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July 27, 2010 at 10:11 AM

Comments on a reported “rift” between the Mariners front office and coaching staff

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The other day, right after Chone Figgins went toe-to-toe with Don Wakamatsu, ESPN writer Buster Olney tweeted about a “rift” between the Mariners front office and coaching staff.
There has been a lot of stuff mentioned by national reporters about the M’s, some of it accurate and some of it a little out there. For instance, two weeks ago, one columnist wrote that the “traditionalists” have supplanted the “stats guys” inside Jack Zduriencik’s regime. Not sure I buy that one, largely because I believe the influence of stats people within the Mariners has been overstated from the start.
I’ve spoken to insiders who tell me Zduriencik has refered to “sabermetrics” as “cybermetrics” on occasion. Which tells you something. Yeah, assistant GM Tony Blengino knows his stats. But he’s also a traditional scouting guy. The whole “Franklin Gutierrez was a product of UZR” thing was a nice storyline for some national media outlets. But Zduriencik had been on to Gutierrez years ago, before anyone had ever heard of Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), let alone employed it on a major league team.
So, while the M’s played up the stats-friendly angle at local blogosphere events — a brilliant PR move on their part, I might add — they were never a team that made moves based on stats alone. Yes, they hired Tom Tango. So what? The Royals have employed a stats analyst for years. You think they’re a sabermetric team?
In other words, I think that recent story was overblown. The M’s are not favoring traditional scouting over stats any more than they did a year ago. They were never what people were making them out to be. They’ve always been, under Zduriencik, a team that looks at all types of information.
On to Olney’s tweet. To that, I’d pay a bit more credence.
In fact, if there wasn’t some type of front office-coaching rift at the moment, this would have to be the most patient coaching staff in MLB history.
The Mariners went into last winter with one glaring need — more offense, specifically in the power department.
The front office did zero to make the offense better. Yes, it signed Chone Figgins. But it also allowed Adrian Beltre to leave without making him an offer after he declined arbitration. It allowed Russell Branyan to leave. Milton Bradley was taken on, having not produced a strong season since 2008. Casey Kotchman was acquired, having not had a typical first baseman’s season since 2007.
From January through March, the Mariners avoided commenting on their payroll, citing “competitive reasons” but were anything but competitive in going after top free agents. Obviously, since they didn’t land any. Instead, they signed Eric Byrnes, now retired, and Ryan Garko, now out of the majors.
Members of the coaching staff had wanted the M’s to take a run at free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson as an offensive upgrade. Instead, the front office held firm on payroll and the team remained saddled with Jose Lopez, who could no longer play second base well enough and had to be moved to third to help salvage some infield defense. Figgins was then forced to play in his less-successful position at second base instead of third.
Things were so desperate on offense that the team had to keep Mike Sweeney out of spring training because the rest of the bats were so obviously weak to anyone paying attention. And the coaching staff was paying attention. They knew Ken Griffey Jr. was done like an overcooked Thanksgiving turkey.
So, when the team, with its terribly-designed roster, couldn’t make it through April without tumbling to the fringes of contention, you…fire the hitting coach? Brilliant!

