Never ceases to amaze me how quick some Mariners fans are to want to scuttle a season. I’ve spent the past few days reading fans on this site and others stating that they are kind of happy the team blew that Sunday game in Anaheim. The reasoning goes that since the Mariners are falling out of the race, at least now GM Jack Zduriencik will go ahead and make needed trades without things getting complicated by the club doing something really pesky, like actually contending.
I get a chuckle out of that. I really do. Other times, I just shake my head in amazement.
Somehow, this has to be Moneyball’s fault. No, I’m just kidding about that. You can’t blame a book for everything. But I will say that, since the onset of the Moneyball era, coinciding with the book’s publication in 2003, there is a certain segment of fan that cares more about how much money is spent on each win than the actual number of wins themselves. I’m,convinced these fans would rather cheer on a team that wins 80 with a $50 million payroll than another that wins 95 with a $100 million payroll. Of course, the latter team is the only one that will contend for something.
You can carry that theory over to Seattle and the fans here and expand it a bit to go beyond the money scale. There is a certain breed of Mariners fan, I’m convinced, that cares more about the process of winning than whether or not the team actually wins something. The type of fan who would rather have a last place team with Adam Jones, one that may contend a few years down the road, than one with Franklin Gutierrez in center that might have a shot at winning in 2009.
Sounds funny to say out loud. But I do believe it’s true.
Now, I’m not foolish. I know those fans eventually want the same thing all Mariners fans do: sustained excellence over a number of years.
Yes, that’s a nice pie-in-the-sky wish. And believe me, if I thought the Mariners had a shot at winning the AL West five years in a row, I’d say “To heck with 2009 and 2010. Let’s rebuild and worry about things in two years!” But I don’t believe the M’s, or anyone else in this divison, will become five-time defending champs. Let’s not forget, the Angels, Rangers and A’s are rebuilding, too. If the M’s are lucky, they might win two of the next five division crowns. That would be pretty good, considering where they were a year ago.
But let’s not kid ourselves, when we talk about a perennial contender, there will be some second and third-place finishes in there.
And that’s why, as many of you know already, I’m against simply writing off seasons early on when it looks like a team might have a shot at contending. Because in the end, it doesn’t matter whether the M’s win the division this year, with the future still a little cloudy, or three years down the road with a bunch of Baseball America Top-100 prospects on their roster. It still counts as one — and only one — title. Winning is what matters in pro sports. Not style points. Remember the Cleveland Indians? We don’t hear all that much about them anymore, do we? The model franchise all teams should aspire to be like? They spent half a decade rebuilding, lost millions of fans in the process, then had one playoff appearance to show for it all in 2007. They are now a bust going on two years after their ALCS appearance.
Now, the point is not that the M’s should avoid doing things the Cleveland way. The Indians did a lot of ‘by the book” things in developing young talent, not spending a fortune on it, etc. But there are no guarantees in life, or baseball. For all they did right not so long ago, the Indians are a last place club right now. So, the M’s could write this season off in June and build towards the future. But they might be worse off than they are right now, even if Zduriencik does everything right. Stuff happens. Keep that in mind. Writing off the present is no guarantee the future will be better.
And so, in my little world, you hold on to the present as long as you can. You bail from the plane when it’s clear you can’t right the controls and leap out with your parachute while you still have time, of course. But there is still plenty of time before this Mariners flight crashes and burns for good.
If this was, say, July 25 and the Mariners were six games out, I’d feel quite differently. But that date is almost two months away. A lot of baseball remains. Let’s look at the facts for a moment.
Fact is, the Texas Rangers lead the division. Most pundits — sabermetric, tradionalist or otherwise — had them no better than third or fourth before the season. And they just lost one of their most feared hitters, Josh Hamilton, who could miss a few weeks or several months. Does anyone else think that’s a major division development?
Last I checked, the Angels were barely a .500 team. Their two top pitchers, John Lackey and Ervin Santana, have not looked sharp coming off the DL. Sure, it’s early, and they might right themselves. But maybe it takes them until 2010. You never know. I know what they’ve been projected to do. But I also know Santana got booed off the mound in Anaheim on Sunday. I know the M’s have gotten to Lackey in two starts like I haven’t seen them do in some time. That’s what is actually happening in the real world right now. The Angels are not looking like world beaters. Vladimir Guerrero is not the guy we saw last year. That bullpen has an ailing Scot Shields and a closer who isn’t close to what K-Rod was. The Mariners nearly walked in and swept them in Anaheim, starting two of three pitchers who weren’t in the rotation when the season began.
Yeah, the Angels will probably win the division. But what’s wrong with waiting to see them show a sign of being capable of doing it first before pulling the plug on this Mariners season?
I actually don’t think Zduriencik is about to do that. Nor should he.
I am actually not trying to mock fans who want to pull the plug now. I’m trying to understand them. Part of me feels some fans here are so afraid to make an emotional commitment to this team that they will keep putting off the date of that elusive projected playoff berth further and further. It’s great to build up with young talent, sure. But these fans will want to keep building and building without ever saying: “Now, we go for it!” This year, right now, be it 2009, or 2015. If it’s 2015, some of those fans will say “Let’s rebuild a few more years, then we’ll really be ready in 2017.”
And so on and so on.
It has nothing to do with smart team building. It’s avoidance. Human nature. Once burned, twice shy. I’ll say it right here: there are fans in Seattle who fear getting behind a team that actually contends because they might get their heart broken.
Well, that’s life. And it most certainly is life in the sports world.
