Management Review

Dave · January 11, 2006 at 9:04 am · Filed Under Mariners 

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.

Organizational Strengths

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.

Organizational Weaknesses

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.


66 Responses to “Management Review”

  1. tgf on January 11th, 2006 4:47 pm

    Now that Jarrod Washburn is a Mariner, Willie loses about 3 starts a year. Thank god I won’t have to hear Ron Fairly talk about that again.

    Don’t speak too soon…My prediction for the number of times Fairly brings it up during Washburn’s first five starts: 3.

  2. Oly Rainiers Fan on January 11th, 2006 5:37 pm

    So I’m thinking the Ms catering to signing ‘the nice guys’ is one marketing strategy, and the Ms signing Everett to prove that they want to win, that they want competitive fire is also a marketing ploy. It’s just targeted at different segments of the fan base.

    and a poster above talked about how the Ms apparently stink at recognizing true leadership capabilities in the clubhouse, then how would they be any better at recognizing ‘oh, he’ll light a fire in the belly of our players’ qualities like Everett is allegedly supposed to bring. they’re both character issues.

    the form letter i got from them re: everett makes it pretty clear, from lincoln’s desk, that they’re sick of losing and recognize the fans are also. they say they need to take some risks and that everett is one such risk. i’ve never believed that the FO didn’t care about winning – people don’t make it in business like these guys without being hella competitive – i’ve just believed that they do a lousy job of evaluating talent and clearly, risk. and it doesn’t seem like that’s changing.

  3. FrankL on January 11th, 2006 8:09 pm

    I think this was an outstanding post and much of the commentary was useful, too.

    I think I would add to the Organizational weaknesses a refusal to simply “Blow Up” the current team and try to build anew (rather than patch the current).

    The M’s have a weak farm system. The M’s have a team that has some talent, but also some holes. The M’s don’t have the payroll capacity to fill the holes via free agency. In similar circumstances the Marlins (admittedly under great financial duress) traded most every player of any value for prospects. Lots of prospects. The blown up Marlins, sans Sheffield, McGriff, et al (circa 1997) won a World Series in 2003. I am willing to hazard that this year’s Marlins (sans Beckett, Jones, Castillo, Pierre, et al) will be awful BUT that they will be in the World Series before will be the Mariners.

    Sometimes the desire/need to win NOW precludes winning more later; the FO’s desire to win might be the root cause of some awful signings. The pressure to win now must be even more extreme when folks write that this is a must-win” season and call for a GM’s head.

    I don’t see much long-term patience in a FO that brings in Washburn at big bucks, signs Vina (even to a ml contract), brings in Dino-man Everett, etc. It’s a team that’s spending $90M to win 80 games if all goes well; but the M’s are failing to leave the financial flexibility and personnel options to improve upon those 80 wins if they do occur.

    It’s boils to these scenarios: 1)things go as planned, the team wins 80 games but cannot improve, or 2) things go badly and the team has no chits (money or prospects) through which to improve.

  4. BelaXadux on January 11th, 2006 8:46 pm

    I agree with all of the points you make here Dave, pro and con. I’ll enlarge on two further great plancks in mine eye on the negative side:

    In addition to being sub-mediocre at public relations, the ownership group is addicted to spin. This does _not_ include Bavasi, but ownership and the FO have what seems a congenital resistance to actually leveling with anyone regarding anything.

    The Ms have a strong revenue stream, and yes, they are willing to spend, a good thing. But they are too willing to paper over problems with dollar bills, to throw money at a roster or public perception problem rather than to get smart concerning the issue involved. Much as I detest the signing of Jarrod “3.20” Washburn, the market for starting pitchers this offseason was very poor, and one can see forced choices to a degree. The Everett signing, on the other hand, was an example of simply throwing money at the lack of lefthanded power on the 25-man, and the public disquiet with that situation. He’s not a solution, he’s a contract used as a figleaf. (Or something.)

    Since too many people with executive responsibility in the Ms org can’t seem to level with issues and have the money to spend to paper over small and mid-size problems, I have no expectation that they will learn from the other kinds of structural mistakes you speak to, Dave, or build on their existing strengths in a deliberate fashion.

    The org _does_ seem to learn from HUGE past mistakes, witness the increased importance given to significant in-system prospects after the horrors of the Lowe/Varitek and Cruz, Jr. debacles. Still, with Bill Bavasi primed to take the fall if, as seems most probable, the Ms flounder and stink for most of or all of the ’06 season, Ms ownership has thus achieved the critical executive positioning on team performance of having a body in position to absorb the blast, another reason why the survivors going into next offseason will learn little or nothing from the smaller but still cumulative organizational misapprehensions mentioned here that imply that probable outcome. The Seattle Os seems like the most realistic future of the next five years. You can pronounce that as “Oh-nos” or “Zeros” as is yer preference.

    . . . Now, if the Ms had signed the other fella this offseason, Aron “4.20” Washington, the results would be positive for most when he gets smoked on the mound this year, too. But, no.

