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July 10, 2007 at 9:07 AM

Grading Bavasi

Getting hot enough out there for you, Seattle folks? Ah, summer in the city. Makes any type of seat real hot. And speaking of “Hot Seats” let’s try to answer the brain-twisting question of whether or not general manager Bill Bavasi has done a good job this season. I mean, this is a toughie. Not quite as easy to answer as the questions about manager Mike Hargrove’s “Hot Seat” before he resigned. Hargrove was managing a winning team with a shot at the post-season. Had overcome all types of on and off-field obstacles. In my book, he was a candidate for Manager of the Year. There are debates about in-game strategy to be had with any manager. But bottom line? A perenial last place team becomes a first-half “contender”? The manager will always get the credit.
But how about the general manager? Has Bavasi also shown enough acumen at his job to merit some revising of the way many of us — myself included — have judged him in the recent past? I’m honestly not sure. This isn’t about me trying to justify any past positions on Bavasi. If he is the best guy to lead this team forward, then by all means, offer him an extension.
The thing is, whenever I try to honestly assess his performance in my own mind, some images appear. I think of a daredevil driver who has five minutes to get from Ballard to Queen Anne and manages to make it on time by skillfully — Evil Knievel style — leaping from one side of an open and raised Ballard Bridge to the other with his car. Quite impressive, no? But what if that driver had a button in his car that controlled the bridge and was the one who had caused it to rise in the first place? What if he could have left the bridge alone and made it to where he was going even quicker?
That’s what runs through my mind when I think of Bavasi. I think of the bold decision made by him at the end of spring training to keep Brandon Morrow in the bullpen. Having Morrow’s live arm certainly helped the back end of the rotation this season, especially after Chris Reitsma went down. Forget about Morrow’s control problems. He has been more of an asset than a liability.
But it was Bavasi himself who created the need for Morrow in the bullpen — and the need to acquire Reitsma in the first place — by trading Rafael Soriano to the Atlanta Braves for starter Horacio Ramirez. Raised the Ballard Bridge so to speak.
So, does skillfully navigating one’s way through his own minefield merit a person receiving credit for having done so? This is the Bavasi question.
Whether or not Ramirez rebounds in the second half, he has contributed next to nothing to this year’s squad. Jeff Weaver is currently touted as a key piece to any Seattle playoff push. He is 2-6 with a 6.34 ERA. If I’d told any of you that Weaver would win just two games by the All-Star Break, how many of you would have advocated signing him for $8.3 million? Does the timing of those wins matter? Or do we have to look at the picture as a whole?
Does setting the bar so incredibly low in April and May, in regards to starting pitching performance, translate to credit for Bavasi when those pitchers manage even a three, or four-week turnaround? Yes, the performance by Miguel Batista has turned around and been more solid the past two months or so and he is showing more of what a three-year, $25-million starter should deliver. His park-adjusted ERA+ of 93 means he’s still seven percent worse than an average starter. Does Bavasi deserve credit or praise for locking him up for three years?
There is certainly an argument to be made that Bavasi had a very difficult off-season task of trying to fill three holes in his starting rotation. That he did the best job he could under trying circumstances in which few free-agents were willing to take Seattle’s money. But the counter-argument states that Bavasi was the one who left himself so exposed in the first place, with a 60 percent vacancy in his rotation at a time when the cost of starting pitchers was about to blow sky high.
How did he let things get to that point? How badly did he misjudge the market?
Or, does he deserve credit for anticipating the market? Bavasi has generally been criticized for the four-year, $37.5-million contract he gave Jarrod Washburn roughly 18 months ago. But does that contract look more prudent now that Washburn has become the most consistent starter in the rotation this year? He is having one of his better seasons and his ERA+ is 13 percent higher than an average starter. He is on-pace for a 15-win season with a sub-4.00 ERA and is delivering outings of at least seven innings on a more frequent basis. Is he this team’s Esteban Loaiza?
Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane received credit, months after the fact, for locking up Loaiza to a three-year, $21 million contract before the 2006 season began. Given the cost of free-agent pitching nowadays — and the scarcity of arms available via trade — Bavasi’s deal with Washburn now looks a lot better than it did six months ago. Does that earn Bavasi credit?
How about the offensive side? How does Bavasi fare there? He appears to have built the deepest offense in the AL West. A bit like building the best hockey rink in Saudi Arabia at times, but it’s the deepest nonetheless. His signing of free-agent Jose Guillen upgraded the team power-wise. But then, there is the question of Jose Vidro, whose power-numbers are arguably the worst of any full-time DH. And Bavasi is paying $6 million per season for the privilege, not to mention having given up two prospects. One of those, Chris Snelling, continues to be injury prone. No huge loss there. But relief pitcher Emiliano Fruto went to the Futures Game this year and figures to play a key role in the Washington Nationals bullpen in coming seasons.
Plenty of folks argued at the time that this was a terrible trade by Bavasi, just as they said about the Ramirez deal. In hindsight, both still look bad.
Many of Seattle’s key offensive contributors came from the team’s international scouting ranks, established pre-Bavasi. These include Ichiro, Kenji Johjima, Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt. That’s four of the nine regulars. Of the remaining four, other than Guillen, there are Raul Ibanez, Richie Sexson, Adrian Beltre and Vidro.
