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

May 14, 2012 at 6:21 AM

Trying to help fans make sense of baseball moves becoming tougher as years move along

Today was an early morning, as I’m on a train bound from New York to Boston. It’s an early trip so I can arrive in time for an 11 a.m. ET panel discussion on sports beat writing that I’ll be giving with Pete Thamel of the New York Times and Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald at the Associated Press Sports Editors regional conference at the Boston Globe offices.
I’m sure we’ll cover plenty of topics on the challenges facing modern beat writers but one of the ones I’m finding increasingly difficult is relaying to fans exactly why teams behave the way they do in regards to certain player moves and strategy. Part of the reason is the subtlety involved in managing a ballclub, both from a field and front office level. We’ve gone over this before, but I think it bears repeating: there is a difference between running a baseball team that spends close to $100 million annually on player payroll versus running one in a Roto League.
While some will say that, of course, they understand there’s a difference, I’m not sure many realize that the arguments being pushed forward on myriad issues do tend to take the Roto angle versus the actual real life one.
In Seattle, it’s leading to confusion about what the team has done with players on multiple levels, largely because of faux debates and controversies surrounding a “Veterans versus Young Guys” dynamic. Now, I don’t think fans are totally to blame for this. The Mariners, after all, set themselves up for this phony controversy by proclaiming that it’s all about the young guys now as they continue to cut payroll and wait for the bigger contracts of some veterans to run out.
So, what you have now is a confusing situation where it really hasn’t been all about the young guys. At least, not yet. But the reality is, it will never be entirely about the young guys, which is why the average age of every baseball team tends to hover in the late-20s and not the early-to-mid 20s.
No team goes entirely young. Never has been that way and never will be.
When you’re charging big league ticket prices, you need to put a professional product out there and that would be tough to do with 25 different 22-24-year-olds all breaking in at the same time. Think about the growing pains associated with Michael Saunders over parts of two seasons prior to this one. About Jeff Clement. Think of the ups-and-downs of Felix Hernandez in 2006, 2007 and 2008, as dynamic a pitcher as he has become.
There is a learning curve and growth period associated with every young player and it will vary on an individual basis. And while they are growing, they will need to be spelled occasionally — or the majority of the time — by somebody who has already been there and done that.
This really is pretty elementary stuff when you think about it, and yet, it has often gone missing in some of the hysteria surrounding the Chone Figgins and Miguel Olivo “controversies” that have been allowed to frame much of the discussion surrounding the team’s moves. But that’s what happens when you frame everything as a “Veterans versus Young Guys” scenario.
Again, the subtleties of MLB baseball come into play. And thinking about them first will often eliminate much of the mystery involved in understanding why things keep happening as they have. I’ve been among the harshest critics of this franchise, the speed of its current rebuilding plan, its true financial motives and a bunch of other stuff.
But on a daily baseball level, I honestly don’t see that big a mystery as to why things have happened the way they have. Probably because I understand that in baseball, things are rarely black and white. There is often a whole lot of gray involved.
Take the false Olivo and Figgins controversies.
First off, they are two completely different animals. Figgins is on a deal twice as long as Olivo’s and for three times the annual money.
He was playing because teams can’t simply eat $18 million in remaining salary without trying to do all they can to salvage a contract. Just because the Giants, or some other club once did that, or folks toss around economic terms like “sunk cost” doesn’t change all of that. If the Mariners can salvage some trade value for Figgins and get a team to take them off the hook for $9 million in remaining money, then the full $18 million isn’t really “sunk” is it?
No, it isn’t.
Which is why the Mariners played Figgins for a month at the leadoff spot. They gave him time to demonstrate he could handle the role and certainly, when he started to work counts and hit the ball more squarely, they were encouraged. When he began striking out too much, they gave him time to see whether he could work out of it. Players go into slumps all the time. You don’t chuck them after a week or two. But Figgins continued to struggle and — very importantly — the Mariners had a guy in Dustin Ackley that they felt could take his place.
