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August 5, 2011 at 7:52 AM

Understanding the stakes for the Mariners

Wanted to give yesterday’s post 24 hours in order to reflect upon the vast number of comments it received. The one thing I was not surprised about was the degree to which some of the interpretations went totally opposite of what was actually being said. First off, this wasn’t about Moneyball, what it was about or whether it ever worked or not. That’s a debate for some other point in time and frankly, it’s been beaten to death as a discussion topic.
No, this was about something else. Something I suspected was going to make a lot of people uncomfortable — everyone from Bud Selig down to the fan who sits in the bleachers dreaming of his also-ran team someday joining the elite.
So, no, I’m not surprised by some of the wild interpretations those opposed to the post actually put on it. It’s to be expected. After all, it’s pretty radical stuff that Billy Beane and even Sports Illustrated writer Tom Verducci were presenting to us. And which I was adapting to comment on the Mariners and their rebuilding plan.
It’s going to take a while to digest, and even come to terms with what was being stated.
Because for years, we’ve been conditioned to accept that “young talent” is a good thing.
And therefore “rebuilding with young talent” must work.
And then, finally, the third conditioned response, especially in smaller markets, becomes “rebuilding with young talent” is the “right thing” to do and leads to “perpetual contention” year after year.
Those are the three cornerstones of modern-day baseball franchise building beliefs held by both fans and a vast segment of the media and blogosphere.
And it just isn’t so.
Well, the surface of it is.
Nobody has ever said you have to flush young players down the toilet. Nobody ever suggested that you have to ignore young prospects and build only through free agency. I don’t recall anybody — be it Beane, Verducci or myself — making that suggestion.
What was suggested was that young talent is being overvalued all around the game. That the use of young prospects by small market teams to build “perpetual contenders” — teams that contend more than once or twice every 10 years — is a tactic that no longer works because every team in baseball now knows the general value of young players.
And that so many teams now value this former undeappreciated asset, it has actually become overvalued.
That using young players as part of a rebuilding strategy will still require significant and recurring injections of cash to keep the contention window open. And not just for a year or two. For years and years after that.
That’s what the article and my blog post were saying.
Of course the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies built their perenial contenders with a young core.
I defy anybody to find a successful team over the last 30 years that did not have a young core of some type. It’s impossible not to. Unless you wanted everybody on those teams to be 50 years old and still competing. Teams turn over. You need some young players.
Yeah, the Red Sox have Dustin Pedroia. We know all about it.
For those who hadn’t noticed, the Red Sox turned over a substantial portion of their homegrown core players from winning one World Series in 2004 to the next one in 2007. Pedroia was a key part of that 2007 team.
But the Red Sox never did the Mariners-style rebuilding plan we are now seeing here in Seattle. They didn’t slash payroll, wait four years in which they avoided making “buyer” deals in July or adding in-season cash, then crank it all back up again.
They kept on trying to compete year after year. The move that might have pushed them over the top in 2007 was made the prior season, when they traded away young prospects like Hanley Ramirez and Anibal Sanchez to acquire Josh Beckett — subsequently signed to a long-term, mega contract.
And Boston has kept on contending perpetually. We all know, of course, that David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez were not homegrown players and both contributed to the two World Series.
It’s not like the Red Sox spent their “rebuilding” interim waiting for those contracts to run out so they’d have more cash. Boston did indeed rebuild with younger players like Pedroia, Jon Lester, Jonathan Papelbon and others. But it was more like “reloading” because they also kept making “buyer” type trades in the interim. The Red Sox kept outspending the vast majority of their rivals while making shrewd in-house decisions on player personnel.
So, to use the Red Sox as an example of how rebuilding through youth works kind of misses the mark as to what we’re talking about.


Let’s look at the San Francisco Giants, a team that cobbled together an excellent pitching staff and rode it to a World Series last year. That’s a team that spent $96 million on payroll last year, then upped it to $118 million this year because it did not want to be a “one and done” contender.
Even with an outstanding pitching staff, with, let’s face it, a little luck involved because some real low draft picks turned out pretty darned good. Hey, good for them. It happens. But the Giants are still spending through the nose this year to maintain that success. They still traded away a stud young prospect pitcher for a rent-a-bat in Carlos Beltran. There is no shot at “perpetual contention” for them without the money.
And no, they didn’t spend years building a young core. They spent years losing, nabbed Tim Lincecum with one of their draft picks, and had some young starters blossom surprisingly well at the same time. They called up their Dustin Ackley (Buster Posey). They threw more than $100 million at Barry Zito hoping to capture something, and then, when that failed, they didn’t sit there for years waiting for his contract to expire. They did something about it.
The bottom line is, you’re not going to find many five-year rebuilding plans out there where teams are willing to lose 90-100 games per year, then suddenly turn it around and start winning 90-100 for five years after that without a significant change in how they operate.
In the end, even when that youthful core blossoms — after all those years written off — you’re still going to have to outspend your competitors to keep it going. Just like the Yankees. Just like the Red Sox. Just like the Phillies. And just like the Angels for most of the past decade.
Some have suggested the Padres, Rockies and now Rangers have bucked the trend.
They haven’t.
Again, we’re talking about perpetual contenders. Teams that will be in it year after year, not because of fluke finishes in which they win for the entire month of September to overcome huge division deficits. Not because they play in terrible divisions. But teams that contend for real, That are a threat each and every year.
I’m sorry, the Rangers have won one pennant that took years of losing and drafting to achieve. Let’s see if they can win a few more before we crown ’em. And let’s see how much they wind up spending to stay on top.
For the Mariners, sooner or later, for them to ever become “perpetual contenders” they are going to have to open their wallets bigger than they are now.
But the Red Sox and Yankees would never write off entire seasons waiting for the contracts of guys like Ichiro and Chone Figgins to run out. The Giants, apparently, wouldn’t do it either, as we’ve seen withy Zito.
Yes, you need some degree of youth to rebuild a team. But life isn’t always about the end result. It’s about the journey to get there. And sometimes, that can be a lot of fun too and even a bit surprising. But it can’t be when you send a $65 million team out on the field (minus Figgins and Ichiro money) and watch it lose 90-to-100 games without offering it any in-season help.
And in the end, all that waiting still won’t guarantee any “perpetual contention” without spending the money it will take to keep that rebuilt team together and doing something productive once it’s finally “ready”. Sacrificing all of these years in the interim is just putting off the inevitable. The M’s have their Posey. They have their Lincecum and their Madison Bumgarner. They have their Brian Wilson. They could have started contending this year and can still do so next year if they choose to pay the admission price it will eventually take.
In the end, the only people guaranteed to come out ahead with this type of rebuilding are the Mariners and their owners. They continue to balance the books and protect their long-term profit.
Championships? Maybe down the road. Maybe not.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins

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