Beltre continues to show his worth defensively and had picked it up on offense before a thumb injury slowed him down the past month. But the other three, Ibanez, Sexson and Vidro, continue to appear miscast in their continued day-to-day roles. How Bavasi handles those three going forward could very well determine his end-grade as a GM, at least this season.
Does he continue to allow Sexson and his .205 batting average and .299 on-base percentage to play first base every day when there is a capable platoon partner in Ben Broussard needing more playing time? Is Vidro and his 13 extra-base hits allowed to remain a DH when Ibanez and his sore hamstring are having trouble navigating left field?
Or does Bavasi finally intervene and make the move to add surging Class AAA prospect Adam Jones to left field, making Ibanez available to at least share DH duties with Vidro, if not assume them full-time? It’s one thing to assemble a set of capable players, as Bavasi appears to have done, in one form or another. Quite a different thing to know how to use them.
A payroll in the $110 million range gives Bavasi an advantage over many of the game’s GMs in being able to assemble such players. But in using them, given how so many appear to be in ill-suited roles, he has still fallen short. Sexson’s first half numbers, in terms of home runs, OBP and slugging percentage, are almost exactly the same as last season’s. So, a second-half turaround, based on his history, remains plausible. But should Bavasi have to content himself with crossing his fingers and hoping for the best, or settling for so little over-all contribution out of Sexson in the first half of any season, when he has Broussard around? Where is it caved in stone that the big numbers Sexson puts up over the final 45 percent of his team’s games warrant him being around every day for nearly 100 percent of a season? It’s a situation very unique to Seattle. And again, much of it is allowed to take place because of the huge dollars Bavasi committed to Sexson in the first place.
Few players, year in and year out, can get away with keeping their jobs as full-timers while contributing so little over more than half a season. Especially while keeping an at least capable platoon player like Broussard glued to the bench. The games all count in the end. How many games has it already cost Seattle, compared to the games a surging Sexson could win for his team these next 2 1/2 months?
So, we’ll see how quickly Bavasi addresses things moving forward.
For me, I’d like to know whether the game we saw out of Jason Ellison the other day is something we could expect on a more regular basis. I really liked what he showed in Oakland, when his back was to the wall and he had a rare chance to demonstrate his worth. The way Ellison was used in the first half was a waste of a valuable roster spot. Another of those was already being used up on Rule 5 draft pick Sean White before he conveniently vanished on to the DL, rarely to be seen or heard from again. If this is the type of play Ellison is capable of, I want to see this team use more of him. If Willie Bloomquist and Broussard can play three positions each, I want to see them more as well. Their versatility is wasted if they are only seeing the field once a week. This team does not have enough consistency in its day-to-day lineup for these players to be stuck on the bench. Too many daily jobs appear to be guaranteed to other players without the justification for this having been done.
Part of that falls in the GM’s lap.
That said, Bavasi does get a big dose of credit, in my book, for assembling the depth that he does have. Again, much of that is due to his huge payroll. What would Billy Beane do in Oakland with $110 million? But Bavasi at the onset of the season claimed that he had put together quite a bit of mound depth. That depth has enabled him to do things other teams cannot, like allow four different starters to go on the DL for a month or more. It enabled Jeff Weaver to build up arm strength on the DL until he was ready to return in a more productive role. Same with Ramirez. Many teams can’t do that and would leave their starters out there to take a pounding, or get rid of them. Bavasi had the depth to offset those woes without his team being devastated.
But again, was it a case of jumping the Ballard Bridge when he pushed the button to raise it? Is this “depth” argument, merely helping Bavasi overcome the obstacles he put in his own way? These are questions any honest team will have to be asking when it assesses Bavasi’s performance going forward.
The best news for Bavasi is that being 13 games over .500 has bought him more time to silence critics, those who suggest his team’s performance is more “dumb luck” on his part than any shrewd plan. Bavasi still has time to show he can make moves to add to this team. Whether that’s acquiring another bullpen arm to solidify his team’s bigger asset. Or perhaps acquiring another starter on nobody’s radar at the moment — this year’s version of a Shawn Chacon — who benefits the M’s without costing much in terms of prospects. Moves like those are what solidify a GM’s reputation. It’s why folks like Brian Cashman of the Yankees are respected despite an enormous payroll.
It says right here that Bavasi has to somehow make this team better going forward. You can bet on other playoff contenders doing just that between now and July 31. After that, we’ll have a far better idea of what Bavasi’s over-all grade should be. And whether keeping him around for another three or four years is truly in the best interests of this franchise. For now, at best the grade is incomplete. A case for failure could have been made after last season.
But now, with his team sitting fifth best in the entire majors, that argument is foolish and ignores present-day reality. The GM of a team that is winning at least deserves a second look and the chance to revise the way people think about him. We’re all watching. Let’s see what he does.



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