So, after a month — a reasonable chance — he was dropped as a full-timer. What happens now is largely a question mark, but he’s done as the leadoff guy. He may have started off well, but the situation changed and that was it.
No controversy there. It’s just how things played out. The team tried something, it worked for a bit and then it did not.
On to the more complicated Olivo situation.

Unlike Figgins, the team only has Olivo under contract this one more year at $3.75 million, then can buy him out. He was originally signed to split time with Adam Moore — maybe take the bulk of it if Moore still wasn’t ready — but wound up playing in too many games last season because of Moore’s injury and the lack of other depth in the organization.
Hitting-wise, Olivo has never been a big on-base guy, though he is clearly recognized as a solid everyday catcher (given his career longevity) with some good power potential for his position. Other than Olivo, the club has John Jaso and Jesus Montero to catch.
Jaso was never recognized as a solid defensive catcher while with the Rays, which is why they let him go for the meager sum of Josh Lueke — a relief pitcher now back in Class AAA whose stuff is turning out to be not quite worth the headache of his past. Montero was an unproven catcher, only 22 and with a ton of stuff to learn if he’s ever going to be an everyday big leaguer behind the plate.
So, the team stuck with Olivo. Partly because they are paying him $3.75 million as opposed to far lesser amounts for Jaso and Montero and might as well get some value out of him since the other guys will be here much longer. And partly, because they have no better option than Olivo on a daily basis. Some people don’t want to believe this, largely because we still don’t have effective ways of measuring catcher defense and contributions — no matter how many stats there are out there purporting to do just that. Until somebody can properly define and measure what “working well with a pitching staff” entails, no stat will give you catcher value in its appropriate form.
And in my line of work, when you can’t measure something, I find it is often best to defer to the experts. To ignore the issue as unimportant just because it can’t be measured is, in my mind, not an intelligent way to approach things. Just as giving increased importance to things like passed balls, or throws to second base, would also not serve an intellectual purpose. All that does is offer a poor, sometimes distorted substitute for things we don’t understand.
Sometimes, there are just things we can’t completely understand or measure. If I’d caught in the big leagues, I’d take a stab at it. But I haven’t, so I listen to those that have and quite often, they’ll mention game calling and pitch framing and “feel” and a bunch of other stuff we just can’t measure.
Why defer to them?
Because guys like Eric Wedge have something on the line: their job.
Their livelihood depends on making the right call a majority of the time. So, if Wedge’s superior firsthand knowledge tells him that Olivo is a better everyday catcher than Jaso or Montero, he will play the former more than the latter two. Why wouldn’t he? Do you think Wedge would be running an inferior catcher out there with a .250 OBP at the plate just for fun? So, he could get fired quicker?
Does he want Olivo to have a .250 OBP all year? What do you think?
But the only way to guarantee that .250 OBP at year’s end is to yank Olivo from the starting lineup right now. Sit Olivo down, don’t play him and I promise you, he will finish with that same bad OBP. No, it doesn’t work that way. Like Figgins, there had to be a period of time to see what would happen with Olivo. And in the final week and a half prior to his groin injury, he hit .300 and popped three home runs.
So, that was more of the guy Wedge and company had hoped to see. No mystery there. No “Veterans versus Young Guys” controversy. That’s why Olivo was in the lineup. And once his bat heated up, the plan would be to try to keep it at a more acceptable level, by working in both Montero and Jaso more frequently than before. To ensure that Olivo didn’t wear down as July and August loomed. But he wasn’t going to wear down in April. So, getting him more rest last month wasn’t an issue.
As I’ve written all winter, this team cannot afford to play Olivo 130 games.
But we were not even one month into the season when the fake controversy raged. Again, it’s tough to get a bat going — the way Olivo’s finally did — when you’re sitting him three or four days per week. Sure, some people wanted to see Jaso get into more games. But he’s the backup catcher for a reason, and those advocating he get more playing time are doing so for reasons that have to do with offense and not defensive abilities that are impossible to measure with stats alone.
