A Punishment of Weeks, Not Years

Dave · September 22, 2008 at 12:48 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

If you haven’t yet, go read Derek’s fine (but depressing) piece from this morning. Then, before jumping out the window, come back and read this.

There’s a sentiment, strong among many fans, that the Mariners organization is going to be completely terrible until Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong are no longer in charge. They have been at the helm while the ship has run aground, and despite the massive failure of the franchise during the last five years, there are few outward signs that they have learned, well, anything. Their public quotes are still filled with cliches that have little basis in reality, and there’s no disputing the fact that the organization is about 20 years behind most of baseball in terms of evaluating talent and building a roster. When a business falls so far behind it’s competitors, it is always the bosses fault. There is no argument – they have done a bad job of managing this baseball franchise.

However, to go from that understanding to the doomsday scenario that Derek laid out, you have to make a few assumptions that simply can’t be supported by facts.

Assumption #1: They will exert their power over the new General Manager to make baseball decisions they agree with and withhold that GM’s ability to renovate the baseball operations department.

What actual evidence do we have of the ownership making unilateral baseball decisions in the last, say, 10 years? The Johjima extension, certainly. Nixing the Washburn trade. And… that’s about it. So we have an extension for a Japanese player (which I’ll get to in a second) and the overruling of an interim GM. But leaving out the specifics of the deal for a second, why are we so upset about Pelekoudas not being given full authority to do whatever he wanted at the trade deadline? How would our opinions of their actions be different if it was Beltre he was trying to dump instead of Washburn? Would we then hail Armstrong and Lincoln as wise enough to see through the foolishness of letting a temporary employee make decisions that would affect the franchise in 2009 and beyond?

Is it a sign that Lincoln and Armstrong don’t know how to evaluate pitching? Yea, probably. Is it a sign that they’re going to tell the next GM who he can and can’t trade? Unequivocally not. You cannot assume that their actions in overruling an interim GM will be the operating procedure for how they will act with a permanent GM when there is massive historical evidence to the contrary.

When Pat Gillick was GM, his personal theories on baseball were implemented throughout the organization – blow off draft picks, ignore the farm system, don’t sign any contracts longer than three years, spread the money around the entire roster, throw a ton of money at relief pitchers, and trust veterans implicitly while assuming that everyone under 25 is out to steal your wallet.

When Bill Bavasi was GM, his personal theories on baseball were implemented through the organization – spend more money scouting the draft than any other team in baseball, build through the farm system, take big risks with long term contracts in free agency, build a bullpen on the cheap, rush every single talented kid through the minor leagues as fast as possible, and trust implicitly in tools over performance with young kids and track records with veterans.

Bavasi and Gillick are remarkably different, with huge disagreements in how to run a franchise, and both of them were able to implement their ideas completely throughout the organization. The team went from widly risk averse under Gillick to not even bothering to measure risk under Bavasi. They went from holding every prospect in the world in Triple-A for years to carrying Brandon Morrow as a reliever after three innings of minor league experience. They went from an offense of guys who worked the count to the hackingest bunch of hacks who ever hacked.

Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong were in charge of two very different regimes, and both Gillick and Bavasi managed to build their rosters in their own image. How do we reconcile that fact with this idea that they’re maniacal micro-managers who assert their own will over every player transaction? You can’t.

Yes, the Johjima extension happened entirely at an ownership level, and the baseball operations team had basically nothing to do with that decision. But that’s pretty much always been true of how the Japanese player/Mariner team relationship has worked, and to be honest, it’s been a huge boon to the franchise. The original negotiations to sign Kenji as a free agent in 2006 went something like this: “Bill, I want to sign right now. Please give me a contract for whatever you deem fair. Who has a pen?” The rumors about what went on with Ichiro’s posting fee are hilariously legendary, and there was clearly a significant ownership involvement in his decision to re-sign for a below market deal last summer as well.

Even going back to the Sasaki contracts, the Mariners have come out way, way ahead in terms of return on investment of Japanese players. Yes, the Johjima extension is a debacle and probably one the ownership wishes they could have back, but can we really look at the sum of the Japanese ownership meddling and conclude that it’s a huge barrier to the team winning? To the contrary, it’d be easier to argue that the ownership’s history of attracting quality Japanese players to sign for below market deals here has been one of the biggest assets this club has had in the last decade.

