A Punishment of Weeks, Not Years
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.