In today’s paper, I have a column on the Tampa Bay Rays, in which I discuss last year’s amazing turnaround, and their quest to sustain it. I also delve into the Mariners’ chances of being the Rays of 2009.
Because of space considerations, I had to leave out quite a few interesting quotes from Andrew Friedman, the Rays’ 32-year-old head of baseball operations (who I talked to by phone last Friday) and Jack Zduriencik (who I interviewed on Monday). I thought they were worthy of a blog post.
Before I get to that, however, I wanted to bring up a column by SI’s Tom Verducci, who pointed out just how relatively common it is for losing teams to make a one-season turnaround. Since the expanded playoffs began in 1995, 29 of 112 playoff teams (26 percent, or an average of two teams per season) reached the postseason immediately after a losing season.
Verducci pointed to three factors that marked such turnaorunds. Two out of the three are promising for the Mariners:
1) Run prevention is more important that run production. Check. The Mariners really attacked defensive improvement with the additions of Franklin Gutierrez and Endy Chavez, and have been one of the top defensive teams in baseball so far.
2) Turnaround teams were not as bad as they appeared. Check. The Mariners definitely under-performed last year, for a variety of reasons.
3) Hope only goes so far. Uh oh. Verducci notes that no team made the playoffs the year after losing more than 97 games (the Diamondbacks went from 97 losses to the playffs from 1998 to ’99. The M’s, of course, lost 101 last year.
I asked Friedman what he thought of the great debate all spring about who would be “the next Rays.”
“For us, we’ve taken a little bit of different things from different organizations, but each situation is so unique you can’t possibly replicate what others do,” he said. “We try to learn what we can from other teams. That said, we have to incorporate it into our own model.
“It’s certainly flattering, but all 29 other teams have their own unique challenges they have to deal with. People talk a lot about our defensive improvement from ’07 to ;’08. If we had different personnel, or different people coming, our mindset would have been different. With (Evan) Longoria coming, what we thought Aki (second baseman Akinori Iwamura) could accomplish, that’s where we p laced a great emphasis. With different personnel, we would have gone in a different direction.”
I asked Friedman if defense was still an exploitable commodity, with so many teams now focusing on it, much like on-base percentage became a focus after “Moneyball.”
“Certainly, it’s pretty popular now,” he said. “It’s something that, just like any other facet of the game, if you put too much emphasis on it…Our goal is not just to improve our defense, but to be more well-rounded, with footspeed, power in the middle of the lineup, our pitching. We felt we had reached that point last offseason, but for us, it wasn’t just about defense.”
Are there still hidden areas of market inefficiency for smart teams to exploit?
“We certainly think there are some,” he said. “Maybe not as substanative. Certainly, we feel there are, and always will be. The nature of the game — really, human nature — is that people tend to gravitate toward the same things at the same time. As a result, other things are under-appreciated. Our job is to try to figure out what they are, and try to take advantage.”
I pointed out that more and more teams, such as the Mariners, are now being run with a sabermetric bent, and asked if that made it tougher to exploit market inefficiencies.
“Absolutely,” he said with a laugh. “I didn’t say we’d be able to accomplish it. I said it was our goal.”
I asked him if it was getting easier for small- and mid-market teams to compete. The Rays’ payroll has jumped from $45 million to $60 million, but that’s still miles behind the Red Sox and Yankees.
“I think it’s always easier to have greater resources,” he said. “The margin for error is larger, the more money you have to spend. We don’t spend too much time focusing on that, because it doesn’t do us any good. We’ll always be more reliant on young players than any other team in our division.”
Finally, I asked Friedman for a thought or two on the Mariners.
“I have tremendous respect for Jack,” he said. “He’s extremely creative. I think they’ve done a lot in a short period of time. All it does is continue to make the American League stronger.”
OK, now Zduriencik. As I pointed out in my column, he raved about what the Rays accomplished. I noted Tampa Bay concentrated on improving their defense, and how the Mariners did the same thing.
“I think ours was more because that was what we were able to do,” he said. “Looking at how our park played was one issue. We’d love to make a giant step from one year to the next, but there’s only certain things you could address. No one was giving away a No. 1 starter, a .300 hitter or a 40-homer guy. We were able to sign players and make trades that brought us to the position we’re at today. It was a matter of addressing defense, trying to get more athletic, more teamspeed, and then the finishing touches of bringing in veterans for leadership.”
Zduriencik said that the emphasis on defense was not necessarily modeled on the Rays or any other team.
“We looked at it as a group, and a lot of us had the same thoughts — you lose a lot of games you should win just because of not catching the ball. That even came up in the interview with Don (Wakamatsu), how to get better, one way is to improve team defense. It was by design, yes.”
I asked Zduriencik to assess the Mariners’ season so far.
“I like what I’ve seen,” he said. “I like how we concentrate on playing the game the way it’s got to be played, and the fact it’s a nine-inning game. When we’ve done that, we’ve been pretty good. I’m happy with the leadership of the veterans, and the energy the younger players.
“I liked the bullpen in spring training. There were a lot of question marks from the outside looking in. It’s still a work in progress, but there have been some guys that have done nice things. We have some talent there. Don and his staff have done a good job of putting guys in a position to succeed. We played over the weekend without Kenji (Johjima) and Russell (Branyan). Those are little things that are going to happen over the course of a season. You ask other guys to step up, and Rob Johnson did a nice job. It’s a 25-man roster for a reason. You need 25 guys to deliver on different days.
“If we continue to move forward and play with engery and the team concept we’ve been playing with, and play 27 outs, and realize that we need 25 guys to contribute, this club has a chance to be competitive the whole year. I look forward to watching them. I’m proud of what they’ve done.”
Finally, I asked Zduriencik if offense was a concern after they scored just three runs in their three recent defeats.
“The funny thing about offense — we had two really, really good outings against us by two talented guy. Edwin Jackson, on any given day, can be very, very good. And Rick Porcello was one of the highest-paid guys in the history of the draft — $7.5 million. Is he going to do that every time out? No young kid will, but on any given day, when he does that, you have to respect that. That’s why someone tapped him and recognized his ability and paid him what they paid him.
“I do thing our club is a work in progress. It’s a talented club. Guys have to continue to deliver. We have to continue to do the little things to help win games. We’re not going to be a club that goes out there and rolls up big, big offensive numbers. We’re a club that’s athletic, plays defense, and has pretty good pitching. There will be days certain players step up and carry you. Other days, the defense will do the job, and other days pitching will do the job. At the end of the day, if guys are doing what they can do, we’ll be competitive all year, and I look forward to watching them.”