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March 2, 2011 at 10:47 PM

Outside eyes of MLB Network weigh in on fate of 2011 Mariners in interview

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You can see the studio crew of MLB Network that will be handling the “30 clubs in 30 days” series that features the Mariners on Saturday at 4 p.m. PT. From left to right, there’s former pitcher Dan Plesac, host Paul Severino and former Indians and Rangers GM John Hart.
MLB Network will be in Mariners camp the next two days, with reporter Hazel Mae and camera crews, gathering footage for the segment. I arranged to interview both Hart and Plesac by phone on Wednesday afternoon to ask them for their unique takes on what’s going on baseball-wise in Seattle.
Part of that is summed up in a story for Thursday’s paper. I also previewed some audio on Geoff Baker Live! on Wednesday night. Now, I’ll go a little deeper, with the unlimited space of the internet, to give you full answers to a variety of questions we didn’t cover in the other pieces.
BAKER: John, you’re a former GM who has dealt with rebuilding teams and teams that were going for it. Do you think the Mariners did enough this off-season to better a team that lost 101 games and scored the fewest runs of the DH era?
HART: I’m not privy to what the economics, etc. were over there. Obviously, going into last year with the signing of Figgins and some of the things that they did, you expected more. And I think because of the very sub-par performance last year – and I’m not sitting in there – I’m sure they had to look at it and say ‘Look, where are we going here?’ And I think that’s the overview. How do I put this? I’m not saying that they said ‘We can’t run down Texas.’ Oakland has all that good young starting pitching. They helped themselves offensively The Angels did some good things. But these are clubs I think that felt they were a couple of players, three players away. With the Mariners, they shored up some catching with Olivo. They did what I would consider to be smaller things with their ballclub. So, I think that they are, I’m sure, going to create as many opportunities for young players as they can. They aren’t just looking at this and saying ‘A lot of people have to have better years if we’re going to contend in the West this year.’
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BAKER: But how much time can you afford to give some of these young players to develop when you’ve got an antsy fanbase that hasn’t been to the playoffs in 10 years and is tired of losing?
HART: That’s a great question. I think a lot depends on what the dynamic was when the GM is hired. I know for me personally when I went to Cleveland it was a total rebuild and we didn’t worry about it. We just rebuilt and we felt it was going to take three to five years to really get it accomplished. Texas was a little different situation. We didn’t have as much success, obviously, as we did in Cleveland. It was more of a try to win now scenario. So, I think ownership and Jack have obviously talked about what they needed to do. In fairness, when Jack came in the farm system was shaky. He’s obviously a tremendous evaluator of talent which is evidenced by some of the good players in Milwaukee. But he’s inherited a very difficult situation as far as the farm system. I think, coming off the great year they had the first year – which I think was a surprise, there was hope on the horizon – followed up by everything that could go wrong went wrong. It would be tough for me to speculate. Obviously, as a general manager, you want to compete, succeed. But you’ve got to look at: what does ownership want? What do they expect? And if they’re in on a rebuild, your job is to sell it to the fans. You’ve got to show some promise. You’ve got to have good young players. And if it’s win now, you’ve got to win now. And I think right now, the Mariners look like they’re caught a little bit in between both.

BAKER: Do you see the farm system being better?
HART: Right now, I think their farm system is still a little bit behind. I think the pick of Ackley last year was good. I think they’ve certainly helped themselves with some of the additions that they’ve made and some of the trades. I think they certainly got the better end of the Cliff Lee deal with the guys they gave up. I think they were smart. I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I think the guys they traded for Cliff Lee were not as good as the guys they got in return from the Texas club. Prospects are what they are, but I would have to say the Mariners system is improving. If there’s anything you want to have confidence in, Jack has a good feel for the draft, he’s got a good feel for the amateur players. But that, you’ve got to give it time.
BAKER: How much time?
