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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

August 4, 2011 at 5:00 AM

A must-read for Mariners fans that torpedos the idea of hoarding homegrown talent to achieve “perpetual contention”

NEWS UPDATES (2:15 P.M.): The Mariners have demoted Greg Halman to Class AAA and will make a corresponding roster move tomorrow. Wily Mo Pena? Actually, no. Contrary to what I’d previously suspected, it appears the M’s are going to promote Class AAA center fielder Trayvon Robinson, just acquired in the Erik Bedard trade. Robinson isn’t in the lineup for AAA Tacoma tonight, meaning he’s likely already headed to Anaheim to join the M’s. He can play all three outfield positions, so it will be interesting to get a look at him.
Nice to see the Mariners complete a sweep of the Oakland A’s yesterday behind the play of youngsters Charlie Furbush, Casper Wells, Dustin Ackley and Mike Carp. The Mariners are getting younger, that’s for sure. Are they better? Well, better than when they were losing 17 in a row. Long term? Well, I guess we’ll just have to keep waiting for that answer.
Meanwhile, there’s something all Mariners fans might want to read because it pertains directly to what the team is doing.
Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci has just written one of his most insightful baseball pieces yet. And he’s written a few. Verducci was one of the first writers in America to spot the trend of teams hoarding young talent as a new gold standard. That was back in the Moneyball days of 2003 and 2004 and now, Verducci has just nailed the present state of Major League Baseball and young players better than anyone I’ve seen try.
But not in the way many might think.
His latest item is a warning cry to fans in major league cities that are being told their teams are building a la Billy Beane, attempting to construct a young nucleus of homegrown talent that will enable them to contend year after year.
Nonsense, claims the article. That no longer works. Actually, it’s not the article claiming it, but Billy Beane himself who says such an approach is now outdated.
Here are the money — or, Moneyball, if you will — quotes from Beane:
“Ten years ago teams didn’t value young players, other than as chips or assets to get the players they needed. Now, even the large market teams with great resources, everybody values their young players. You have large market teams valuing young players exactly the same as Tampa Bay, Kansas City or any small market team…
“What you’ll find is that the window for a small market team will grow smaller and eventually go away completely,” Beane said. “We had seven years. Tampa Bay — and they are very, very smart — has made it to the playoffs two out of the past three years, and may not make it this year, and then what? To have any kind of window will take building a team organically, having to have something like 80 percent of your roster [homegrown]. That is extremely hard.
“Eventually it becomes like Premier League soccer, where the teams that spend the most money are the teams that win every year. They’ll all come from the top quartile in payroll.”

Yes, indeed. We have already discussed this last month. Whether the M’s should try to take better advantage of contention situations year-to-year, rather than focusing towards some distant target date in which they’ll feel ready to begin a quest toward “perpetual contention” — meaning, where they can contend year after year.
That strategy simply hasn’t worked for teams.
Well, it has. But only when your team outspends competitors and makes intelligent assessments on young talent, as well as older talent. But the “talent” portion means little in 2011 without the up-front bucks.
Case in point: Jack Zduriencik’s former Milwaukee Brewers.
For all of the stellar draft picks Zduriencik gave the Brewers, they’ve made the playoffs just once in a decade and that was largely because of rent-a-pitcher C.C. Sabathia.
The Cleveland Indians have had one playoff berth since they began rebuilding a decade ago and lost a huge chunk of their fanbase in the process.
Oakland has been to one post season since 2003 under Beane and that came in a bit of a fluke year in 2006.
The “perpetual” contenders? The Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Phillies, etc., etc., etc.
Teams that spend, year after year. They don’t rebuild. They reload. And everyone else settles for scraps.
Beane mentions in the story that for all of the good done by the Tampa Bay Rays on the drafting and scouting front, their window is quickly closing because they lack big bucks.
The only team I’ve seen come close to bucking that trend is the Minnesota Twins, but even they were just biding time until a new stadium got built and then hiked payroll up over $100 million. They won’t make the playoffs with that payroll this year, but that doesn’t change things. If you want a shot at contending year after year, you have to pay the price of admission.
Otherwise, you’re looking at spot appearances once or twice a decade. The Twins are the only ones that have come close to disproving this and even they haven’t won a championship in 20 years.
As for the Mariners?
We’ve been writing since 2009 that they have to spend more money. Right now, not in three years from now. And take advantage of any contention windows.
So, how do the Mariners keep getting away with spending less money than they did in 2008? And let’s be honest, it’s a great strategy if they want to break even or turn profits year after year, though not so effective on the contention front.
The Mariners push the “perpetual contention” myth, that’s how. They push it on fans and hope they buy in. Push it on bloggers and the mainstream media too. They keep pushing and hope nobody actually looks at the track records of smaller market teams that have tried the whole Rebuild-Young-and-Achieve-Perpetual-Contention gambit before.
You know, like the Brewers. The Indians. The A’s.
No, they’d rather see folks stuff their faces with popcorn and stare at Brad Pitt’s hair in the new Moneyball flick, instead of pausing to think about how the stuff portrayed in the movie doesn’t really exist anymore.

