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October 28, 2008 at 5:20 PM

Fontaine firing not a shock

Just got back to warm, cozy Seattle after that miserable night in the stands at Citizens Bank Ballpark in Philadelphia. My one regret from last night isn’t missing out on a chance to possibly see the Phillies win only their second title in 126 years — in a city starved for a championship by any club. No, my biggest regret is that I only thought about scouring the stadium grounds for ticket stubs after I was safely back in the car and inching through traffic chaos. I mean, those stubs are as good as gameday tickets now. Pick up 20 of them and sell them at $200 a pop and you’re looking at four grand. It doesn’t matter that the game might not resume until Thursday if expected snow showers do indeed fall on Wednesday night. The fans of Philadelphia were paying thousands per ticket for a chance to see their team win a nine-inning game. So what if it’s cut short by 5 1/2 innings? They’ll still pay.
Anyhow, Larry Stone had phoned me as I was making my way out of the ballpark’s parking lot to tell me about his pending scoop on Mariners scouting director Bob Fontaine being fired. My first reaction was disappointment, as I believe that Fontaine is good at what he does and is a gentleman to boot. But then, putting my human emotions aside for a minute, I thought about it. And no, I wasn’t shocked.
New general managers want their own people running the show to a large extent and Jack Zduriencik is no different. Looking at the people he has kept, Bob Engle and Lee Pelekoudas, we can aquire clues as to why they are staying and Fontaine is out.
Engle, as we’ve mentioned before, is simply the best in the business at what he does. He was the go-to guy for international scouting in Toronto and is now doing the same for Seattle. Will his role change? Maybe to some extent. We don’t know yet. But he brings a ton of value to this club.
Pelekoudas did not set any records during his brief stint as an interim GM. But he has been a loyal servant to this franchise going on three decades. He also provides an invaluable service of knowing the ins and outs of the collective bargaining agreement, waiver wire regulations and other small print stuff that many GMs simply don’t have the time to scrutinize as carefully as they should. People like Pelekoudas will always find work in baseball because they have a skill that is vital.
So, two guys. Two critical skills that add value to the organization.
Fontaine brought a certain degree of value as well. But it’s a value that Zduriencik also brings to the club, which sort of makes it redundant in a way. Now, of course Zduriencik won’t have the time to do the in-field legwork that Fontaine did. But he can put people in-place to do the things he would like, in his own way. He could also increase the role of statistics-based analysis within the organization beyond what was being used by the current scouting regime. We’ll see. But I wondered for the past week how two powerful scouting guys used to running their own show were going to co-exist. Obviously, they now no longer have that challenge.
For me, when someone expresses outrage at a firing, I tend to do my own litmus test. It involves reversing the question and asking what the fired person has done to deserve to be kept on. Now, we can obviously make a case for Fontaine. He’s the guy who brought in Brandon Morrow, Jeff Clement, Phillippe Aumont, Chris Tillman and others. He also re-stocked the lower levels of the team’s system with guys you’ve never heard of and may never hear of. That’s part of his job as well. You need talent all through the system for that system to be competitive and work. You need to get some bang out of your lower round draft picks as well as the higher ones. And he did do that. It was a tough job rebuilding this system after Pat Gillick left.
But I would have expected nothing less. After all, Fontaine held his job for five years. If he was lousy at it, I’d have expected him to be sent packing a lot sooner. So, let’s all agree, he did a decent enough job. But did he do an eye-popping, outstanding job? Did he set the scouting world on fire with his Seattle picks? Did the rest of baseball sit around staring, gaping-mouthed, at what the Mariners have accomplished with their farm system? In other words, did Fontaine provide enough of an invalauble service to the Mariners that an exception absolutely had to be made of him when it came to the usual housecleaning by a new GM?
Obviously, Zduriencik did not think so. And neither do I.
Let’s look at the lineup that opened the season for Seattle in Fontaine’s final year on the job.
Catcher Kenji Johjima — a product of international scouting and Japanese ownership
First baseman Richie Sexson — a free-agent signing
Second baseman Jose Lopez — a product of international scouting
Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt — a product of international scouting
Third baseman Adrian Beltre — a free-agent signing
Left fielder Raul Ibanez — a free-agent signing
Center fielder Ichiro — a product of international scouting and Japanese ownership
Right fielder Brad Wilkerson — a free-agent signing
Designated hitter Jose Vidro — acquired in a trade
SP Felix Hernandez — a product of international scouting
SP Erik Bedard — acquired in a trade
SP Carlos Silva — a free agent signing
SP Jarrod Washburn — a free agent signing
SP Miguel Batista — a free-agent signing
We can go on and on. Yes, prospects Tillman, Cam Mickolio and Tony Butler were Fontaine projects who wound up flipped for Bedard. So, he gets that. But the fact is, you had to dig into the bullpen to find any Fontaine draft picks who were ready to help this team when it began the 2008 season hoping to contend. Adam Jones was to be the one exception from a position player standpoint until his trade. (Actually, no. As some of you have pointed out, it was actually Frank Mattox and not Fontaine who drafted Jones. My bad.)
Right now, the biggest homegrown products of Fontaine’s era, who are helping the big-league club, are Brandon Morrow and Jeff Clement. Now, understand, it can often take five or six years for some prospects to blossom. Also, some of former GM Pat Gillick’s previous deals left the Mariners a tad shy of higher end draft picks in the early transition years. But five years into Fontaine’s reign, you would expect to see a little more in the way of contributors for a guy to be classified as ‘indispensable.” A few more eye-catchers that jump out at you.
I think Fontaine did a good job. Just not good enough to keep his.
In my mind, international scouting has kept this franchise afloat. That’s why Engle still has his job.
It’s possible — not certain, but possible — that Morrow, Clement, Mark Lowe, Dennis Raben, Ryan Feierabend (actually, he was another Mattox draft pick — sorry), Rob Johnson, Adam Moore and others will blossom into first-rate talents. Just not quickly enough for Fontaine to stay employed here.
Let’s look at the last four No. 1 draft picks:
Clement — was drafted so high because he was a power-hitting catcher, though now, the team isn’t sure he has the skills to stay at that position in the big leagues
Morrow — arm had great stuff out of the bullpen but he was drafted so high because he was a starting pitcher; so far, he’s still a work in progress
Aumont — could be on the Chris Tillman career path; might prove one of Fontaine’s top singings
Josh Fields — the reliever was drafted as high as he was because club figured he’d make it to the bigs quicker and help the Mariners. So far, he’s yet to sign and the team needs big bats.
A bit of a mixed bag there.
So, as you see, for all the good things I can say about Fontaine, I can also come up with a picture that’s less-than-stellar if I really want to, just off the top of my head. But I don’t want to do that. I believe Fontaine is very good at what he does and will find employment elsewhere fairly quickly. I just don’t think he made enough of a case for himself to stick with the M’s. Fans have been screaming for changes to how this organization is run. And now, we see some changes coming. Some current employees are going to get swept up in this tide and it won’t always be a fair result.
Like I’ve been saying, to survive a situation like this, it’s not always about fair. You have to prove yourself indispensable. Engle already has. Pelekoudas has with what he does best.
But I don’t think Fontaine did. He had five years. Now, it’s someone else who will get the chance.



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