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July 19, 2011 at 5:00 AM

Not enough for Mariners ownership to “Trust in Jack” while relying on the “The Bill Bavasi Fallback” to avoid spending what’s needed

Now that the Mariners have collapsed in 2011, there will be a lot of temptation for people to lay blame at the feet of Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik.
And Zduriencik has made mistakes, to say the least. But he’s also had some successes, especially when it comes to bigger trades and finding unexpected performers off the scrap heap. For now, he’s three years into a rebuilding plan that had one 85-win season, one 101-loss season and now a potential last-place season with what’s on pace to be one of the worst offenses of all-time.
I think we’ve seen enough. We all don’t need an advanced degree in baseball “analysis” to know that this team is strong in pitching, but has virtually no hitting to speak of. Not enough to compete at the major league level, anyway. Not now, not last year and barely in 2009. The fact that the team stayed in contention for so long while so undermanned speaks volumes about what a few determined players can accomplish when they put their minds to it.
But this team needed reinforcements. Needed them last month if they were ever to keep their brave run going. Needed them last winter, to be honest, and two years ago.
And it’s getting progressively worse.
Zduriencik has spent three years attempting to go with an offense heavy with on-base percentage guys but not with the slugging power that you need — especially in the middle of the order. We’ve gone over this problem ad nauseum the past two off-seasons, so I won’t bore you with it too much more.
But a team needs big bats, especially in the middle of the order. Most major league teams try to assemble power — for practical reasons due to size and limitations in sluggers’ fielding abilities — with guys who play the corner outfield and corner infield and the DH.
They may not succeed in all five spots, but to be good, you’ve got to come reasonably close. You’d like to get four filled reasonably well. They can’t all post an .800 OPS or better all the time, but they can’t post an OPS below .700 too often or your team will be shorthanded.
And it helps to have the slugging part of the OPS up as close to .500 as you can get it so that you don’t have to walk and single every team to death.
And if you come up short at the corners or DH, it helps to have a guy or two at non-power positions — think Dustin Ackley at second — doing something. Miguel Olivo looked like he’d be that guy at catcher, but his on-base numbers are so poor that his home runs can’t offset them. Franklin Gutierrez was supposed to be that guy when given his contract, but, nearly two years into it, has come up far too short.
Now, I know things are sliding downward across the board in baseball offensively. I’ll give you that. You don’t see a bunch of .900 OPS guys like you used to. But with the Mariners, they have no .800 OPS guys at any position except Ackley.
They sacrificed power in right field when they moved Ichiro back there from center in 2008. Is it a coincidence that the last time the Mariners had decent offense was in the 88-win season in 2007, when Ichiro was in center and .800 OPS guy Jose Guillen in right field, while Raul Ibanez was in left? Probably not entirely.
But that was then. Now, the team has sacrificed a power position for Ichiro. Zduriencik then sacrificed it some more by locking up Chone Figgins long-term at third.
So, that’s two power positions the team essentially locked itself out of voluntarily by putting OBP-generating singles guys in there.
Then, you have the left field black hole, which has not been filled effectively since Ibanez left. Yeah, Endy Chavez played nice D. But he couldn’t hit.
Adrian Beltre also gave that 2007 team traditional power at third base, but tailed off the final two years of his M’s career. He has not been adequately replaced.
DH has been a joke since Edgar Martinez left. Jose Vidro did the best prolonged job in 2007, but again, lacked traditional power. Still, like I said, you can sacrifice it at a position or two, especially if you have power at non-traditional spots. Ichiro provided an above-.800 OPS from the non-traditional power spot of center field that 2007 season. Kenji Johjima was also slightly above average hitting-wise as a catcher in 2007. There’s a reason that team won 88 games and was right in the wild-card race until early September. And it wasn’t the pitching of Jeff Weaver and Horacio Ramirez.
They could score.
Zduriencik knows he needs big bats. He’s said it too many times the last three years.
But he had one huge hand tied behind his back with the Ichiro contract and the fact he takes up a power position in right field.
And his other hand is still not entirely his own. This team spent nearly $118 million in 2008, got burned by former GM Bill Bavasi’s bold and desperate trade for Erik Bedard and signing of Carlos Silva, then shut it down.