There just isn’t the evidence there to support the idea that Lincoln and Armstrong will assert their opinions on roster transactions over the will of the next permanent General Manager. There is evidence that the GM won’t have a very strong say when it comes to the Japanese players on his team, but you can’t really make a case that it’s a franchise crippling problem.

Assumption #2: No good General Manager candidates are going to want to work in a situation where they don’t have total autonomy.

Billy Beane is basically the only GM in baseball with anything resembling total autonomy, and he has an ownership stake in the A’s. Every other GM in baseball has restrictions on what they can and can’t do, and in many cases, they are far more heavy handed than whatever the next GM will have to deal with here.

Theo Epstein has had so many personal conflicts with Larry Lucchino in Boston that he’s already quit once and had to be lured back with contract promises to limit contact between the two.

Kevin Towers is the GM of the Padres, but everywhere he turns, there’s a former GM standing around – his boss, Sandy Alderson (whom he has an interesting relationship with) keeps hiring potential replacements for Towers and giving them positions of power and reporting lines that don’t go through Towers.

The Rangers liked Jon Daniels so much, they made him one of the youngest GMs in baseball – then hired Nolan Ryan to look over his shoulder. The D’Backs have given Josh Byrnes a long term contract as a reward for his job in rebuilding the franchise quickly, then signed Eric Byrnes to a 3 year, $30 million deal that Byrnes wasn’t in favor of. Walt Jocketty ended up leaving his post as GM of the Cardinals due to a division of power that came from ownership. Omar Minaya and Brian Cashman have two sets of demanding owners in NY that don’t really need to be covered here, as I think everyone understands the zoo that is NYC. Kenny Williams and Jerry Reinsdorf have had an occasionally adversarial relationship in Chicago. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

Besides Beane, there’s basically no such thing as a GM with total autonomy. The guys who have worked their tails off to get a shot at a General Manager position are not going to pass on interviewing with the Mariners because of the ownership dynamics. This is a false worry – the M’s will essentially be able to pick from a pool of extremely qualified candidates. If their next GM is a bad hire, it will be because they made a bad decision, not because they didn’t have a good one to make.

Assumption #3: They’re going to stop investing in the on field product.

Say whatever you want about the competence, arrogance, and greed of Mariner ownership, but you simply can’t pretend that they’ve failed to properly fund the on field roster. The principle responsibility of ownership is to provide enough capital for a good GM to build a winning roster with, and the Mariners have had more than enough capital to build a winning team for each of the last 10 years. They’re consistently among the league’s top spenders, and during Bavasi’s administration, they supplemented a high payroll with the highest scouting budget in the industry. The Mariners spend a lot of money on acquiring baseball players, and they have for a long time.

They haven’t spent it well, obviously, but there’s no reason to believe that the resources will cease to be provided if a GM is able to spend them more efficiently. Will payroll go down in 2009? Yea, I’m sure it will. And it probably should – with Bedard’s labrum problem, the reality is it would take a perfect off-season to build a contender this winter, so they’re probably not going to play in October next year. When you know that ahead of time, spending a lot of money on the major league payroll isn’t the best use of resources.

But why should we assume that the ownership won’t pony up enough money to find competent placeholders while the new GM develops his next winning team? The Rays were able to pick up Cliff Floyd, Eric Hinske, and Trever Miller for peanuts this winter, filling holes with solid role players because they could offer significant opportunities for playing time. You think free agents were clamoring to sign in Tampa, or that the Mariners aren’t able to match their significant resources?

There’s a huge gap between “the team will probably cut payroll next year” and “the team won’t provide the next GM enough money to build a winning team”. The former is almost certainly true, while the latter is almost certainly false.

The Mariners face a critical winter, no doubt. If they choose poorly, Derek’s scenario below could certainly come true. It’s a possibility that we can’t ignore, but for those of you who want to treat it like inevitable fate, your assumptions simply don’t stand on actual evidence. You can be afraid that the team will screw up this winter, hire a bad GM, and continue failed policies that will result in more losing seasons, but you can’t pass it off as rigorous analysis of what will happen. Fear is not evidence.

The Mariners are hardly the most moribund franchise baseball. Tampa is riding the peak after a valley far deeper than anything we’ve been through. Pittsburgh abandoned their years of poor planning to hire a good GM and change the entire culture of their organization. If the Rays and Pirates can see the light and make the necessary changes, so can the Mariners. This doesn’t mean that they will, but it does mean that if you’re spouting the impossibility of success under the Lincoln/Armstrong regime, you’re wrong.


