Front Office Changes

Dave · January 30, 2013 at 9:02 pm · Filed Under Mariners 

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.


65 Responses to “Front Office Changes”

  1. eponymous coward on January 31st, 2013 12:23 pm

    Isn’t it possible that this is all about attendance and the FO’s seeming obsession with getting non-baseball fans to go to games and spend money?

    Given that Chuck Armstrong probably remembers the 1980’s Mariners hitting plenty of home runs and not drawing worth a damn, since he was in the front office then as well as now, I’m going to go with “no”.

    The team understands that winning = attendance, bottom line. What is lacking so far is the major league roster that’s capable of winning.

  2. roosevelt on January 31st, 2013 1:03 pm

    Interesting read. I’ll make a bold prediction… Jack is NOT brought back next season.

  3. Seattleken on January 31st, 2013 1:39 pm

    Maybe its not a bad thing if Jack is gone in 2014 and the next GM is a more experienced GM focused on taking the great kids Jack drafted and converting it to wins.
    I don’t have any confidence in Jack in free agent dealings as hes been completely awful here for 5 years. His deals are mostly poor in terms of the player being returned as every guy coming back except Guit had huge flaws that made it unlikely he would be a major impact player. Yet hes moved guys that could be major impact players like Fister and Morrow. He trades Morse prime years but gets him back after those years are done.
    So while it will suck for Z to be let go another team will hire him as a head of scouting or rebuilding GM.
    My hope is that Jack was just the fall guy GM and a new one is hired who can deal with agents and other GMS without being taken behind the woodshed.

  4. bubba_gump on January 31st, 2013 2:06 pm

    “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.”

    When the current model doesn’t bring expected results in a timely manner, it’s time to reevaluate the model.

  5. Eastside Crank on January 31st, 2013 2:28 pm

    It has been frustrating to try to figure out what the Mariners have been doing the past few years. This post gives some perspective as to what is going on. I do not see how the Mariners will ever be successful if they keep chasing butterflies. They need to decide what type of team they want and how it will play. Then they can decide the best way to acquire those players and find a manager best suited for that style of play. In the meantime one can hope that the strategy right now is to sell the team as soon as possible.

  6. RaoulDuke37 on January 31st, 2013 3:49 pm

    I don’t know if the owner is the issue. I don’t know if Chuck and Howard are the issue. I don’t know if Jack and company are the issue.

    What I do know is the Seahawks are a great franchise. The Sounders are a great franchise. The Supersonics might be back this year, and if that happens the NHL might follow. 2013 will be my 25th year as Mariner fan, and outside of the typical ‘start of the season’ excitement, I could really care less. That makes me sad.

  7. jhatten927 on January 31st, 2013 4:00 pm

    We are talking about Raul Ibanez and Michael Morse for 1 year and the sacrifice is probably going to be Jason Bay and John Jaso. I would be really surprised to see Casper Wells get beat out by Bay.

    This means nothing and really hurts nothing. Jaso was never used as dumb as it was, it wasn’t going to change and we have improved power, something that has been that hasn’t existed in Seattle in almost 10 years.

    None of these moves hurt the team. It’s purely a marketing thing, couple bats that hopefully show you can hit in Safeco these days and drum up some fan interest.

    I’m glad the Justin Upton trade didn’t happen and am surprised at what he was worth in the eyes of other teams.

    I also think a part of this is Chuck and Howard forcing the issue.

    I think Jack Z has done an admirable job. He has built a top flight farm system and hasn’t buried this team with bad contracts. Outside Figgins.

  8. PackBob on January 31st, 2013 5:46 pm

    While Jack is surrounded by a different inner circle and may be getting different assessments of where the team is at and what should be done to improve, I’m not convinced this adds up to a change in philosophy because of the recent moves, mainly because his youthful core is still in place.

    Morales and Morse each have a year left before becoming free agents, Ibanez has a one year contract, and Bay is a minor league hope-for-luck addition. Wedge wasn’t going to play Jaso anyway, and he seemed to believe Wells had hitting approach deficiencies to resolve before he would be considered as a full-time player.

    Another way to look at it is simply buying some time for the young guys. Morales/Vargas was value for value and Jaso/Morse was… well I still don’t like it. But Morales and Morse do bring the potential for more dingers, and why not up the potential for dingers while waiting on the young guys?

    Morales and Morse could easily be gone by August, with some prospects in return, and the Ibanez veteran experience experiment will be over when it doesn’t carry his lack of hitting any more, much like Griffey, but hopefully not as painful.

    I don’t believe Jack has to follow ‘The Philosophy’ with every move he makes to retain that general philosophy. Jack may get some veteran experience to make Wedge happy, some dinger hitters to add some punch to the line-up, but when all is said and done the fate of the team still rests with the young guys he has stockpiled.

  9. Sports on a Shtick on January 31st, 2013 9:09 pm

    Jeff at LL pointed this out already but I couldn’t help but think of Brian Sabean while reading this article.

    San Francisco is a traditional-minded front office and it’s won two championships so it’s not like deviating from analytics automatically makes the Mariners non-contenders. Perhaps it will make the journey more difficult but there are different paths to the top.

  10. ivan on February 1st, 2013 2:09 am

    I remain baffled that the name of Chuck Armstrong does not appear in the main body of the post, and not until the 50th comment in a string of 57.

    Jack does not do his job in a vacuum. This entire post doesn’t make any sense if it fails to take into account Armstrong’s history of meddling in, and fucking up, everything he touches since he arrived on the scene, utterly unqualified, as George Argyros’ gofer.

    I have no idea how much or how little Armstrong is meddling with Jack. Yes, it is possible that he has had no input whatever. But his continued presence at least deserves a mention in any speculation of this type.

  11. MrZDevotee on February 1st, 2013 9:30 am

    And Armstrong doesn’t do his job in a vacuum of suck. He deserves criticism, sure, but let’s not forget the only years the team has ever won over 80 games have all been on his watch (starting the year after he took over, and as recently as 2009). Five times we’ve won over 90 games. We tied the all-time win records in a season on his watch. We won the most games in baseball over a 3 year stretch less than 10 years ago.

    Make no mistake, I’m not an Armstrong/Lincoln supporter, but I’m always amazed when criticism of them ignores any and all positives.

    Anything wrong is his meddling… Anything right, it’s obviously despite his presence. What a fun job he has.

    A couple losing seasons, it’s because of his meddling… Then they bring in all hardcore baseball guys, and stand back, and they lose 100 games… And, it’s still mostly his fault?

    THEN… They get rid of most of those front office guys, for new front office guys, and before even considering any results… Yep, an awful move, all his fault.

  12. TIFO on February 1st, 2013 9:45 am

    It seems pretty clear the M’s are struggling to convince any free agent good to great hitter to come to the Mariners, seemingly partially because nobody wants to be the only guy who can hit and because of Safeco’s reputation.

    To get around this the M’s have moved in the fences. But that seemed to not help too much in player perception. Z still got shutdown by Hamilton and Upton and maybe more. So now he needs to demonstrate that people can hit in the new Safeco. It’s a critical year in that way. If people still don’t hit, moving in the fences will have done nothing for player perception. So Z went out and got a few players on 1 year contracts who can hit and hit dingers.

    This way next year he can say “see, now you can hit at Safeco.” In reality, moving in the fences isn’t going to do that much, but that’s not what is important. It’s player perception that is and having something tangible to point to.

    I think a lot of the moves this offseason were about that and maybe taking some pressure, offensively speaking, off some of the young players, more than a shift in organizational philosophy.

    One more year to let talent develop and come up from the minors and hopefully a better chance of convincing good hitters to come to the Mariners in 2014 and beyond.

    Based on the M’s having gone after Hamilton, Upton, and rumor has it having been in on Grienke, what the M’s ultimately did wasn’t plan A. But it’s not a bad plan B given where the organization is right now.

  13. amnizu on February 1st, 2013 10:24 am

    >It seems pretty clear the M’s are struggling to convince any free agent good to great hitter to come to the Mariners, seemingly partially because nobody wants to be the only guy who can hit and because of Safeco’s reputation

    By this logic good to great free agent pitchers should be tripping all over themselves to pitch here. They should be openly expressing an interest in playing for Seattle as it should inflate their stats and make them more valuable. What we’ve seen over the past few seasons is (other than Felix’s extension) that is not the case.

    No major free agent signings of any type, pitchers included, points to another cause.

  14. MrZDevotee on February 1st, 2013 11:28 am

    Only flaw there (and I agree overall) is that pitchers know, from watching a perennial Cy Young candidate pitch here, that it’s nearly impossible to win with our offense. And, given the debate over whether Felix deserved the Cy he has by national pundits, most pitchers realize wins get them contracts as much, if not moreso, than ERA. And being on a winning team gets you wins.

  15. IllinoisMsFan on February 1st, 2013 12:55 pm

    MrZDevottee, you’re wrong about Armstrong:

    “the only years the team has ever won over 80 games have all been on his watch (starting the year after he took over, and as recently as 2009)”

    Armstrong was part of the M’s well before the first season they won over 80 games. He was president from 83-89, left when Smulyan bought the team, and then returned in 93. So… actually, he wasn’t part of the franchise the first time they played .500 (1991).

    Plus, while you can site the “good years” for Armstrong, the bad years are much, much more plentiful. During the years Armstrong has been with the club, the M’s have finished last in their division 12 times. And 2nd to last in the old 7 team AL West another two times.

    If it wasn’t for a period of five to six years where the M’s had arguably four future Hall of Famers on the team (and the team still didn’t even get to a WS), we’d be talking about a stretch of absolute absurd futility.

    Armstrong’s title is “President of Baseball Operations”. I’d love to have a job where I’m president of “operations” and get to keep my job after over 20 years of suckiness.

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