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May 23, 2008 at 11:03 AM

Where teams come to die

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Greetings from New York City, where I’m staring at the view pictured above as I write this. We’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it once again: this is the city where struggling teams often come to die. It doesn’t matter how poorly the New York Yankees are doing this season. Over the past decade, they’ve had their hardships. But come in here playing like you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop, and it usually does. Only it’s a piano that falls, not a shoe. Falls from 50 stories up and clobbers you smack dab in the head.
I met up coincidentally last night, at a favorite Manhattan hangout, with a buddy who covers the Baltimore Orioles, who just finished playing a series against the Yankees. We caught up on all things George Sherrill, Adam Jones and Erik Bedard, then got around to talking about good teams gone bad. I still don’t, in my heart of hearts, believe that the Mariners are a bad team. But they are playing like one — and that’s even worse. And it’s to the point now where, even if the Mariners manage to play up to their talent level of at least a .500 club, too much damage has been done. It’s not early anymore. It’s late. Too late. After a long chat with my Baltimore pal, we both agreed that this weekend will likely be reckoning time. Even if Bedard goes out and wins tonight. That’s the other thing we agreed upon: Bedard has lived up to his end of this trade so far. It’s not his fault the rest of the team is tanking.
So, after spending two hours this morning going over all of your comments, there seems to be a lot of common themes. The most important one, to me, is to deal with the managerial situation right now. Forget about firing Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong. It’s not going to happen. At least, not this year. That pair has made a lot of money for the team’s owners over the years and still are. They are not going to be fired over a one-season train wreck. You can argue until your head explodes on this matter, but it’s useless. They aren’t going anywhere.
Bill Bavasi, as I’ve mentioned, is likely safe for the rest of this year, or at least until late in the second half. Teams don’t fire GMs before the June draft. And there’s little point to doing it in-season unless you’re going to blow the whole thing up and start over. I don’t see the M’s doing this. And I don’t blame them for not going that route. It can be long and painful and attendance might never recover. Yes, I’ve read all of the quick-fix solutions where you can turn over 20 out of 25 guys and contend in two years. Rarely ever works out that way. There is only one Billy Beane and even he isn’t always right. The best the M’s could hope for would be a replay of the Mark Shapiro-style rebuild in Cleveland. That team got lucky and contended a little earlier than expected. But even after a wait of only three to four years, the attendance in Cleveland hasn’t rebounded. Fans are getting more and more impatient these days, with the internet, high technology and other diversions. This is a fast-paced world. You all want answers from me the minute the final out is recorded. You want winning seasons. A good three-year rebuilding plan (which almost always becomes a five-year rebuilding plan) is going to seem a lot longer when the club is halfway to losing 90 games in Year 1. I’ve covered rebuilding teams. There is nothing remotely romantic about them after the initial novelty wears off. It’s a nice concept to dream about. But in reality, it involves watching a lot of bad baseball and hurts the bottom line.
We’re watching a lot of bad baseball now, of course, and that has to change. Somehow, some way. And the first order of business is figuring out the future of John McLaren. This organization can’t sit paralyzed any longer.

If McLaren is to stay, then the team has to give him a massive show of confidence. The way you do that isn’t by purging every guy over the age of 30. This collapse has been an age-free happening. Every area of this team has struggled at times, including players young and old. The first baseman and DH, the shortstop, the new right fielder, the center fielder, the closer, the catcher now back down in Class AAA and the current catcher (who can now be sure he’ll be behind the plate only 60 percent of the time in any given trip through the rotation). McLaren’s “team” — young, old and all getting older by the second — has not performed. It was an embarrassment the last three games in Detroit. And there are player moves that can be made right away once the front office reaches the obvious conclusion that 2008 is done.
Richie Sexson and Jose Vidro have both not lived up to expectations and are in the final years of their contracts. They both should no longer expect to be in the lineup every night on a team that is out of contention. Removing one or both from the lineup and going a different route would send a clear signal that management does not blame this implosion on McLaren. Sexson and Vidro are not the only culprits for what has happened. But they are two easy places to start looking. Finding an everyday first baseman will not be easy and there does not appear to be one around right now (yes, I’m including Bryan LaHair). Nobody is saying you drop Sexson entirely. Maybe he plays a few days a week. But you can’t keep running the same eight guys out there every single night when they are collectively embarrassing the organization.
Look, somebody has to go. It’s either going to be McLaren, or somebody else. If the players really do think it isn’t McLaren’s fault — and aren’t just saying it for PC reasons — then the players have to understand that they will have to pay a price. Somebody always pays for a season like this. Status quo does not work.
On the pitching front, both Miguel Batista and Jarrod Washburn could be skipped and replaced — either by R.A. Dickey, a Class AAA callup or both — until they figure out why it is they struggle so routinely to go at least five innings. If Batista is hurt that badly, put him on the DL. Both guys are under contract for next season, so releasing them is not an option at this stage. But there is nothing that says both have to be allowed to keep going out there every five days when they clearly are not getting the minimum job done. Enough is enough.
Or, you can go the other route and fire the manager. McLaren can’t go out and play games for guys performing well below their career norms. He can’t field grounders. Can’t move the runners over himself. But his job is to have these guys ready to not only play the games, but to win them. He is failing on that latter count. Failing miserably. Will somebody else make a difference? I am not convinced of that. In fact, I highly doubt it.
But that’s not my call. Not my job. It’s the team’s job to figure out what is wrong and why it is being embarrassed on a nightly basis.
So, that’s the first call that has to be made — by this weekend.
What is McLaren’s future going to be? That is the only issue that needs to be settled right away. If he stays, good. Then you give him a massive, public display of support. First, through words. Go on the radio, on TV, to the print media, and say that he is your guy going forward. Don’t let him twist in the wind, because believe me, it isn’t helping his clubhouse stature any.
Then, you support him through actions. Show players that a lack of production will not be tolerated.
The team took the first step in doing this more than three weeks ago when Wladimir Balentien and Jeff Clement were called up from AAA to replace Brad Wilkerson and Vidro. As on-field moves, Balentien is trying to keep his head above water and succeeding on some days, though it’s a struggle. Clement was a complete mess in the majors and needed time to get his head together in the minors again. But that demotion came when the team was still clinging to its belief that it had a season left to salvage.
It wasn’t the wrong belief. And it was the right move to make at the time.
But now, with the season pretty much up in flames, bringing Clement back up in coming weeks should be looked at again. He seems to have gathered himself a bit in AAA and could be given a longer leash in the majors with the team having little else to play for right now. Not saying bring him back up next week. Clement needs to get his confidence fully back and mentally gear himself for playing every day in the majors before being recalled. But I’d expect him back sooner rather than later. And please, stop worrying about Vidro’s vesting option for 2009. It was never going to be allowed to kick in unless he did something spectacular on the field.
So, that’s it. First order of business is McLaren, whether management wants to be making this decision now or not. The decision time has been moved up. Not by the media. By the appaling play of this team. The team he is leading. Time for Lincoln, Armstrong and Bavasi to make a decision. McLaren either is their guy going forward, or he isn’t.
Delaying the decision serves no useful purpose. This team is embarrassing itself and its fans every single day. Waiting for a miracle is the wrong move. It promises to be a real ugly week at Safeco Field if the fiddles keep playing while the flames shoot higher.



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