24 Responses to “A Punishment of Weeks, Not Years”

  1. Evan on September 22nd, 2008 1:10 pm

    Since when is Dave the upbeat one?

    Something’s been bothering me since reading Derek’s piece this morning, and you’ve just written is all down.

    Sure, the decisions made by this team have been almost universally awful – and I mean horrifically bad – for the last year or more, but you’re right about the structure that lead to those decisions.

    The only real reason I can see to be somewhat less optimistic than your article might promote lies in something Derek said. Since is clear that Lincoln and Armstrong don’t know anything about baseball, and despite their general failure to interfere in the operations of the team under the direction of their GM, they are still the guys who select the GM.

    So, while I think you’re correct that the team will likely be run largely as the new GM sees fit, I have something less than confidence that the new GM will be someone I want making those decisions.

  2. TomG on September 22nd, 2008 1:12 pm

    Heh, I posted nearly the same sentiments earlier in Derek’s thread. Glad to see someone else keeping happy thoughts.

  3. TomG on September 22nd, 2008 1:15 pm

    So, while I think you’re correct that the team will likely be run largely as the new GM sees fit, I have something less than confidence that the new GM will be someone I want making those decisions.

    I’d like to think that L/A are where they are today because they are relatively bright individuals who would be smart enough to learn from their mistakes. Or, I hope they would.

  4. Dobbs on September 22nd, 2008 1:50 pm

    I’ve had that hope for years while Bavasi has run the team into the ground and they continued to let him run the franchise.

    Sure, blame Gillick for the short-comings in the minors, but for all that Bavasi did to fill the team with prospects, what exactly have we ended up with that we still want to keep?

    Felix, Morrow…. and even how he handled Morrow was terrible.

    I have a hard time crediting Bavasi with any positives during his tenure. Build a franchise through the minors but rely on experience at the major league level so that none of your prospects see the light of day. Where’s the intelligence in that?

    He had opportunities to trade guys on the down hill like Guardardo, and failed. He left draft picks on the table such as when Cameron left and he rode veterans with no talent 5 times longer than he should’ve while ignoring minimum salary guys with a track record that could’ve easily replaced them.

    If Bavasi was this bad and still lasted so long, then faith in anything L/A do is gone.

  5. Dave on September 22nd, 2008 1:54 pm

    but for all that Bavasi did to fill the team with prospects, what exactly have we ended up with that we still want to keep?

    Carlos Triunfel, Gregory Halman, Michael Saunders, Jeff Clement, Wladimir Balentien, Philippe Aumont, Juan Ramirez, Dennis Raben, Jharmidy DeJesus, Michael Pineda to name 10.

    Seriously, you can’t say Bavasi did a bad job of building the farm system and then ignore the farm system.

  6. unkrusty on September 22nd, 2008 1:56 pm

    But Dobbs, you miss the point of Dave’s article, which was a refutation that L/A are meddlers and will not allow any GM to run the show. They clearly let Bavasi run the show, and clearly Bavasi screwed it up.

  7. Dobbs on September 22nd, 2008 2:15 pm

    I was asking what he’s left us with at the major league level…

    I’m sure you could name 10 minor leaguers Gillick left us with in the minors at the time he left, but the point was (which is a point you harped on all the time) that we so rarely used our guys in the minors. (except in the bullpen)

    Bloomquist, Lopez and Yuni are the only two position players in the past 5 years from our minors that have played a full season at the major league level.

    Again, Gillick didn’t help this at all, but Bavasi didn’t seem to do any better about prospects turning into major leaguers because of his veterans > prospects approach of the team. If this weren’t the case, Adam Jones would have 250 games under his belt by now.

    I’m not saying this to refute Dave’s point, simply TomG’s optimism that L/A will learn from their mistakes because of their “intelligence” is either a joke or our best hope.

    Perhaps both.

  8. TomTuttle on September 22nd, 2008 2:23 pm

    So who do we root for this team to hire as GM then?

    A proven winner, a young-and-coming type like Chris Antonetti (who won’t leave Cleveland), or just anyone that has a decent baseball IQ?

    I don’t know, maybe I’m in the minority here, but I’m not optimistic about what this team’s choice will be.

    Heck, the fact that there are rumors out there that Randy Smith (former Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres GM) will get an interview just worry me, even if it is only as a courtesy as some people are suggesting.

    Certainly a good hire can change everything, but does anyone here even trust Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln will do that???

    I’d be shocked if they pulled it off.

