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January 7, 2009 at 4:06 PM

The great divide

Tough to read the comments of the past day without noticing the great divide that seems to exist throughout the Mariners blogosphere when it comes to the recent performance of new general manager Jack Zduriencik (Photo Credit: Ted S. Warren/AP). Put simply, a good chunk of the fanbase believes Zduriencik to be a welcome breath of fresh air, whose hires will revolutioniize the franchise. The other chunk feels he’s selling a bunch of smoke and mirrors, taking the cheap route on players and unwilling to try to win anything.
Let me just begin with this caveat: it’s far too early in the game for any reasonable judgment of what Zduriencik has done to take place.
We don’t know what this team will look like heading into spring training, let alone the 2009 season. No one knows who the starting catcher will be. Nor the first baseman. Nor the left fielder. Nor even the third baseman. We don’t know who the closer is. Don’t know who, other than Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard, will be in the starting rotation.
You may think you know. We can certainly hazard a guess. But I don’t see many of you being willing to put up your mortgage as collateral on those assumptions. And so, we wait.
My first take is that the Mariners are not a finished product. There are too many candidates for too few positions in the bullpen and rotation. Not enough candidates to be the power hitters this team still lacks. That leads me to believe this club still has a deal or two left in it. Someone mentioned trying to put a trade together for Nick Swisher of the Yankees. I’d say that’s an excellent place to start. This team has pitching talent it can trade. Heck, it even has proven outfield talent it could trade in a deal to bring in Swisher and another big bat, like Hideki Matsui or Xavier Nady. Not saying it’s going to happen. Or that the owner would allow it to happen. Only that this team does have some pieces that can garner attention in a hurry.
So, no, I don’t think this team is close to being finished. I understand those folks who want to applaud Zduriencik and company for the moves they’ve made so far. I like the returns generated in the J.J. Putz trade. I also like the low-risk, potentially high-reward signings of Russell Branyan, Tyler Walker and Chris Shelton.
But I can also understand the frustrations of fans who seem to be asking “Where’s the beef?”
In fact, I would even encourage a fair degree of healthy skepticism towards the new regime. Believe me, I’ve seen what can happen when that skepticism is lacking.

