Front Office Changes
In October of 2008, Jack Zduriencik was hired by the Mariners to take over the team’s open GM position and essentially fix a broken organization. In order to help facilitate a new direction, Jack filled the front office with his own guys. From Milwaukee, he brought Tony Blengino to be his assistant and serve as the analytical voice as a complement to his scouting background. He also brought Tom McNamara from the Brewers to take over amateur scouting and run the draft. As part of an agreement with the Brewers, he agreed to only hire two front office members from his old organization, so Pedro Grifol was promoted from within to fill the job of director of minor league operations, and Carmen Fusco was hired to run the professional scouting ranks.
In part to familiarize ourselves with the new guys, we decided to host a USSM/LL event in early January of 2009, a few months after they all joined the staff. We booked the auditorium at the Seattle Central Library, and invited a bunch of you guys to come hang out and talk baseball on a Saturday in the middle of winter.
I invited Jack to come to the event, but because of a prior commitment to do an extended radio interview at the same time, he wasn’t able to make it. To make it up to us, he offered to send essentially the entire front office as his replacement, so representing the Mariners were the four executives just mentioned: Blengino, McNamara, Grifol, and Fusco. Here’s some photographic evidence, if you want to see pictures.
That’s the only event I’ve ever not been able to make it out to Seattle to attend, but from what I gathered from those who were there, it went off like a giant four hour celebration. Fusco went through so many bottles of water that people were legitimately amazed at his capacity to retain liquids — I only learned later that he did the entire event while suffering from two kidney stones, which he passed only after the event was over. With that kind of dedication, no wonder spirits were high. Everyone was enthused. While Jack himself wasn’t able to make it, his employees inspired a great deal of confidence in the organization, and reflected extremely well upon his decision to hire them to begin with.
Which brings to one of the most common questions I’ve been asked this winter: how it is possible that a front office that saw so much value in Franklin Gutierrez, Endy Chavez, and Brendan Ryan — among others — could spend the winter pursuing the likes of Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, and Michael Morse. The shift in the type of players acquired this winter has been so stark that it is hard to reconcile the idea that it’s the same front office making these decisions. But, therein lies the rub; the current front office is not the same one that was in place in the winter of 2008.
Fusco was relieved of his duties in September of 2010 for reasons that are another post entirely. Grifol was removed from his front office position last year, and was replaced by Chris Gwynn as the head of minor league operations; he just officially left the organization after spending 2012 managing High Desert in the California League. And this winter, the Mariners have made one more front office adjustment, as Tony Blengino is no longer working out of the Seattle office but has moved into an advisory role that involves him having conversations with Jack from his home in Milwaukee. He is still under the employ of the organization, but the official comment that I was given by the M’s PR department is that Tony is going to focus more on analytical research and be less involved in decisions relating to player personnel. Of the four men who made up something like Jack’s inner circle during that first off-season, Tom McNamara is the only one who is still serving in that same function.
It’s not that those positions got eliminated, of course, and Jack still has a group of folks that he trusts advising him on talent acquisition decisions. Jeff Kingston was hired by the Mariners as an Assistant GM in September of 2009, and he oversees the analytical department in the organization now. Ted Simmons was hired as the Senior Advisor to the GM in 2010. Last winter, the team added three Special Assistants, bringing in Pete Vuckovich and Joe McIlvaine, as well as promoting Roger Hansen, with all three currently listed on the organization’s front office page as “Special Assistant to GM, Player Procurement”, notably differentiating them from Blengino, who does not have those final two words in his title. Ken Madeja, who previously had held that role, moved into a pro scouting job. John Boles, who also held that position, left the organization after last season.
And, we can’t forget the one other major change, as there was the complete turnover of the field staff as well, with Don Wakamatsu and his crew being replaced by Eric Wedge‘s coaching staff after the 2010 season.
Blengino represented one of the few remaining holdovers from the initial group brought on by Zduriencik during his initial winter as GM. And now, with his reassignment, the structure of the analytical department is changing as well.
Tom Tango noted on his blog a few days ago that he was now exclusively providing his services to the Chicago Cubs. Tango, as you probably know, is one of the most well known statistical analysts in our community, and was hired by the Mariners as a consultant back during that first winter. According to the organization, Tango left for an exclusive position with the Cubs approximately three months ago, and Tango himself confirmed that publicly when asked how long he’d been working with Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer in Chicago.
The Mariners stress that they still value analytical decision making higher than ever, and do not see Tango’s departure or Blengino’s new role as a sign of a change in philosophical approach. Indeed, they’ve just brought on several new interns to serve in the baseball operations department, and guys like Andrew Percival and Casey Brett remain in the organization, working in their respective roles within Kingston’s group. The names and titles may be changing, but the Mariners suggest that this is simply part of the natural turnover of the game, and not any kind of organizational shift in decision making process.
That said, there’s no question that different people have different ideas, and it seems pretty clear that the current front office has some different ideas than the 2009 front office had. We’re not privy to the inner workings of each decision, so we don’t know how much each kind of acquisition was influenced by which individuals, but the results of the current roster construction methods speak to a pretty significant shift at some point along the line. Whether that shift is a reaction to the failures of players like Chone Figgins and Milton Bradley, or whether it’s simply a reflection of the preferences of the current front office decision makers, we have no idea. Maybe it’s not either of those things, and there’s no connection between the front office turnover and the shift in the type of players the Mariners have acquired this winter. Without being in the room when those decisions are made, we simply can’t know what has changed, if anything.
But from an outsider’s perspective, it sure appears that things have changed, and changed pretty significantly. For a large portion of the fan base, that’s probably a good thing, as I know many of you are tired of seeing a low scoring offense with no power. You won’t be seeing that again any time soon, and with Blengino mostly out of the mix on player acquisitions — and Tango totally gone — that’s probably a change that’s here to stay. If there’s one thing we can clearly deduce from the organization’s maneuvers over the last few months, it’s that the Mariners are putting a premium on power hitting again. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but it seems like it’s probably not.
The moves the team is making are different. Why? We don’t know for sure, but we do know that besides Jack Zduriencik and Tom McNamara, the front office now is entirely different than the front office that was in place back in the first few years of the new regime. I’d guess that those two things are related. Whether this new direction is for better or worse remains to be seen, but it’s hard for me to see how losing Tom Tango is beneficial to an organization, and I’m clearly not the biggest fan of the moves the team has made this winter.
But, I’m reminded of something Jack said during his first few days as GM of the team, as recorded by Larry Stone on October 25th, 2008.
“I’d love to have guys with good makeup and good character, committed to the city and the ballclub. But when all is said and done, talent wins.”
I’d love to have a front office that values the same things I value, and employs people that think similarly to the way I think, but when all is said and done, talent does win. Dustin Ackley doesn’t have any less talent now than he did when Tango worked for the Mariners. Felix Hernandez didn’t relocate to Milwaukee with Tony Blengino. The Mariners have never fired Kyle Seager. Teams without nerdy consultants win too. Letting Tango leave doesn’t mean the Mariners can’t win, or that the hard work done during the last few years won’t pay off in the future. Or, maybe things break right for the organization and they pay off in 2013. Who knows?
This post isn’t about predicting what all these changes will do to the organization. It’s more about attempting to explain why the moves seem so different now. We don’t have enough information to make any kind of firm conclusions, but there’s definitely some correlation between the front office turnover and the apparent change in team building approach we’ve seen this winter. Just because the GM hasn’t changed doesn’t mean nothing has changed. The group around Jack now is a lot different now than it was a few years ago. The group around Jack now is apparently are big fans of home runs.