HART: I think, a couple of things here. As far as evaluating him on what he does with the draft and international signings, my instincts tell me you’ve got to give him some time. I think as far as what hap[pens at the Major league level I think you’ve certainly got to factor in what is going on down below in the minor leagues. But I think as far as what is the expectations of ownership, on the outside, I just don’t know. I’m just not sure what Chuck Armstrong and company feel about what progress has been made according to their timeframe at the major league level. For someone on the outside that’s inherited a top club, when you go into your third year you obviously would hope that you’re going to see progress. I can tell you this: I don’t think anybody expects what they saw last year. They definitely want to show improvement. That club was…I’m not saying it was an embarrassment offensively…but it was. It was not a good club offensively. They didn’t do a lot of things. They had that mess with the manager. But I think the hiring of Eric Wedge, they got a guy who has experience and they’re definitely going to see progress. But as far as any timeframes, that one is just not for me to speculate on.”
BAKER: This is for Dan. The Mariners were trying to shop David Aardsma, they have Brandon League going up in salary. With young guys like Josh Lueke and Dan Cortes knocking on the door, should the Mariners think about moving both League and Aardsma this year?
PLESAC: I think it’s important that you have the ninth inning. The last three outs are so important for any team. But the reality of it is that as you look at the Mariners of today, you almost have to say that they’re in a rebuilding mode and I’m not sure that having a lockdown guy in the back end is that much of an important thing. I think it’s more important for them now to get some of their younger pitchers, the guys they think are going to be there long-term, to get them into the mix. But that’s a fine line that you walk between rushing a guy up. You certainly don’t want to take one or two of your young pitching prospects and rush them along. Then they struggle and you’ve got a young pitcher who’s lost their confidence. So, I think every organization or manager would like to go into the season…is Brandon League Mariano Rivera? No. But he’s probably the best option right now and he might be a piece that two or three months from now, if he’s pitching well, you might be able to use him to get something back. Because he’s probably – looking at this long term – is he going to be your ninth inning guy for the next five or six years? Probably not.
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BAKER: You saw Billy Koch come in straight out of the minors in 1999 and have a very successful season when you both played for Toronto. What was it about him that made him so successful? And if you have a hard throwing guy in the upper 90s, can that make up for a lack of experience, lack of composure when you’re first starting out?
PLESAC: No question about it. But I think, I was fortunate to have a chance to play for 18 years. I’ve seen a lot of guys come and a lot of guys go. But I’ve never seen a guy that threw the ball that was more impressive than Billy Koch. So, to make a comparison, if you’re comparing to Billy Koch at that time, you’re talking about a guy who when he came up, was 98-to-101 miles an hour, tremendous sink. He had an electric breaking ball. His stuff was so good that it was almost a no-brainer. You were almost wasting his talent down in AAA once he was able to make all three stops – A ball, AA. Had some success down in AAA. You had to find out.
BAKER: You’ve played for a lot of teams…how important is it for people in the clubhouse to get along. Is the leadership aspect of it overrated?
PLESAC: It boils down to two words – it boils down to winning and losing. I don’t think you can go in any clubhouse right now of any team under .500 where you’re going to see 25 happy players, seven happy coaches and a happy front office. Losing starts to wear on people. And there isn’t such a thing as a perfect clubhouse. You’re always going to have somebody that’s either disappointed in playing time, pitching time, contracts, call-ups. There is no perfect world in professional sports. But I think the biggest cure for a bad clubhouse is to put a winning team on the field.
BAKER: How important are service time issues when it comes to young players like Dustin Ackley and Michael Pineda, especially in a rebuilding year?
HART: That really is a great question. I think it has some degree of importance. If for instance you look at what the Giants did with Buster Posey and you look at Wieters in Baltimore. Even good clubs were paying attention to the ability to be able to control these guys. Sometimes it’s blown up too much. I never paid a tremendous amount of attention to it. I certainly was aware of it. But I always felt that if a player is ready and you feel that player is going to help you win, then you go with him. As the Braves did with Heyward. If your club isn’t quite ready to win, you’re not sure, maybe you factor in the service time. Maybe he’s more of a June guy rather than a break with the club in April guy.