(WARNING: Obligatory Toronto Blue Jays references forthcoming. To all whiners out there, please avert your eyes from the ensuing paragraphs until told otherwise):
Plenty of what I’m seeing with the Mariners these days is a carbon copy of what I went through covering the Toronto Blue Jays starting in November 2001. That’s when the team fired an unpopular GM, Gord Ash, and replaced him with first-timer J.P. Ricciardi. Like Zduriencik, Ricciardi’s background was in scouting. Like Zduriencik, who brought in right hand man Tony Blengino, Ricciardi’s pick for that post was another darling of the sabermetric world, Baseball Prospectus writer Keith Law.
Yes, yes, there are differences in the two scenarios. Zduriencik had nearly two decades more experience in professional baseball than Ricciardi did when hired to his first GM job. And Blengino may, like Law, be known for his sabermetric baseball writing, but he also has more hands-on scouting experience than Law did. That could prove telling in the end. For the purposes of this discussion, though, the fan base in Toronto and Seattle probably couldn’t care less about those subtle differences. They are going to look at the big picture. And it’s the big picture driving the divide we’re seeing here in Seattle today.
Back to the similarities.
Ricciardi’s first trade as a GM was similar to what Zduriencik did. While Zduriencik traded away Putz, Ricciardi unloaded popular Toronto closer Billy Koch. In return, he garnered then unheard of third baseman Eric Hinske, who went on to win American League Rookie of the Year honors.
Not bad for a first move. Went over so well that Ricciardi, in his first season, became hailed as somewhat of a genius. Especially when compared to some of the difficulties Ash experienced. The Ricciardi “honeymoon” continued — at least amongst the majority of the fan base, aided and abetted by a fawning East Coast media — for a good three years.
There was very little dissension from the pack in those days. You either believed that Ricciardi was a genius, a guy who could have written “Moneyball” on his own if Michael Lewis hadn’t beaten him to it, or you were out of touch. In fact, even some of us who questioned Ricciardi early on found ourselves wondering if we really had been left behind. If our views were too clouded by “old school” thinking.
Nowadays, of course, things have changed. Ricciardi is almost universally loathed by the Toronto fan base, still waiting for him to deliver on his “Five year Plan” — now heading into Year 8. Right-hand man Law and Ricciardi had a much-publicized falling out, with the former heading back to the media world. Ricciardi, while not exactly repudiating Moneyball, has gone out of his way to recast himself as a “scouts GM” who values tools as much as any spreadsheet. And why not? After all, his baseball team has stopped trying to portray itself as “The Little Engine That Could”, getting by on $50 million payrolls, and now spends money up near $100 million just like everyone else in the AL East save the Rays.
The first three-plus years of the Ricciardi regime amounted to a pile of B.S. The main goal of the team’s ownership, a billion dollar cable conglomerate, was to contain costs while it engaged in a war of attrition with a Chicago-based consortium for control of the SkyDome. The consortium that owned the ballpark (initially fronted by none other than Pat Gillick) wanted a king’s ransom for the venue. The Blue Jays wanted to pay bargain basement prices. There was no meeting in the middle and the victims were local baseball fans. For four years, the Blue Jays operated a penny pinching team, forgoing any serious pretense at contending, in order to contain costs while waiting out the consortium. They called it “Moneyball” and some fans blindly believed.
Ricciardi and company lost me for good late in 2003 when they allowed starting pitcher Kelvim Escobar to leave as a free-agent. Escobar received three years, $18 million from the Angels. Toronto offered him two years, $10 million. The party line at the time was that Escobar had a “million dollar arm and two-cent head” and that baseball salaries were about to take a nosedive.
Well, we know how that turned out. Salaries shot up and, after two more losing seasons, Ricciardi was still desperately seeking a No. 2 starter and had to shell out $55 million in a five-year deal with A.J. Burnett, who could be charitably described as having a “million dollar arm and a…” well, let’s just leave it at that.
The difference is that the Jays finally bled the Chicago consortium dry and forced it to cough up the stadium for a mere $30 million (not a typo) early in 2005. Within a year, their cash cow stadium in-hand, the Jays ditched “Moneyball” the cost-saver and started throwing around big bucks — to Burnett, Troy Glaus, B.J. Ryan, etc. — like any other AL East team serious about contending.
(ATTENTION: All anti-Blue Jays whiners, it’s safe to start reading again):
Where this is all leading is that, in a good part of the skeptical Zduriencik crowd, I’m sensing a fear from fans that his new “plan” is all about saving money for ownership. That the team is now passing on free agents that could help the club win a whole lot sooner.
My early take is that I’m not seeing that. At least, not yet. Last I checked, team owner Hiroshi Yamauchi is still a billionaire and not in dire need of any surplus cash. That’s always an important first place to look. Second, I don’t see the Mariners penny-pinching on moves like that Ricciardi team did with Kelvim Escobar all those years ago. It’s one thing to let a homegrown starting pitcher, just entering his prime, walk away for a million a year in salary difference, an extra contract year and some draft picks in savings at a time your team desperately needed starting pitching. Quite another to pass on giving Milton Bradley $30 million over three years.
Bradley is getting Raul Ibanez type money because, like Ibanez, he’s going to be an everyday position player in Chicago. In Seattle, he would have been a DH. Paying $10 million per year to a DH, in my opinion, is too much above the going rate. You can’t fault Bradley for taking the money. But he’s injury prone and I can almost guarantee he’ll wind up playing fewer games with the Cubs than he would have for the Mariners. He might regret, in the long term, taking the money and playing the field. In the short term, though, who can fault him?
There’s a reason Ibanez is making more than Pat Burrell just got from the Rays. Ibanez is being paid to play the field. The Phillies think he’ll play it better than Burrell, who they let go. The Rays are paying Burrell to be a DH. There’s no comparison there. Apples and oranges. The slugger and fielder will usually get more than the slugger and non-fielder.
That’s why Bradley’s price went beyond Seattle ‘s range, once the Cubs bid on him as an outfielder. So no, that’s not a move I’m going to gnash my teeth about. When I wrote about the M’s taking a look at Bradley a few weeks ago, I suggested he’d be attractive for less than $10 million. And I sure wasn’t thinking about a three-year deal. Not for him.
Jerry Hairston would have been a nice utility man. But hey, we’re talking about a utility man. Not the thing franchises are built on.
In fact, I’ve yet to see any clear cut examples of the Mariners strictly jettisoning players to save money or penny-pinching on free-agents. Bradley, as I just detailed, was not about penny-pinching. It was about avoiding getting fleeced by a player and his agent.
The short answer is, it will take some time before any of us can make the definitive call on Zduriencik. Or even the preliminary call on him. I know that’s not what some of you want to hear, but that’s the way it’s going to be unfortunately.
For now though, I’d say there’s nothing wrong with healthy skepticism. I’m not making a direct comparison between Zduriencik and Ricciardi, because my first impression is that Zduriencik is a lot more self-assured and less full of bluster. I don’t think he talked his way into the job in a way that he could not deliver. He’s started to clean house internally, just as Ricciardi did in 2002. But he’s not talking himself up while doing it. A good sign.
My advice? Resist the temptation now to thrust too much hero worship on somebody before they’ve actually done something. That way, if it all blows up, you won’t feel duped or misled, or just plain dumb. And if it all works out, you can just smile and enjoy being a fan again. A little skepticism and pressure from the fan base helps keep a front office and franchise on its toes. Makes them want to succeed just a little bit more.
One last tidbit from today’s post: the despised GM that Ricciardi replaced in Toronto? The aforementioned Gord Ash? Now an assistant GM with the Brewers and one of the key figures who, along with Zduriencik, helped build that franchise back to respectability. There’s a lesson in there for everyone about not being too quick to thrust labels on people: good or bad.
Zduriencik has much to prove in Seattle. And no, he isn’t there yet. He’s just getting started.
Photo Credit: CP



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