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June 10, 2008 at 10:58 AM

Timing is everything

As with any firing of a major league coach, the dismissal of Mariners hitting instructor Jeff Pentland yesterday raised some eyebrows. The first question that comes to mind is the timing of the whole thing. Why now? What has happened in the past week or so that made it imperative to switch hitting coaches?
The answer, of course, is nothing.
If the team wanted to fire Pentland, it could have done so at the end of April in Cleveland when it instead sent Brad Wilkerson and Greg Norton packing. A hitting coach can be one of the most expendable parts of a staff, given how, as Lee Elia put it yesterday, you’re not going to teach old dogs new tricks about hitting. A hitter is what he is. You can refine them over time. Get them to accentuate their natural skills. But you aren’t going to change a free-swinger into a Moneyball, walk-drawing machine overnight.
And so, if you know that, long-term, a certain hitting coach is not in your team’s plans, you can effectively fire them at any point in a particular season and not have it cost the team anything major. Pentland was left over from Mike Hargrove’s staff. He wasn’t handpicked by John McLaren. Others on the staff were brought in with McLaren’s input. So, when it came to who would be the first to go, Pentland was the obvious choice. It was only a matter of when.
So, let’s now look at the timing.
In hindsight, it became obvious Pentland should have been dusting off his resume last Wednesday. That’s when team president Chuck Armstrong offered a friendly “good morning” to the coaching staff by ripping into them pre-game. Prior to that, Armstrong had steadfastly supported the coaches in public. Said they were doing a terrific job. Hard to justify firing a coach after he’d been hearing that on radio. Better to “serve notice” with a verbal barrage first.
So, that was the first clue.
Given the public outcry that followed a sweep at the hands of the Angels after the Armstrong tongue-lashing, it was clear that somebody had to be sacrificed. The problem for the M’s this season is that they fell apart so stunningly fast that the normal timeframe for jettisoning bodies came about much quicker than usual.

The team was faced with increasing calls for players and/or coaches — not to mention McLaren and GM Bill Bavasi — to be ousted. As the M’s sat by doing nothing, they looked increasingly weak. Especially after Bavasi made what still amounts to an empty threat towards players three weeks ago at Yankee Stadium by blaming them for a lack of leadership and accountability.
So, that was part of the reason Pentland is now gone. Some type of move had to be made.
It seemed to have taken the team’s braintrust a few days to gather themselves after the firestorm that erupted in Seattle with Bavasi witholding towels and food post-game after the Angels sweep, McLaren’s obscenity-laden tirade and Armstrong’s pre-game blasting of coaches.
By waiting a few days, Bavasi, Armstrong and company could meet in Boston, get Lee Elia over to Fenway Park from his Florida home and prepare the next move. If the M’s came out swinging and obliterated the Red Sox, they’d have bought themselves more time. But they had to have figured the Red Sox series would not go all that well. After all, the Red Sox had won 13 consecutive home games. As it turns out, the only time Seattle managed to hit was in the series opener, when Bartolo Colon pitched like Bartolo Colon (of the past two years, anyway).
So, they had their excuse. They had their “sell” to fans on why the hitting coach had to go.
Now, the team could have waited until after this Toronto series. After all, the Blue Jays have good pitching and it stood to reason the M’s wouldn’t hit all that well here. But it wasn’t necessary to wait. The key to this “sell” is that the Mariners have the start of interleague play coming up. They get to face the Washington Nationals at home. If a team ever needed to get its bats going, the Nats are a good team to start with.
Nothing would get Elia’s hittting coach segment going better than a little run-scoring against Washington. It would look good on him, get the fans off the team’s back for a few moments, and delay the need to make any more moves — like actually shipping out some players. Even if the bats struggle in Toronto — and scoring only two runs on the first 10 hits last night seemed like more of the same from this crew, to be honest — the team can always say that it’s not Elia’s fault. Which would be true, since he just got named hitting coach and it will take time for his “voice” to have an impact.
Of course, if the M’s beat up on Washington, it will be because the Nats stink, not so much as a result of Elia’s approach. But this has nothing to do with reality. It’s all about optics. The reality is, this team’s season is over and little else matters. If they can help Elia take credit for beating up on the Nationals, they’ll do it. And if the Marlins come in after that and lay waste to the M’s, then it will be time to prepare the newest sacrifices.
And so on.
Being back in Toronto this week, I’m reminded of 2002, when rookie Blue Jays GM J.P. Ricciardi wanted desperately to make a managerial change. Ricciardi was trying to give second-year manager Buck Martinez enough rope to hang himself with — not wanting to can him too early in the season and look like an overeager hatchet man. The problem started when Martinez took his struggling team to Detroit and managed to sweep a series agaoinst the awful Tigers. All of a sudden, the schedule looming in front of the Jays had home games against the equally-terrible Tampa Bay Devil Rays and other lesser clubs. Visions of a seven-game win streak had to be dancing in Ricciardi’s head. He fired Martinez then and there, on the heels of a three-game winning streak. Doesn’t happen often. But Ricciardi had in-house replacement Carlos Tosca ready and could see that his window for a firing — one he could “sell” to fans without looking ridiculous — was going to close tight for a while if he didn’t act fast. So, he did.
As I said, timing is everything.
The M’s are having a lousy season that’s still got roughly two-thirds of the way to go. There will be a lot of angry fans to appease between now and season’s end. In other words, the team is no-doubt hoping it can spread some of these sacrifices out over the long haul. If it makes a bunch of them now, what happens during the next seven-game losing streak? I doubt the team expects Richie Sexson to finish the season in a Seattle uniform. But it has put off making that obvious move while it buys some more time. Fans don’t have to like the reasoning. In fact, I’d be surprised if you did. But there is always a reason behind every move or non-move. And right now, this theory of mine makes as much sense to me as any other regarding why a team would want to flop Pentland for Elia at this stage.



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