I think in the case of what cures some of the evils of some clubs that have been struggling is the influx of young players. I think a fanbase, if they realize they’re not going to be that good of a club, but they’ve got five, six seven young, hungry talented players that are going to be a part of their future, I think it’s important to get them up there. I think, going back to your fanbase question, I think fans just want the truth. We may not be jumping up and down and happy, but if in fact these young players are that special and we’re going to be excited to watch them come up and going through some growing pains, I’d rather see these guys up there.
BAKER: Do you think some of the career lows posted by Mariners hitters had anything to do with the lack of proven power in the lineup?
HART: I do. I think lineups are tricky, tricky things. I don’t think they were saying ‘We’re going to look at this great track record of OBP.’ I think that club was designed to be built around pitching, defense, and a club that was going to scrap and scramble around for runs. When you have Felix leading off and you have Cliff Lee, they’re going ‘Boy, we have a great 1-2 punch and we also play in a ballpark that’s not really an offensive park, we’re going to build our team around our starting pitching, a solid bullpen and great defense. Offense was probably the one area they said they’ll let go. I don’t think anybody expected the disaster that befell the offense. You look up at Figgins, obviously, who was terrible. They didn’t get any productivity out of first base. The normal power positions, corner outfield, corner infield, they just didn’t get anything there. Even DH…there were just guys that didn’t swing the bat. And as the season began to unravel, it became a real Achilles heel. I feel this way. If you’re in the American League, I don’t care where you’re playing. You could be in the least offensive park, which could be Seattle, you’ve got to score runs in the American League. It’s nine outs. It’s tougher to pitch in the American League. I think you’ve got to be able to have some power to go along with some of the other things and that club just didn’t have it.
BAKER: So, Dan, if a team doesn’t have that, would that change the way you pitched to the other guys in the lineup? Would you be less fearful of putting them on base.
PLESAC: Well, I mean, yeah, it is easier. It’s just nearly impossible to win in the American League playing small ball. The concept and the idea sounds great. But when you put a lot of pressure on – your pitching needs to be on every night. You have to catch the ball. You have to get guys on, you have to get them over and get them in. If you don’t have the ability to strike with one swing of the bat you can get right back into a game or break the game open, it puts too much pressure on your pitching and it puts too much pressure on your lineup. It’s awfully difficult at the major league level to get four or five hits in one inning to score two or three runs. It’s just nearly impossible in the American League.
BAKER: Where do you see the M’s going? Will they lose fewer than 90? Can they surprise anyone?
HART: Based on the talent we see today…for me, right now the Mariners are behind Texas, the Angels and Oakland in that division. At least from where we sit today. I think Oakland bit the bullet. They had that stable of young starters. They gave them an opportunity a couple of years ago. And you really saw that pitching coming both rotation and bullpen. With Oakland, I think they’re poised to improve. They added some pieces. The Angels, obviously, picking up Dan Haren, Pinero last year, if they get Kendry Morales back, along with Vernon Wells, they’re going to be a better club, more of a contender. The Texas club is, I think still a very solid club. Obviously, the back end of their rotation is a question. They have some questions there. But I just think that those three clubs in the West are ahead of Seattle. But I would certainly think that the Mariners would be looking at a .500 record as doable, at least in their minds. Whether it is or not, a lot of things have to happen.
PLESAC: Chone Figgins has to be better than he was last year. If Ichiro has one of his typical years, Gutierrez is a good player…for me, the question is going to be, you’re going to find out what kind of a player Justin Smoak is. Are Justin Smoak and Saunders going to be here? Are they going to stick and stay? Are they going to be guys you look at three or four years from now and say hey, they’re still going to be in that lineup. I agree with John, the division has somewhat gotten better. The Rangers look like, on paper, they’re a solid contender. The A’s, you really have to like their pitching. The Angels have gotten better. So, I would say right now to me it’s almost like the Mariners are kind of on the outside looking in. But I think they’ll be an improved club and to me, I think .500 is really doable.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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