  9. JMHawkins on September 22nd, 2008 2:39 pm

    Bavasi didn’t seem to do any better about prospects turning into major leaguers because of his veterans > prospects approach of the team. If this weren’t the case, Adam Jones would have 250 games under his belt by now.

    Adam Jones has just short of 200 games under his belt at the age of 23, and would have more if he hadn’t got hurt this year. Sure, over half of those games were with Baltimore instead of Seattle, but one of the uses of prospects is to trade for other guys. That the trade ends up being stupid doesn’t detract from the fact that the farm system produced something of value.

    Bavasi has clearly done a better job of producing home-grown talent than Gillick. He has also clearly done a much worse job adding veterans to the team, and frequently squandered the value produced by the farm system doing so.

    Anyway, as to the future, hell I don’t know. I agree with Dave that the evidence supports the new GM being allowed to institute a new philosophy. The worst case is that Lincoln and Armstrong hire another behind-the-times member of the club who keeps the M’s hapless.

    The second worst case is that they hire a decent GM but saddle him with ruinous constraints intended to shore up attendence and the balance sheet in the short term which prevent the needed rebuilding from happening (e.g. can’t dump Washburn’s salary because we don’t want to look like we’re giving up. Can’t sign FAs cause we don’t want to increase payroll with declining gates, etc.).

    But if they hire a smart GM and put reasonable constraints on things (e.g. don’t increase payroll over 2007/08 levels, signing PR challenges is okay but PR disasters is not, etc.), well, next year could be okay, and 2010 exciting again.

    If nothing else, at least we’ll be tied with Anaheim on April 6th.

  10. Dobbs on September 22nd, 2008 3:14 pm

    “That the trade ends up being stupid doesn’t detract from the fact that the farm system produced something of value.”

    This is simply my opinion here… but you can’t get by as a “GM good at building a farm system” and at the same time undervalue, misuse or simply ignore using players at the major league level.

  11. Dave on September 22nd, 2008 3:17 pm

    No one is arguing that Bavasi is a good GM. Now, let’s get back to the topic at hand, okay?

  12. scareduck on September 22nd, 2008 4:05 pm

    Omar Minaya and Brian Cashman have two sets of demaning owners in NY

    I like this typo because you can fill in the blanks one of three ways, and any of them is appropriate:

    1) They have been stripped of their manhood.
    2) The owners are demanding.
    3) The owners are demeaning.

  13. gk91 on September 22nd, 2008 4:18 pm

    I think the forced trades of Freddie Garcia and Carlos Guillen are being overlooked.
    Dumping Omar for nothing still annoys me, but that was over ten years ago.

  14. dnc on September 22nd, 2008 4:28 pm

    Garcia was a forced trade? Based on what?

    Guillen is a solid point, but again, that was a decision that was made sans-GM that was carried out shortly after acquiring the new GM. It wasn’t something that a sitting GM was forced to do.

  15. Colm on September 22nd, 2008 4:55 pm

    Hurrah for David Cameron! The Shining Beacon of Optimism. Fret not downhearted Mariners fans, there is reason for hope as we close this abysmal season of ruin and look forward to a dreary winter in the Northwest.

    Say, d’ya think there difference in outlook between Dave and Derek can be accounted for in part because Dave’s in sunny, warm North Carolina while Derek is here in Seattle, looking at the start of the seven-eight-nine-month rainy season?

  16. eponymous coward on September 22nd, 2008 5:02 pm

    Thanks for doing a better job than I could have of putting into words where I think the Mariners stand on the eve of a complete trainwreck of a season.

    To be perfectly honest, it’s not going to faze me a lot to see the team not make a big-name signing in the offseason and take payroll down some, because the ones that are out there who are worth big bucks (Tex) have serious downside risk, and a number of the problems on the roster don’t require backing up a Brinks armored truck- they’ll have to churn a lot of the roster, but they can do some of that quite cheaply.

  17. BaltimoreDave on September 22nd, 2008 5:08 pm

    This is an excellent counter-point. Two things stick out:

    1) Almost every question, concern and theory expounded in the last two threads as well as the comments to each will be answered not only by who the next GM turns out to be, but more importantly the process Lincoln and Armstrong take to choose him (or her). Because…

    2) Both are intelligent, savvy businessmen. They know the height of foolishness is repeating the same processes again and again while expecting a different result. They want their next choice of GM to be as successful as we want it to be. They will almost certainly challenge their own assumptions much more harshly than their fans ever could. They may not have earned it the past few years, but for that reason alone they do deserve some benefit of doubt.

