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August 22, 2008 at 9:44 AM

One year later

It was a year ago today that the Mariners headed off the proverbial cliff. Exactly 12 months later, the wreck is still smouldering. Things have never been as good as they were on Aug. 22, 2007 when Miguel Batista took the mound in Minneapolis against the Twins. Batista’s team had won the first two games of that series, including a 9-4 win the previous night when Jose Guillen made a vicious takeout slide at second base to wreck a double-play opportunity. Four Seattle runs followed and blew open a close game. That gave the M’s five wins in a row and victories in 11 of 14.
Life was looking grand for the M’s with their 16-game winner taking the hill and a series looming in Texas against the last-place Rangers. Well, the good life ended that day. Batista was shelled for seven runs in the first inning and another in the second and Seattle was hammered 8-4. And while the M’s did rally to take the first two games against the Rangers, they never again played .500 ball for more than a few nights. Rick White, the team’s final prayer as far as finding an eighth-inning bullpen solution, was on the mound when the M’s blew the final two games in Arlington and then imploded in the ninth inning at Cleveland. Jeff Weaver blew a 5-0 lead to the Angels at home in the interim and the 2007 season was toast.
But if you have to pinpoint an exact date as to when this franchise began its slide into oblivion, this point a year ago would be a good place to start. Batista has never been quite the same since, one of several Mariners whose careers appear to have dropped off the proverbial cliff along with their team.
A look at the pitching staff finds three of the five starters from 12 months ago now on baseball’s fringes:
Batista — banished to the bullpen
Weaver — hasn’t pitched in the majors in 2008
Horacio Ramirez — with his second organization since leaving Seattle and now a long man in the White Sox bullpen
Then, there’s the 2007 Seattle bullpen:
White — out of baseball
Eric O’Flaherty — in Class AAA since second week of season
The position players aren’t anything to write home about either:
Richie Sexson — out of baseball after being released by the Yankees
Jose Vidro — out of baseball after being released by the Mariners
Kenji Johjima — a bench player and one of worst offensive producers in major leagues
Yuniesky Betancourt — career at risk because of all-around regression
That’s nine players off the 25-man roster of a team that was leading the AL wild-card race by 2 1/2 games over the Yankees exactly one year ago today.

