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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

January 4, 2008 at 4:19 PM

Rebuilding or reloading?

That’s the subject we’ll look at today in regards to the Mariners, prompted by a comment from Adam on yesterday’s post saying that the right thing for the team would be to essentially forego competing in 2008. First, an update on Roger Clemens. He and Andy Pettitte and trainer Brian McNamee have been asked to testify before a congressional committee on Jan. 16. Now we’re talking. Nothing like the threat of perjuring oneself to generate some straightforward answers. Or some non-answers. And sometimes those speak louder and more truly than the answers themselves. Just think of Mark McGwire three years ago, refusing to answer a direct question on steroids use.
In any event, the stakes would be much higher for Clemens (and McNamee) in this forum than they will be for the pitcher on 60 Minutes this coming Sunday. Here’s one take on the 60 Minutes interview and why no one should take it too seriously. The guy writing the piece is very well-known up in Canada as an expert on interviewing techniques and other aspects of journalism. Apparently, he’s since crossed the border like yours truly.
Anyway, back to the Mariners and whether they should “rebuild” in 2008, or simply “reload” with some bigger bullets and try to take down the Angels. It was Clemens himself who I first heard make the distinction between the two terms when he was trying to talk his way out of his Blue Jays contract in 1998 while I was covering Toronto.

A few of you have already noted that Oakland general manager Billy Beane has made past comments stating that a team either has to be seriously contending for a title or rebuilding. That it’s a suicide mission to do anything in-between.
While there is merit to that thinking, especially in Beane’s financial situation, I’m not sure it’s a rule that can be applied in blanket fashion. In fact, I think those of you suggesting the Mariners adopt such an approach are letting Seattle GM Bill Bavasi off the proverbial hook far too easily.
Let me explain. It’s not as if Beane has much of a choice. With a payroll of only $79 million last season, his team was ninth out of 14 AL clubs in that department and 17th out of 30 in all of baseball. And last year marked a huge payroll jump by the A’s, who had only $62 million to spend on payroll in 2006 and about $55 million on average in the three seasos prior to that. So, if Beane wasn’t on the cusp of the playoffs, he had no choice but to sell off assets and rebuild. Could not afford anything else.
Much the same can be said for the Cleveland Indians, who had an Opening Day payroll of $61.6 million last season. That’s second worst in the AL, with only the Tampa Bay Devil Rays spending less money. Once again, not much room for error there. You’ve either got a team preapring to contend, or you’re going with a bunch of cheap, young players you hope will someday mature into a winner.
The Mariners, obviously, are not in the same financial boat. They had an Opening Day payroll of $106 million last year if we go by Cot’s Baseball Contracts and should be above that figure in 2008. The M’s averaged nearly $88 million in the two seasons before that and have been above $80 million every year since 2002. They were fifth in AL payroll last year and the year prior, not to mention fourth in 2005 and 2004.
So, every year in which Bavasi has been a GM, his club has had the fourth or fifth-highest payroll of the 14 AL teams. The only other AL clubs that can say that? Those would be the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox and Los Angeles Angels. How many rebuilding phases have those teams been involved in over the same time period? Exactly.
That’s not to say those teams haven’t added young players. All have won the World Series at least once this decade, but have since added key new faces while still going to the post-season. Think Robinson Cano, Chien Ming Wang, Joba Chamberlain and Melky Cabrera for the Yankees. Dustin Pedroia, Jonathan Papelbon, Kevin Youkilis, Hideki Okajima and Daisuke Matsuzaka for the Red Sox. In Los Angeles, there’s Jered Weaver, Chone Figgins, Howie Kendrick and Casey Kotchman among others. So, where were the rebuilding years? Did I miss something?
The Yankees last won the World Series in 2000, but were finalists in 2001 and 2003 and in the post-season every year since. Boston lost Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS, then won a World Series in 2004 and 2007 and missed the post-season only in 2006 because of a second-half slew of injuries more than any true rebuilding plan.
Los Angeles won the World Series in 2002 and has since made the post-season in 2004, 2005 and 2007. So, the Angels have been a playoff team four of the past six years. In one of those playoff misses, coming in 2006, they still won 89 games. Their roster has turned over almost entirely since the World Series win. Where were those rebuilding years?
You’ve got me there.