One of the main thrusts of the Verducci article is that the entire “herd mentality” approach towards “young talent” in baseball has become overblown. That teams now hoard young prospects — often to their detriment — in an era when 24-hour news cycles and websites geared towards prospects evaluation have led to an over-valuing of young players throughout the game.
Truth is, young players have acquired more perceived value than real value. First-round pitchers, for instance, still flame out about half as often as they make it. What’s changed, though, is the attention and tub-thumping that’s given to prospects. When the Yankees were trading off Jay Buhner, Doug Drabek, Fred McGriff and the like in the 1980s, they were little known faceless names in agate type. Now, given the hyper-niche ways of new media, prospects are afforded glowing reviews, flowery scouting reports and, most famously, unquestioned status as the doppelgangers of famous major leaguers. So Matt Wieters isn’t just promising, he’s Joe Mauer with power. Justin Smoak is Mark Teixiera. Desmond Jennings is Carl Crawford. Jesus Montero is Mike Piazza. And so on.
It all sounds so Wall Street. Like those “can’t miss” stocks or mortgage-backed-securities everybody buys up every 10 years only to find they’re all sizzle and no steak just before the latest market crash. Why is our society so prone to buying into stuff we can’t actually reach out and touch? We’re all human, I suppose. We must like the hope part.
In the prospects game, we want to hope they’ll pan out. And we want to hope they’ll help our teams win. So, we buy in.
But wait a minute. MLB teams aren’t fans. Why would they knowingly promote certain inferior young players in the spots of proven older ones when it could obviously weaken the on-field product more than it helps?
We discussed this on Geoff Baker Live! on Tuesday. How there is now an overvaluing of young talent in and around the game. I mean, why is it that young players are now being rushed up to the big leagues more so than 15 or 20 years ago?
Simple. They help teams save money. It has nothing to do with these prospects being better than prior generations. It’s simple economics. Teams are trying to cut cost corners, especially smaller market clubs. So, they promote scores of young prospects, hoping some stick and can help teams spend minimum MLB wage at a position rather than paying seven figures for it.
Sometimes, it works. Just as often, if not more often, it fails.
But even with this failure, the wave of prospects being imported has led to a sort of “group-think” in and around baseball that going young automatically equates to getting better in the long run. And it just isn’t so. But nonetheless, nowadays, some prospects are decried as “busts” throughout the mainstream media and blogosphere if they haven’t hit the majors and made some impact by age 26.
What about Edgar Martinez? Raul Ibanez? Is Mike Carp the next version of these guys? A late-bloomer who put in parts of eight seasons in the minors.
In all, it’s a fascinating article because Beane is the guy who pioneered the concept of Moneyball, which author Michael Lewis tried — and succeeded to some degree — to accurately depict in his 2003 book.
As Verducci correctly notes, the huge part of Beane’s success in the Moneyball era had to do with Big Three pitchers Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Yes, Moneyball tactics helped Beane maximize his window. But the Big Three were the cornerstones, a fact largely glossed over by the book.
Want your own Big Three?
Well, you can finish last every year and draft well. Or, you can go out and spend money like the Phillies did to accomodate Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt within the span of just over a year.
The good news for the Mariners and their fans?
As we’ve continued to repeat, they are not a small market club. Even though they keep acting like one through their approach to roster building and payroll.
They already have a state-of-the-art, taxpayer-subsidized stadium that teams like Oakland and Tampa Bay lack and which Verducci brilliantly depicts as the new Moneyball factor in this modern era.
And the M’s use Safeco Field year after year to help keep a payroll in the $90 million to $100 million range. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
But not when $18 million of that is spent on leadoff hitter Ichiro. Not when another $9 million goes to bench player Chone Figgins.
Not when that payroll allows the team to stay profitable year-to-year while the on-field product flounders under some of the worst offense ever seen.
The Mariners don’t have to go the small market route. But their current approach — building towards some distant notion of “perpetual contention” while not spending more than what allows them to break even — is the domain of the lesser tier.
And in the end, it brings no guarantee the Mariners will contend for the post-season any more often than in the past decade.
In fact, to hear it from Beane, it’s an approach that will likely fail unless they start spending big and often.
The good news is, the Mariners don’t have to use this small market approach. They have the regional television contract, the stadium deal and the deep-pocketed ownership — not to mention franchise value that has quadrupled since this ownership took over — to go out and truly compete. With their pocketbooks.
The Mariners don’t have to wait five years for all of their prospects to mature. They could increase payroll to $118 million next spring — the same as in 2008 — and contend right away. Could have done it last winter. There is no rule that says these interim years have to be written off, or that waiting to build a nucleus like the M’s are doing is a strategy that will even work. All this strategy guarantees is that the M’s can keep breaking even, or close to it, year after year until they finally hit on something. So far, it’s an approach that’s paid off handsomely — off the field.
Yeah, I’m spending other people’s money. But this isn’t some charitable, civic venture the M’s are giving us. This is a private business making loads of long-term money in a sport that’s set up shop in a way that makes for uneven competition from city to city.
Want something more fair? Become like the NFL.
Until then, I will continue to repeat this as Verducci and Beane just did.
Perpetual contention is a myth created by small market teams to give their fans the illusion they can compete on an equal footing in an unequal sport. It’s a myth perpetuated by big-market teams that love the status quo.
Why would they change it? Everybody with a newer ballpark is printing money. Even the Pittsburgh Pirates!
On-field competition? Well, that’s entirely different, as the losing Pirates, Brewers, Blue Jays, Royals, etc. have spent the past 15 to 25 years showing us.
As Beane himself concludes, the way to compete in present-day MLB year after year is to spend more and more and hope to outsmart your increasingly-intelligent competition.
That’s the real Moneyball. The rest is best left in 2003.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins, Jesus Montero


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