The only time this ownership group has taken a loss in the Safeco Field era came when it lost $4.5 million during that 2008 season.
Ever since, payroll has sat below $100 million. Ever since, the Mariners’ ownership group has turned a yearly profit.
Has the ownership group lost money on its initial investment in the team? No. It still sits nice and even blacker than the team’s chances when an opponent hits a first-inning home run.
And therein lies this franchise’s biggest problem and obstacle going forward.
Fans don’t want to hear what I’m about to say, because they want to believe the business part is secondary. They don’t want to hear that the deck is stacked against them from the start. But in Seattle’s case — and Zduriencik’s — it truly is.

Bottom line? This team needs to spend more. If this offense was adequate, or slightly below average, I’d buy the “play the kids” line and swallow another 90+ losses. But this offense is one of the worst in the history of the game.
The Mariners open play tonight with an OPS+ of 75. Last year’s abysmal team — with the worst offense in the DH era — posted a 78. The 1899 Cleveland Spiders — generally recognized as the worst team in baseball history — were at 74.
OPS+ is on-base-plus-slugging percentage relative to the rest of the league with “average” being a 100 score. So, the Mariners are 25 percent below what an average team would produce. Are you kidding me?
So, you can keep trumpeting the “play the kids” mantra, or cite the wisdom of “five-year plans” but, even if Justin Smoak and Gutierrez both rebound, it’s probably still not enough to contend in the next couple of years.
This team still has Ichiro one more year at $18 million and taking up a power spot in right field. After that, maybe an extension.
This team needs to spend more on the players around Ichiro so that he is not made into an albatross by default. So that, even with good on-field stats, he isn’t taking up such a disproportionate amount of payroll.
And Zduriencik needs that payroll flexibility. He needs what is coming off the books this winter and then some. Needs to add an impact bat, whether it’s Prince Fielder or whoever, to fill the 1B/DH slot with Smoak and then at least one more impact bat to lock down third base or left field.
Do that, and I’ll start believing in five-year plans again.
To me, five-year plans are the creation of small market teams that can’t compete with the perenial playoff contenders. When I see Boston or New York embark on a five-year plan, I’ll be sold. But they don’t. They spend money and make the playoffs. Because the whole “perpetual contention” thing is largely a small market myth as well.
Every small market team claims to be rebuilding for five years or more so they can land that elusive goal of contending every year. So, who actually contends every year besides the wealthy teams?
Oakland? One playoff appearance in eight years.
Cleveland? One playoff appearance in a decade.
Kansas City? Lots of individual prospects, lots of rebuilding plans.
Milwaukee? One playoff appearance since many of you were born.
That’s right. For all of Zduriencik’s great draft picks with the Brewers — and there were some — that team has just one wild-card appearance (in which a rented C.C. Sabathia literally carried them to a 2008 post-season in which they were swept first-round…CORRECTION: They lost 3-1) to show for it. Maybe now, three years later, they’ll get it done. Maybe not.
It still ain’t perpetual.
And no, no, no, the Rays are not a good example. They spent nearly a decade losing 100 games to compile all of those draft picks and that nucleus of young talent. This Mariners team cannot go that route. The franchise won’t survive it.
The only team close to the perpetual contention myth that didn’t spend freely was the Minnesota Twins. But again, that was out of need. The team’s longtime owner, the late Carl Pohlad, forced his GMs to play their own style of Moneyball while they awaited word on approval for a new stadium to replace the outdated Metrodome.
And the minute Target Field opened last year, the Twins went from a $65-million payroll to $97 million. Then to $113 million this year. No dummies, those Twins. They can Moneyball like anyone else, but also realize that to keep having that shot at winning, you need to keep up with the spending.
Toronto? My fave. In 2002, when it cost $1.60 Canadian to buy one U.S. dollar, the Blue Jays opened with a payroll of $76.8 million ($123 million Canadian). This year, with the Canadian dollar now worth $1.04 U.S., the Blue Jays opened with a payroll of $78.6 million ($73.7 million).