  5. JMHawkins on January 11th, 2006 9:37 pm

    An interesting meme in this thread is the idea that the FO really does want to win, but the fan base thinks they’re happy to lose if they still make money.

    I think this really highlights Dave’s point about them being bad at PR. The recent squabble about what their payroll really is is a great case in point. The FO is habitually evasive about payroll, and that makes people suspicious. When a common complaint from your customers is that you’re skimping on the quality budget, and you’re not, isn’t it a bad idea to be obviously spinning on the subject?

  6. msb on January 11th, 2006 9:52 pm

    #40– when speaking of where the team is at this point in the off-season, Bavasi talked about still wanting pitching, but what are the odds they pull in any other NRI position players? I started thinking about this, after noticing two names from the Out-Of-Baseball File pop-up today: JR House and Bobby Estalella

  7. msb on January 11th, 2006 9:53 pm

    oh, and re:#57– most teams are less than forthcoming about their finances.

  8. terry on January 12th, 2006 5:55 am

    #19 Thats an extremely powerful point…. and it highlights the true value of a *stat-head* approach….perhaps the M’s are really only a few stat-heads and a couple of years away from implementing the philosophy away from chronically contending….

  9. terry on January 12th, 2006 6:04 am

    There’s a big difference between NOT wanting to win and not knowing HOW to win…. however for all practical purposes teams constructed under both circumstances are equally frustrating to watch…. To be *fixed* both circumstances require changes in leadership management positions…

  10. gwangung on January 12th, 2006 8:12 am

    Yes, I think it’s been pointed out that the leadership (primarily in the case of Mattox and Armstrong, probably Lincoln) don’t know HOW to win. They are deficient in talent evaluation and risk assessment, and I’m afraid that Bela is right in that they are not going to learn from mistakes–they’re going to fire the people who have learned the most over the past few years.

  11. jimbob on January 12th, 2006 9:15 am

    [ot, there’s a whole post on this]

  12. eponymous coward on January 12th, 2006 12:24 pm

    So, how did Armstrong and Lincoln go from knowing how to win in 1995, 1997, 2000 and 2001 to not knowing how to win in 2006?

    That’s a facile answer, to blame them. They didn’t go from being smart to being stupid. It’s an organizational problem.

  13. terry on January 12th, 2006 12:30 pm

    #64: Thats kinda what I said…..

  14. gwangung on January 12th, 2006 2:11 pm

    Well, actually, I’d put it that the organization won in those years…I wouldn’t say that they knew HOW they did it.

    Yes, it’s an organizational problem, but the organization’s princples and plan has to come from an individual or set of individuals…and that plan has to be signed off on by higher ups. Who have to have a good sense on what works and what doesn’t.

    If there were individuals who DID know how to win, they would be remaking organizational priorities to make it so.

  15. plivengood on January 12th, 2006 2:25 pm

    Despite what I said in the thread on the AP 8/31 payroll article about M’s FO pronouncements on payroll all being “crap” and “self-serving drivel,” I agree with you that the FO does want to win, and is putting enough resources to that task that is ought to be enough to get the job done. I also agree with several posters who said (generally) that running the team as a business is a good idea, has gotten the team to its current level of respectability, and there is nothing wrong with turning a profit.

    So why my constant frustration with the Mariners discussion of payroll and their financials? One reason is that they habitually (and fairly transparently) lie — or at least “spin” — this stuff that it just bugs me on principal. But it is more than that. I want the Mariners to make money in the long run — lots of it — but I get VERY tired of their inflexibility on financial matters. In 2001 and 2002 (and to a lesser extent 2000 and 2003), there was an open window to true World Series contention, and every freakin’ year there was some excuse why they couldn’t go the extra mile to give the team the boost that might have gotten them over the hump. Lincoln famously repeated the line (of BS) that the team couldn’t spend more than 50% of revenues or they’d go bankrupt at every opportunity (ignoring the fact that many, many major league teams do just that — including the Mariners at many points of their history, including the early part of this ownership group’s regime). So, while I want them to make money in the long run, as a fan I want to evidence that the FO cares enough about winning to be unprofitable in the short run, in order to make a serious stab at contention when the window is open (which it is not now, granted). When THAT happens, I will be a much happier fan, and the FO will gain loads and loads of credibility with me. Until then . . . not so much.

  16. Jake Brake on January 13th, 2006 1:51 pm

    Re: #67, well put.

    The scenario described in #21 isn’t the case – the FO is clearly not interested in just using the team purely from a profit-generating standpoint (a la the grand old days of Argyros).

    From observing the actions – not the words – of this regime, it seems that they ARE interested in winning, but primarily as a method to maximize the sustained profitability of the franchise. If they were truly interested in winning for winning’s sake, they would have spent that extra money to get the crucial additional piece in 2001/2002, as well as making administrative personnel changes to address their glaring and continued problems with organizational decision-making. Instead, we see the same people involved, the same mistakes being repeated, and the same level of consistent mediocrity that the Mariners have become infamous for.

    Lou Piniella is relentless in his pursuit of winning baseball. The FO helped usher him out the door. That alone tells you what you need to know about the Mariners’ organizational priorities.

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