Anyhow, we can go on and on about it. But I do think far too much energy has been wasted this year on these two fake debates centered around a “Veterans versus young guys” framework.
Montero may indeed become the catcher of the future, but some of his defensive shortcomings are already apparent when he has to play even two games in a row — never mind the five or six that most everyday catchers do. Look at how long it’s taken catcher Matt Wieters to settle in with the Orioles after he was the Minor League Player of the Year.
Patience is often a virtue in understanding baseball. Had the team been trying to contend this year, it would be different. The urgency would be there to a little more of a degree, but that wasn’t the plan. Right now, the plan is to develop certain players while maximizing the value of others while they are still here.
Maybe then, you could trade Kevin Millwood or Olivo, or Figgins at the deadline for pieces that will help in 2013 and beyond. By mid-summer, you’d have a better idea of where things stand and who can replace all three on a regular basis.
Anyhow, that’s all part of the decision-making that goes into player moves. We haven’t even touched on the whole clubhouse aspect of it, a very real equation that all good managers take into account. Olivo is the veteran who pretty much runs the Mariners clubhouse and helps keep players in-line, ensuring they play hard and respect the game of baseball. No matter how low Olivo’s OBP gets, you’ll never see him dogging it out there. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team and demands that his teammates — even those more talented than him — don’t shortchange their fellow Mariners, the coaches and especially you, the fans.
If you’re Wedge, you will give Olivo every opportunity — within reason — to get better offensively because of that intangible help he brings. And allowing for a three-week April slump is hardly beyond the bounds of normalcy.
What happens to managers who burn their veterans early? Ask Bobby Valentine how it’s going in Boston right now. Would be nice if there was somebody he could turn to in order to reign in Josh Beckett, but, well, Valentine is already mending fences with potential policemen in his own clubhouse.
Heck, we don’t even have to look at Boston as Mariners fans. Ask Don Wakamatsu what happened when he lost the veterans in his clubhouse just two years ago. Figure out why Wedge drop-kicked Milton Bradley so quickly.
Like it or not, politics and finesse are part of a manager’s job as well. You can scream about the unfairness of it, rant about entitlement and so forth, or just accept it as the human condition. And when you’re Wedge, with an under control clubhouse at the moment, you aren’t going to mess with it.
And no, it can’t always be the manager policing the clubhouse. He has to have player help, which is something that has not always been the case in Seattle.
So, stuff to consider. More shades of gray.
We may think we know how a player will turn out, but we don’t. Players tinker with stuff in-season and over the winter all the time and sometimes, it pays off handsomely. Sometimes it does not. We all roll our eyes at such stories until Michael Saunders shows up looking better, or Alex Liddi works his way into the major league conversation. We think we know Jeff Clement will make it, until he doesn’t. Even Montero — he of the sub-.300 OBP — is still a work in progress offensively and we still can’t say for certain whether he will be an unqualified plate success, no matter how high we all are on his bat.
Things change all the time. And teams react to those changes as players get better and worse throughout the course of ay given year. Plans change.
I don’t know why it keeps getting more challenging explaining this stuff to folks in the information age, with all the documented cases of clubhouses gone bad and folks in-the-know who try to spell out to fans why moves are made.
Perhaps it’s the increased reliance on stats for information. Maybe with the increased knowledge those stats bring us, we’re inclined to believe we know more than the people paid to run teams. Perhaps we’re all just a little more impatient when waiting for results in an age where we can get anything we want at the touch of a keypad.
I don’t know the answer. All I know is, it’s getting tougher. And so, like all you you, a good part of my energy is spent sifting through these debates of little magnitude while sifting through a mountain of information to pinpoint areas of more serious concern involving this ballclub.
But make no mistake, every team needs a mix of veterans and young players. Do the Mariners need better veterans? Of course. I think that’s something we can all agree on. