A Quick And Unoriginal Thought
Girlfriend and I are finally getting through House Of Cards. I won’t spoil anything, and I’ll expect that you won’t spoil anything, but at one point there’s a reference to the “deep internet”, where like 96% of the internet exists, in private. I don’t know if that’s a real thing, because I don’t actually know anything about technology, but I’m just using it here as an introductory technique so let’s all agree to play along. The idea is that there’s the public internet, the face of the internet that anyone can see, but then there’s a lot more to it behind the scenes, and you have to know how to get there in order to gain whatever information you seek. That’s enough of this paragraph, since I’m sure you get the concept.
So let’s talk front office. Let’s talk the Seattle Mariners’ front office. We know all the moves they actually make, because we hear about them and we read about them and we analyze them and we see players come and go. We know that the Mariners signed Robinson Cano because we saw press releases, and photographs, and then most importantly we saw Robinson Cano playing for the Mariners. That transaction list on Mariners.com? Yeah, those are all real events. Think of that as the surface internet.
And there can be so much…let’s just call it luck. There’s so much unpredictability when it comes to players you move. Chone Figgins looked like a tremendous investment until it turned out he was one of the worst investments ever. Franklin Gutierrez looked like an amazing long-term center fielder until he came down with a virtually undiagnosable illness. Going just a little bit deeper, the Mariners got more than they could’ve expected out of Chris Young. Yet, they had to know that the Nationals were going to dump Chris Young, and the Mariners also needed for Randy Wolf to turn down their contractual advances. Young was a big reason why last year’s M’s were able to compete. What if that were Randy Wolf instead?
It’s easy to observe everything that happens on the surface. Humans know what the tops of the oceans look like. We know surprisingly little about the rest. As easy as it is to see what there is to be seen, it’s also easy to forget there’s a hell of a lot more that doesn’t happen. And sometimes it can come really close to happening. For example, Melky Cabrera just signed with the White Sox for the same sort of contract that the Mariners were offering him to play right field. Cabrera ultimately didn’t want to play as far away from everything as Seattle, but that could’ve easily happened. Whatever the Mariners do in right field, that could’ve been Cabrera. Maybe with a little more money. Maybe if Cabrera had just slept different.
There’s that talk about what the Mariners offered to get Matt Kemp at about half his salary. It seems, before the Mariners signed Nelson Cruz, they offered the Dodgers Brad Miller, Michael Saunders, and a third piece. I wouldn’t have loved that trade for the Mariners, but while the team says Miller isn’t exactly on the way out, the fact of the matter is that they offered him in a trade that easily could’ve been accepted. Ultimately the Dodgers did even better, but the Mariners made a hefty bid.
You, of course, remember that the Mariners agreed to trade for Justin Upton, and then Upton used his no-trade clause to block it. That’s as close as you get to a thing that happened, among moves that didn’t officially happen. The Mariners right now are trying to talk up Taijuan Walker. What if they didn’t have him? They tried to not have him, as well as Nick Franklin and more. How different would things be?
What if the Mariners successfully convinced Josh Hamilton to sign with them instead of the Angels? What if the Mariners successfully convinced Prince Fielder to sign with them instead of the Tigers? Last winter, the Mariners offered Nick Franklin and more for a mediocre short-term starting pitcher. When the deal was accepted, the Mariners pulled it off the table. Recently, the Mariners declined a trade proposal that, in the short-term, I think would’ve made them probably the best team in the majors. It would’ve set them up to be something of a 2015 juggernaut. It was turned down, but it didn’t have to be turned down, and the proposal wasn’t absurd. So many things, and more, that come close to happening, that just don’t happen. We hear about a few of them. We don’t hear about most of them. There’s a steady stream of proposals going in two directions, and you don’t want to leave that stuff out when you’re thinking about how you want to evaluate a given front office. It’s just, what do you do when you have such a large set of the mostly unknown?
Let’s say someone asked you to rate a general manager. Where do you start? You look at team success. But then you have all the unknowns. To what extent was the GM able to spend? How many members of the front office were responsible for various moves? What do you do with the draft? How do you factor in player development? What about randomness around player performance? Around team performance? What about moves you know about that didn’t happen? What about moves you don’t know about that didn’t happen? The last one is so potentially big. We interpret a big-league roster to be reflective of the front office’s plan. But to what extent is that true? How well is the front office able to execute its actual plan, and how much is just responding to things no one really saw coming?
There aren’t any answers. We can only evaluate based on what we know. What we know is probably insufficient, but then that’s why people read so heavily into quotes and little moves that might reflect roster-building philosophies. It turns into a gut-feeling thing, and while one doesn’t like to lean upon gut feelings in baseball analysis, there’s not a whole lot else we can do. What’s your opinion of the Jack Zduriencik front office? How big are your error bars? What would that opinion be if Zduriencik were free to do exactly what he wanted to do? What if he were more predictably punished and rewarded? This team right now could look so different. Wouldn’t have taken too much. So how heavily do we weight Jack Zduriencik’s actual, right-now baseball team? It’s an unanswerable question, and this is just a philosophical think-piece, but then I wasn’t prepared for Melky to be off the board so quickly. Thought I’d be writing more about Melky Cabrera. Got thrown for a loop.
What are the Seattle Mariners? They’re complicated. They’re a sports team, though, and the neat thing about sports teams is however much you think about the people in charge of building the team, when the season’s actually happening it’s easy to forget about all that nonsense and just root for wins and health. From an outsider’s perspective, a lot of baseball’s too hard to predict. It’s not all that different from an insider’s perspective. They, at least, know the moves that do and don’t happen. They know how they actually think. We’re just left to root for one version of a roster that could’ve been a thousand other rosters.