So wait, who are the suckers here? The Blue Jays spent $123 million Canadian in 2002 and got “equalization payments” from other MLB teams and now spend $73.7 million on the squad? And want to whine about not competing with AL East behemoths? Please. They are owned by the largest cable conglomerate in Canada. As I’ve told Toronto baseball fans for years, whine to me about the AL East when your team’s wealthy owners make a pretense at trying to “compete” in that division rather than keeping things profitable.
Believe me, I’ve seen Toronto’s “five-year-plan” when it was touted back in 2002. After seven years, having acquired their stadium for a pittance ($30 million Canadian) they fired GM J.P. Ricciardi seven years into his “plan” and are now two years into the next one.
Baseball is a business folks. And it’s not the NFL, where the markets are relatively equal. Want to perpetually contend in baseball? Then you have to perpetually spend. Won’t earn you a place in the Moneyball book or movie. But it might get you to the World Series.
Here’s the good news.
This M’s franchise is not “small market”. Seattle’s owners already spend a healthy amount, just not enough to make the playoffs as they once did.
It’s not Pittsburgh, where ownership pocketed yearly millions and benefitted enormously from revenue-sharing only to field teams of minor leaguers.
It’s not Oakland, with a tired old stadium in a tired old part of town, where Moneyball was a survival tool.
The Mariners play in a state-of-the-art, taxpayer-funded facility with a cable TV deal that — while not as comparitively lucrative as it once was — still dwarfs other markets.
In Seattle, we don’t have to play Moneyball. We don’t have to pretend to be a small market team while spending just enough to remain profitable.
And this ownership can’t keep using the “Bill Bavasi Fallback” excuse as a reason for not spending what it takes to keep the team playoff competitive.
Fans can afford to do that. To be skittish.
You know, the fans who fear every deadline deal will turn into Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo all over again? The ones who claim this team can’t make any more big-time trades of prospects because of the Bedard deal?
The ones who, I secretly suspect, will never really completely feel comfortable “going for it” ever again because, well…you know…Bavasi.
Owners can’t be that way.
Zduriencik is their handpicked guy. They trust him to make shrewd deals. He’s shown he can come out ahead. Yeah, he messed up on Figgins. Most GMs do make mistakes in trades and signings. Comes with the territory.
No excuse to saddle fans with one of the worst offenses in MLB history two years in a row.
This team needs to take payroll higher next season. Even if this year’s payroll winds up higher and loses money for the ownership.
It’s not enough.
Clearly, more is needed. The Mariners are not a non-profit corportation. They are not a charity. Not a federally-protected monument. They are a for-profit business. And that business has been profitable every year except one since Safeco Field opened. That business has been profitable from an overall franchise value perspective.
Time to give back. At least, I think it is. It’s not my business. But in most businesses, if your product is waning, you have to invest a little more to spruce it up to make people want to buy it.
That is a fact of the business world beyond dispute.
Stop tying Zduriencik’s hands because Bill Bavasi failed in 2008. Give Zduriencik a real shot. He looked at Jason Bay a year ago last December (when he thought he could get him for a year or two) because he knew he needed big bats. Same with Bobby Abreu in 2009 and Johnny Damon last year and both were a whole lot cheaper than Bay. Both would have helped these M’s.
Get Zduriencik some more cash to compete. If he fails, you can always fire him. That’s coming in any event the way this plan is headed.
Sooner or later, at some point, this ownership group will have to stop being so conservative in its year-to-year approach and take some risk. It can’t expect to turn a profit every single year when it’s already made money on the team long-term.
Not when it’s running out one of the worst offenses of all-time.
Hey, I’m not saying this is easy. But there are easier businesses to get into if all you want to do is turn a profit. Computers and video games seem to be doing well…oh wait…never mind.
Fans deserve better. They deserve more than having to put blind trust in a GM to pull off a miracle simply because his last name isn’t Bavasi. And that GM who isn’t Bavasi deserves a better shot as well. Zduriencik is no Messiah. But he might turn out to be pretty good if this ownership decides it wants to compete. We’ll know more once he’s allowed out from under the Bavasi shadow.
From under the Bavasi fallback excuse for not trying and remaining profitable.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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