But these hesitant fans will run away screaming if you dare suggest to them that Adrian Beltre really isn’t a .550 OPS guy and that the offense could improve once he actually hits like he is supposed to. Or that the Jose Lopez we’ve seen the past week is more like the guy the M’s were supposed to have as opposed to the facsimile that showed up in April and most of May.
Or that the Mariners were supposed to be a mediocre offense, but not the worst in all of baseball. Yes, this team has some profound flaws, as colleague Larry Stone suggested yesterday, But show me an AL West team that doesn’t.
Believe me, if Ken Griffey Jr. is allowed to remain the clean-up guy while posting a sub-.700 OPS all the way through mid-July, you won’t have a thing to worry about. This issue will have resolved itself. If Beltre continues at a sub-.600 OPS clip, the M’s can forget about 2009 come July 15 or so and start really working the trade markets.
But you can’t do that on June 3.
Not with a team that is six games behind a shaky division rival.
The Mariners have the tough parts down: pitching and defense. When their bats show even mediocre efforts, they actually have a shot at winning.
Texas and the Angels are having their biggest problems on the mound. Not as easy to fix. And that’s why, yet again, I am not prepared to let the Mariners off the hook this easily. This is a team that should be within a few games of the division lead. If not for a woefully underperforming offense and a myriad of blown saves — due to Brandon Morrow losing his primary role and the rest of the bullpen being overworked — this team would be right up there with the Angels and Texas. They came within a blown 8-1 lead of tying the Angels this weekend, so nobody can tell me it won’t happen.
Oh, and for the “Let’s play the kids” crowd, I’m all for playing them if they can help you win. I think Michael Saunders could help in left field and that Jeff Clement’s bat could help somewhere, either behind the plate or at DH. I think Mike Carp and Chris Shelton could also help if the DH production does not improve quickly.
But not because I want to “play the kids” for some type of development scheme. That’s for September. We already talked about this last year. How much did ‘playing the kids” longer last summer for the sake of playing them determine anything this season?
Wladimir Balentien is the only guy to make this year’s team and he isn’t doing so hot.
Clement started the year in Class AAA.
Brayn LaHair was an obvious spring training cut.
Tug Hulett (remember him?) was designated for assignment and claimed by Kansas City.
The best thing to happen was that Luis Valbuena showed enough to gain throw-in status in that J.J. Putz deal.
No, there is very little benefit to “playing the kids” in June for development reasons unless they are better than the major leaguers they replace. Jason Vargas is in the rotation because he’s pitching better than Carlos Silva did.
So, keep that in mind. Surrendering the season to “play the kids” just for playing them’s sake is not something any fan should be thrilled about.
Lastly, let’s address the notion that the Mariners are going to somehow re-stock their farm system and build a contender for years to come if they start dealing away veterans in June.
Really, who is going to do that? Beltre? You think some team is going to want to take on $7.5 million in salary and give up premium prospects to get his sub-.600 OPS bat for 3 1/2 months? Uh, no. And it doesn’t matter how good his glove is. You won’t get anything for Beltre until his numbers come up. There are other third basemen the Cardinals can look at who actually have been hitting this season and won’t cost as much money.
Same with Jarrod Washburn. You might get a team to pay his $6.5 million or so in remaining salary come mid-June. But premium prospects? Forget it. Last year, the Twins offered up a living, breathing pitcher (not a Grade A prospect) and were going to take on the money out of desperation. But economic times have changed.
Miguel Batista? You’d be lucky to get a live body back along with his salary being shipped off.
Want to get some real prospects? Get Brandon Morrow back to normal and deal him. This team already has two or three other potential closers in the bullpen and at least two in the minors who’ll probably be up by next year. You don’t need five closers in your major league bullpen, so deal the one with the biggest name recognition. Now, that would be a trade that might generate something.
Back to reality…
Erik Bedard might be the only guy who could fetch a decent haul because he is showing signs of being a true No. 2 starter again. But again, we’re talking maybe one top prospect plus the money. If you’re hoping to try to “win” the Adam Jones trade by scoring five prospects (or even three prospects) back for him, it is not likely to happen. You know how this team “wins” the Adam Jones trade? Make the playoffs this year. That’s the closest this team will ever come to winning that deal.
Now, before you all go scrambling to your keyboards to pluck off a line or two of this and rip it apart, hear what I am saying. It’s very simple.
Nobody wants Zduriencik to delude himself out of a good deal come mid-July if the team is still four or five games out and playing poorly.
But by the same token, I don’t want to see Zduriencik write off this season in early June if there is still a chance the Mariners can climb back in this thing. Based on how this team seems to win games when it gets even halfway decent offense, I think it’s worth exploring a few non-trade moves first to see whether they can jumpstart this offense. If it can, this team has the starters and the bullpen arms.
Because it’s doubtful any rebuild will be constructed on the foundation of this summer’s trades. I still think the key rebuilding will be done via the upcoming draft and potential off-season moves. But those could take years to flourish. Go ahead and make them, sure. But it’s important to never lose sight of the goal. That goal is ultimately to win. Not to pile up the prettiest lineup of prospects. You get excited about drafts and trades because you think they might bring you closer to winning. Not for the process of drafting and trading itself. When drafting and trading is all you have to look forward to in a season where your team is only six out in June, then it’s maybe time to start watching another sport. Or take stock of things. It’s all about winning at some point. One can help the other come about. But sometimes, opportunities present themselves in the present and you have to seize them.
Or, at the very least, when your team hasn’t come close to playing its best ball offensively, you have to wait beyond early June before pulling the plug.