That’s why, I’ll submit, that teams in the upper echelons of payroll don’t really have rebuilding years. They have reloading years. They change the faces, upgrade some old with some new, make some trades along the way, but they never really throw up that white flag and outright surrender. Nor should they. A team with a payroll of $106 million, or $113 million, or whatever the Mariners really spent last season, does not have the same constraints as a club with only $60 million or $75 million to spend. They can cover up some poor roster-building mistakes by throwing money at a problem.
Can they be financially irresponsible? Absolutely not. The Baltimore Orioles have shown that throughout the past decade. But just because the O’s have been a bust despite a high payroll does not, I submit, mean they should be used as Exhibit A for why teams should sacrifice entire seasons to rebuild. Why look at the one team that failed to contend year-in, year-out, on the upper echelons of payroll when there are three others that I just mentioned managing to win consistently?
So no, I don’t think the Mariners should be allowed to “write off” 2008 and 2009 just to position themselves perfectly for a run at 2010. Not with the payroll they have now. I particularly don’t understand the argument when it is espoused by those of you who dislike Bavasi. Blow off the next two years in hopes of rebuilding for 2010 and you’ve just bought Bavasi two more seasons as a GM. You take all of the heat off him entirely. And I don’t think that should be the case. Not with a payroll right at the upper third of the AL throughout his tenure.
I realize that folks like Adam don’t want to see plenty of valuable farm pieces dealt for a top-line pitcher who may “only” help this team compete for two more years. But those two years can be an eternity for a team spending more than $100 million annually. And who’s to say that, over the next two years, more top-flight prospects would not emerge from within Seattle’s farm system? A year ago at this time, plenty of people were down on Jeff Clement. Look at what’s happened since. Who’s to say Phillippe Aumont won’t be hyped higher than Brandon Morrow in two years? We don’t know.
What I do know is that if the M’s slashed payroll down to a Cleveland Indians-style $60 million next season, thousands of fans would be up-in-arms, complaining about ownership raking in piles of cash from Safeco Field while not spending enough on the team.
Hey, it’s not like that hasn’t been done before. The Indians had either the third or fourth-highest payroll every year from 1996 through 2001. They made the playoffs six times in seven seasons and barely missed in 2000. But then the rebuilding began, with three losing years in 2002, 2003 and 2004. Payroll was slashed down towards the bottom rungs of baseball.
So, how successful was the plan? Well, the Indians did contend again in 2005 — barely losing out to Chicago in the AL Central — had a disappointing 2006 season and came within a game of going to the World Series last year. So, not bad on the field. What about off the field?
The Indians drew more than three million fans in each of those seasons between 1996 and 2001. In 2002, when the losing began, attendance fell to 2.6 million. It dropped to 1.7 million in 2003 when the rebuilding phase truly kicked in, was at 1.8 million in 2004 and only barely topped 2 million — going 13,000 over that mark — when contention began again in 2005.
Cleveland was below 2 million in 2006 and only got to 2.2 million fans last season despite being a World Series favorite for much of the year. Some of the decline, undoubtedly, had to do with Jacobs Field losing some of its newness. But how much of the decline did that cause? You don’t know. Neither do I. The Indians don’t know either. They can’t tell you how many of those fans left during the rebuilding phase and never came back. It’s these types of numbers that teams like the Mariners fear. And that teams try to avoid if they can at all help it.
The Indians didn’t have the payroll to keep contending without full-fledged rebuilding after 2002 and saw about 1.5 million fans per year vanish from their 1996-2001 heyday. The Mariners do have the money to do something other than sell off any player older than 30 and “play the kids” until they are old enough to compete by 2010 or so. So, what’s the answer?
That’s easy. The M’s have to be wiser in how they spend their money. The way I see it, you demand excellence from the folks putting the teams together, year-in, year-out. That doesn’t mean you win a World Series every year. But it does mean you demand the team be in serious contention for a division title well into September (and hope they manage to win it at some point). It does mean you don’t allow a GM to get by on blowing off a couple of seasons with a $100-million payroll.
I think you get this team to where fans want it by “reloading” and raising the bar. Not by “rebuilding” and lowering the standard Bavasi has to aspire to.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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