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Hey, I’ve got nothing against Alonzo Powell. And I’m not blaming him for failing to get this horribly conceived offense out of the starting blocks.
But it’s not the coaching staff’s fault.
You fire one of them, you’re putting the rest of the staff on notice that they will be held accountable for a team that Zduriencik’s front office simply did not build all that well.
And that’s going to cause some ill feelings. It’s human nature. The coaches are always the ones held accountable for wins and losses, not the players earning multi-million-dollar guaranteed contracts. The players don’t have to worry where their next paycheck is coming from, where six-figure-earning coaches do. Tie one hand behind a coaching staff’s back, the way this front office did, and you can’t expect a whole lot of Christmas invites.
Wakamatsu and Zduriencik talk every day. I know Zduriencik isn’t thrilled by the way some of his players have produced. Believe me, he isn’t tap-dancing over what Chone Figgins is doing with his $36-million contract. And yeah, anyone watching the team the past few weeks, with one blunder after another, has to wonder how well they are being prepared by this coaching staff.
So, while Zduriencik keeps saying “Wak is our manager” everytime I and other reporters ask him, I’m sure he’s not 100 percent thrilled with the way this team is performing under current coaches. No executive will ever admit his plan was an out-and-out failure. And part of Zduriencik no doubt believes this staff could be getting more out of these players.
And there is probably a little truth to both sides.
But for me, it comes down to this. A manager needs a stick to go along with the carrot. And Wakamatsu has been seeking a stick in the equivalent of a rubber room. Zduriencik won’t give him one.
He saddled the manager with Griffey for the first two months of the season. Wakamatsu was unable to do anything about a DH producing the second-worst hitting totals OPS-wise of any regular MLB player and did what he had to do. He benched Griffey. Because if he didn’t seek an offensive upgrade in the most obvious spot, at a time the team was desperately trying to stay in contention, then the season was going to be lost and more coaching jobs would be at stake.
The season obviously has since been lost, jobs are now at stake, and the Griffey situation imploded into a mess.
Could Wakamatsu have handled it better? I don’t know. But it never should have been left up to a second-year manager to handle a Hall of Famer time bomb this front office never needed to light the fuse on in the first place.
If Chuck Armstrong was the one who wanted a 40-year-old, .214 hitter with bad knees to come back for a second “farewell tour” Zduriencik had earned enough juice/clout in his highly successful first year to put his foot down and say no. What would the Mariners have done if Zduriencik said “It’s him or me” with Griffey? Fire Zduriencik? Yeah, sure. Zduriencik could have been elected mayor last October. But Zduriencik did not say no. At least, not forcefully enough. In fact, he keeps saying he said yes.
To compound matters, he allowed Griffey to become the primary DH by not acquiring enough other legitimate offensive threats to supplant him in that role. I mean, if you’re going to bring Griffey back for all of his clubhouse leadership intangibles, which he did display last season, then it had to be as a 25th man on a much deeper roster.
At the very least. somebody should have sat down with Griffey, way back in October before he re-signed, and laid out the facts of life to him. They should have warned him that, in a contending year rather than a rebuilding one, if his bat dropped off the planet again, he would have to ease away gracefully. Retire in May if need be. That last year was the true farewell tour, and this — a season in which fans were being told to “Believe Big” — was borrowed time as long as he could still play.
From what I can see, that conversation never took place. If it did, Griffey sure didn’t hear it.
And Wakamatsu was put in an impossible position. Of having to send Griffey the message that he was done as an everyday player.
These days, Wakamatsu tries to preach accountability to players. But it’s tough to do that when those players see Lopez committing one gaffe after another — some of it by pressing too hard and other times, by not focusing on a baserunning situation — while remaining in the starting lineup night after night. Josh Wilson can play third base, so it’s not like a short bench is keeping Lopez from being “rested” once in a while.
But a year ago, the same thing kept happening with Yuniesky Betancourt. It turns out, the front office wanted him in there every single day to showcase him for a trade that finally happened with the Royals.
Lopez is a worse hitter this year than Betancourt was. His UZR numbers at third base are far better than Betancourt’s at shortstop. But that might be more of an indictment of UZR as a short-term stat than anything else. Lopez, as he admitted last night, still has trouble on balls to his right and gets saved by Jack Wilson on a lot of diving plays to his left.
He’s not a terrible third baseman. But he’s not a UZR king either. He’s been steady and solid. But his hitting is attrocious. So, if the M’s are not showcasing Lopez for a trade, forcing the manager to keep him in the lineup every single night, then something is terribly off here.
And if the front office is indeed tying Wakamatsu’s hands behind his back on Lopez, as was done with Betancourt, then Zduriencik owes his manager more than this.
That is, when Wakamatsu decides to make an example of Figgins to enforce accountability on the team, the GM needs to support him.
Instead, we get a Figgins tirade that embarassed the entire team in front of thousands of fans and millions of television viewers. We get Figgins openly challenging a Wakamatsu decision, nearly sparking a dugout brawl, and nobody apologizes afterwards. Even Carlos Zambrano has apologized for his dugout tirade and believe me, the footage in the Cubs dugout was nowhere near as bad as what resulted from the Figgins outburst, with players leaping over benches and pulling jerseys over teammates’ heads.
Still, Zduriencik is keeping quiet about the whole thing. Figgins hasn’t apologized in public to anyone, either for openly questioning the manager, or, at the very least, for subjecting the organization and its dwindling fans to the dugout spectacle that resulted from his actions.
And again, Wakamatsu is left to twist in the wind, with fans getting the impression his days are numbered. And the rest of his staff, whose livelihoods likely depend on Wakamatsu remaining as manager, are left to wonder how much longer they will remain employed as well.
So, is anyone really surprised that Buster Olney hears there may be a “rift” between coaches and management? I’m not. I’m surprised somebody from one side hasn’t punched somebody else in the nose by now.
Hey, at least when it’s a nose shot, you can see the blow coming.
The way Wakamatsu’s season is playing out, he should visit Chicago Aquarium today, chat up a sea turtle and see if he can borrow its shell. That way, at least he’ll know something has got his back.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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