Think what you want about the final 88-win tally by Seattle being a fluke last year. By what we now know, that appears to be at least somewhat the case. But a year ago this instant, they were in position to make the playoffs. About to close the division gap to a game behind the Angels with two series left against that club. An extra win here or there — like a sweep of the Twins, White not walking Kenny Lofton in Cleveland and Weaver hanging on to that 5-0 lead — and the race might have gone deep into September. You just never know.
All we do know is that from the moment Batista threw his first pitch that day, the Mariners have gone from a team that was 71-52 to a club that is now 63-103 in the 166 contests played since. That’s a .380 winning percentage over a full year from a team that had played .573 ball right up to that point. And now, as we’ve seen, the collpase in winning percentage has been followed by a career-threatening decline from 36 percent of the 40-man roster.
We’ve seen this type of deal in Seattle before. The 2003 Mariners were playoff contenders, but plummeted to unexpected depths in a 99-loss season in 2004 when several veterans crashed and burned.
So, what is it about this franchise that lends itself to such breakdowns across the board? I mean, this time, it isn’t specifically an age thing. Back in 2004, there was plenty of speculation about the reasons why the 30-and-over crowd went off the cliff. But this time around, Betancourt, Ramirez and O’Flaherty are all in their 20s. O’Flaherty was counted on to fill George Sherrill’s highly-important lefty setup role, so it’s not just a “once-around” sophomore jinx type of deal to be expected from a raw rookie with minimal impact on a club.
Ramirez didn’t even give the Mariners one season of production in 2007 before crashing and burning. They misread him from the get-go. Same with Weaver.
So, is this a scouting problem? Or just a GM thing? If it’s the GM, then the problem would appear to have been solved by the firing of Bill Bavasi. One would hope that the new GM, with whatever system they use, will forge a better record at predicting career declines. The one decline Bavasi did seem to get right was Chris Snelling, who never did overcome his reputation as an injury-plagued outfielder whose best years were already behind him. But Bavasi dealt him for Vidro, so he actually offset his one good guess with a bad one. He dealt Jamie Moyer too early. Dealt away Asdrubal Cabrera for another guy, Eduardo Perez, whose career was done. Traded Rafael Soriano, the arm he really needed in 2007, for Ramirez.
But there were advisors and scouts helping Bavasi make those calls. They helped him make the call on folks like O’Flaherty and Betancourt as well. In Betancourt’s case, the call was to reward him with millions of dollars before he’d actually done anything in the big leagues.
Is a GM change all that’s needed in Seattle?
Given what’s happened in the past 12 months, starting from a year ago today, I think it’s a question that any honest organization should be asking itself. Who was giving Bavasi the advice that led to decisions that have now twice seen a massive plummet off the proverbial cliff over the past five seasons? Is it the traditional scouts and guru Bob Fontaine? Or the really close advisors like Lee Pelekoudas and John Boles. Was it sabermetric wunderkind Mat Olkin? Maybe neither of them? Perhaps there was some internal disagreement on players and Bavasi overruled his advisors in the end? Or was it interference from above in some cases?
We already know that Bavasi had almost nothing to do with the Johjima contract extension, a move mandated from Japan and signed off on by Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong — with Bavasi having little involvement in the process.
Maybe it’s a combination of all of the above.
Whoever is in charge now has the task of figuring out who played what role in this mess. Because if others share the blame, simply replacing the GM might not do the trick.
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS (12:30 p.m.): For Johnnycakes in the comments thread, I disagree with some of your assessments on who has been awful and great, but I understand your point. Here’s a question: How long should a team have to wait for young players to develop? Betancourt and Lopez are both in their fourth seasons with the club. Should they wait parts of four years on Clement, Balentien, LaHair, as well? That would take us until 2012 before the team is ready to contend. Felix Hernandez could very well be gone by then. He’s in his fourth partial season now. At what point does “waiting to develop” give way to “dump this guy while you still can?” I’m curious, because this organization has obviously gotten it wrong in a few cases you’ve pointed out. But when does rebuilding for next year turn into perpetual mediocrity? I can’t think of many 88-win teams that go into rebuilding mode the following year. The 2001 Cleveland Indians come to mind. Was their one playoff appearance since then — not to mention fanbase dropoff — worth it? How many of those really tough rebuild decisions work out long term? I think it’s a worthy discussion. Thanks for raising it.
For Resin, sorry I don’t recall bringing up Bob Engle’s name or ever mentioning a negative word about international scouting. I’d yell “strawman!” at you, but I think the term is so overused, misused, and tiresome that I won’t bore you with it any further. But to answer your question, no, I’m not against this club’s international scouting. As for “intelligent fans” I’m supposedly getting into trouble with, who are they? The folks who love Adrian Beltre while you rail against him? The folks who are forever telling everyone how intelligent they are, lest we all forget? You can have ’em. As for Yuniesky Betancourt, yes, he’s a No. 9 hitter. But he’s also playing this team’s most important infield position besides catcher and not very well on either end of offense or defense. I talk to scouts all the time and the first question the ones from other clubs have asked me lately is what the heck’s happened to the shortstop?This team has to make a call on him. He might not work out. Suggesting that should not be heresy in a town that supposedly wants winning baseball.
For AKMarinersFan, congratulations, your M’s win prediction will only be off by about 20. I’d be curious to see what you predicted for the Indians and Rockies heading into the year. Were you among the legions singing their praises a year ago as fine examples of how youth triumphs over experience and how other teams should be contructed in their blueprint? Or did you actually forsee the problems both have had — beyond injuries, of course. Guess what, though? All teams have injuries. Did you predict the Rays to be in first-place, or were you like the rest of us who felt they were still a year or two away? Pick the Yankees to make the playoffs? The Tigers? The Red Sox? I’m curious. And yes, to answer your question, Bill Bavasi phoned me personally before every off-season move he made and I signed off on them.



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