For all the talk in recent weeks about whether the Mariners would be “buyers” or “sellers” at the trade deadline, one thing should be remembered by Seattle fans. There is a big difference between some deadline “sellers” and others.
There was an excellent summation of the situation in baseball today by Buster Olney on his ESPN blog this morning. Baseball is now slipping back to the “bad old days” of financial competitive imbalance. I put that last part in quotes because I never really believed the sport had escaped the reality that money buys you championships in this game.
Sure, we’ve had some one-off success stories. The Cleveland Indians nearly made it to the World Series two years ago. But it took them years to build to that point and now, two lousy seasons later and counting, they’ve gone into full-fledged rebuilding (money saving) mode for what looks like years to come.
The San Diego Padres, hard to believe, were in a one-game playoff two years ago. Now, they too are liquidating player assets to raise cash for an embattled owner going through a rough divorce.
Last year, the Tampa Bay Rays were the new model franchise. This year, they are still a better-than-.500 team. At least, they’ve kept winning more than they lose. But at five games back in August, their post-season aspirations are a longshot at best and they will look to dump pitcher Scott Kazmir and other money players ASAP once the season ends. It took the Rays a decade of last place finishes, tons of first-round picks and — finally — some new savvy management to get to where they are.
Then, you’ve got the plodders, like the Toronto Blue Jays, forever mired in third or fourth place and about to trade Roy Halladay and cut back on payroll again after finally raising it to a quasi-competitive level only a couple of seasons ago.
So, whatever happened to the Moneyball revolution, anyway?
Yeah, we know Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s had a nice run the first half of this decade, getting by on the cheap and producing some wonderful teams with shrewd evaluation of undervalued players. We heard talk in following years about how this was going to become the norm in baseball, and how the right talent could overcome financial disparity and produce clubs that are competitive for playoff berths and titles.
Only, it really hasn’t worked out that way.
Yes, the Indians had their one nice moment in 2007. But they began tearing down their franchise and building towards that playoff goal in 2002. Now, most pundits agree they won’t have another taste of the playoffs until 2012 at the earliest. Not much of a bargain for fans there. Or in other cities where dismal years are spent building towards one glory moment, only to bring years of dismal showings after it happens.
Which takes us to the Mariners.
We declared them “sellers” last week when they fell out of the playoff hunt and for all intents and purposes that’s what they were. You weren’t going to see them go out and make a Matt Holliday move like the St. Louis Cardinals did. The Cardinals were “buyers” and didn’t mess around. They sacrificed the future for the present and are reaping the rewards of Holliday as we speak.
Jack Zduriencik alluded to this in his press conference last week when someone asked him about importing a bat. Mentioned how the team would have had to give up something — i.e. younger players — to get something big. And that’s something the team wasn’t prepared to give up. What Zduriencik didn’t say was that a Holliday type move is only one you make if you’re a “buyer” and the M’s clearly were not.
It took them a while to admit that to themselves. Zduriencik patiently held out through last week, wondering whether his team could reel off four wins and have the Angels lose four straight to narrow the gap and vault Seattle back into it. Every new GM wants his team in a playoff race. Wants his team to win. It had to be hard for Zduriencik and others on his staff to admit that the dream had died in only a few short days after that weekend sweep by the Indians.
And so, the team became “sellers” and ditched Jarrod Washburn for some prospects — one of whom is already in the majors.
Now, note the difference here.
The Mariners did not become “fire-sellers” like some of the franchises around the game. They did not hold a yard sale. They sold high on an asset — Washburn — who was of no more practical use to them for the duration of his contract. But they did not decimate the team in doing so. They had already managed to acquire, as we mentioned, another major league arm with upside in Ian Snell only a couple of days earlier.
And realistically, it’s tough to decimate a team when you have a payroll up at, or above, $100 million just about every year.
The other teams we’ve mentioned, the Indians, Padres, Blue Jays, A’s, and a bunch of others around the game, do not have this.
A big payroll allows you to make mistakes. But it also enables you to do things right. Eyebrows were raised — including here — last week when the Mariners acquired shortstop Jack Wilson (who you can read about in today’s Times). Wilson has an $8.4 million option for next year. But if you’re the Mariners, and not the Indians, you can still think about exercising that option and keeping Wilson as an expensive stopgap. Or, negotiating a longer deal at less money per annum. But still more money than a non-playoff contender like the Indians or Blue Jays might pay.
In other words, this team can keep rebuilding while at least making it fun for fans.
Safe to say many of you — and myself — had fun this year as the Mariners stayed in the playoff hunt for two thirds of a season. This team is still strong enough to finish with a winning record and will likely be up around .500 — or better — next year, even if it falls out of the playoff race again in late July.
The Mariners are rebuilding. And yes, they’ve had a near-complete teardown. By next season, Ichiro and Jose Lopez could be the only regular position players and backups left from the 2008 team. Felix Hernandez could be the only starting pitcher left from the five who began the 2008 season with the club — we’ll have to see whether Carlos Silva comes back and cracks the rotation.
In the bullpen, Mark Lowe will be the only regular left from 2008.
It’s been slow and subtle. But that horribly disappointing squad that fell out of last year’s race by late May has been almost completely torn down and replaced. Only you never really sensed it. Because this year’s team has looked competitive and played competitive ball.
It’s not at all like what’s been going on in other places, like Oakland. Or what Indians fans are going to have to go through the next few seasons.
The Mariners have had their teardown, they’ve been rebuilding and will continue to do so. They’ve just been trade deadline “sellers”.
And it’s hard to tell the difference.
That’s the value of having a GM who knows what he’s doing in Zduriencik. And combining it with an ownership that keeps shelling out relatively large dollars compared to the rest of baseball. You can’t do these things in Cleveland, or Oakland, or San Diego, where the wallets are tight. Where becoming a “seller” and a “rebuilder” means undue hardship for fans.
It’s a rare combination of money and team-building here in Seattle and the fans are lucky for it. We talk a lot about some of the shortcomings of this team, and the quirks and preferences of its owner, but in this case, the Mariners deserve some praise.