  18. marc w on September 22nd, 2008 5:35 pm

    Thought provoking point/counterpoint here.

    To me, the key question here is this: do Lincoln/Armstrong think they’ve “learned” something important in Bavasi’s failure?

    There’s no doubt that they gave both Bavasi and Gillick free rein to design the organization, and I have very little doubt that they’ll allow a new GM to do the same.

    But I worry that may think that Bavasi’s colossal failure indicates that Gillick’s strategies really are better – that the problem with the Bavasi’s tenure was the *premise* of building through the farm and scouting the draft.
    This season’s been so completely terrible that it might lead to slightly more emotional decision making. That is, that anyone who sounds a bit like Bavasi might not get a fair hearing. If that means that they ask for detailed descriptions of what a ‘good’ ballplayer can do and how you identify them, fine. If it means that they’re skeptical that player development is anything more than an expensive lottery ticket, that’s bad.

    I don’t really know how to handicap this, so I’ll leave it to those with more knowledge of the people involved. But while I think they’ll invest in the team and while I think they’ll give the GM a ton of authority, there’s still a way they could screw this up.

  19. diderot on September 22nd, 2008 8:09 pm

    First of all, I’d like to nominate this as best post of the year.
    Secondly, I think Evan’s initial comment is the most relevant. The most important issue concerns the criteria ownership will use to choose the next GM. What will they ask of him/her? Is the goal to maximize wins next year?
    Or will they lay out a rebuilding scenario, e.g., do what you have to do to put us in contention in 2011 (I don’t care how many games you lose in the interim)?
    Is Lincoln stupid? No.
    Is he pissed? Yes.
    Remember…this is his last rodeo. He’s been a winner his entire business career. Do you think he wants to go out a loser?
    But still…on what criteria will they hire the next GM?

  20. scott19 on September 22nd, 2008 8:32 pm

    Personally, I’d rather get out the ole’ Ouija board and see if we can channel Abe Lincoln to advise the M’s on a new GM.

  21. DoesntCompute on September 22nd, 2008 9:34 pm

    Abe would be four square and seven years above a replacement level GM.

  22. Eastside Crank on September 23rd, 2008 10:40 am

    While I greatly respect the keen analysis by the recently converted bluebird of happiness, Dave, I am closer to DMZ in my evaluation of L/A. It is important for the GM to have a vision for the organization and he/she needs the support of the owners to make that vision happen. The owners need to be able to make that vision work financially and also have a longer view of where the organization is going. Ideally they should understand the vision well enough to offer counterpoints when big decisions are made.

    Dave makes the point that L/A have effectively conceded the vision to their GMs and have done a reasonable job supporting them financially. However, L/A do not seem to have a long term plan for the organization and are not able to intercede when the GM is making poor decisions that cripple the organization over time. The lack of a long term vision is seen with the drastically different styles between Gillick and Bavasi. It seems more like throwing darts and seeing what sticks. What new direction will the franchise go now? The inability to understand what the GM was doing became apparent with the Bedard trade. Why would you build your farm system and actually develop players ideal for Safeco and then trade them away? Especially when you do not have other players waiting in the wings to fill their roles? L/A were just as clueless about the Mariners chances this year as Steve Phillips was.

    My optimism for the Mariners is based on L/A losing much of their control of the team this off-season. If they remain in control I do not see how the next GM will be significantly better.

  23. avideo on September 23rd, 2008 4:26 pm

    There are some very valid points made here in this post – which I also regard as one of the very best of the first season I’ve been here. As mentioned already, Lincoln and Armstrong are sharp businessmen and will have to use their wits chosing a new GM. Also keep in mind that this team will face bringing in fans and revenue in an already weak economy, which as an active investor, I suspect will last well into next year. It’s nice being the only MLB franchise in the Northwest; but with high gas prices and a slowing economy you can be sure there will be less people coming.
    Given the team’s awful record, you can be assured that all but the truly faithful and well-off will be buying season tickets this coming winter. That means less fannies in the seats, not to mention less extra revenue that comes from concessions and team store sales. So it now becomes even more critical to the Mariners success to find a GM who can create a “winner” over a number of years.

  24. Osfan on September 23rd, 2008 6:48 pm

    Abe Lincoln did employ Abner Doubleday for a period of time and I think he knew a little something about baseball. So, maybe Scott is on to something.

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