of-the-ownership, a guy to stand in front of the media and say the right things. Angels fans love Arte Moreno because he spends a lot of money and says the right things. Mariner fans hate Armstrong and Lincoln because they spend a lot of money and say the wrong things. The M’s ownership group has been a financial success and a public relations nightmare. A huge majority of the fanbase has strong negative feelings towards the people who run the club. If the ownership group had a likable person in the group-someone, anyone, just throw us a bone-it’d do a huge amount to turn the tide of public hatred.
What They Should Try To Improve Upon
Learn from their mistakes.
Jarrod Washburn is the starting pitching version of Shigetoshi Hasegawa circa two years ago. They just stepped in the same pile they did back then. As a fan, that’s frustrating. I have no doubt that the M’s perform internal reviews of their decisions and try to glean information from the hits and misses. I’m just not convinced they are learning the lessons they need to learn. They need to accept that the mistakes they’ve made the past two years were not isolated flukes and make changes to the organizational philosophies to right the ship. They need to make better decisions, and to do that, they have to understand what they did wrong to get them to this point.
Rebuild their relationship with the fans.
This isn’t about cute commercials or selling a family friendly atmosphere. There’s a significant amount of the population that are frustrated and angry with the team, and the M’s have done little to try to appease those feelings. They raised ticket prices again. They failed to bring in any impact talent during the offseson. And the Mariners caravan running through the state consists of Greg Dobbs and Rick Rizzs showing up and paying people to take their autographs.
They need to get the passionate fan back on board. I’m not a marketing guy, so I’ll withold any of my crappy ideas, but they certainly have to come up with a way to alleviate some of the negative feelings that the people who spend money on the team have towards the organization.
Pretty generic, but, in the end, if the current front office wants to stay in place past the 2006 season, they have to win baseball games this year. There’s little chance that the current baseball operations department can survive another last place finish. For Bill Bavasi and his staff, this is a make or break season. Another 75 win year, and we’ll be stumping for Chris Antonetti to get an interview this time around.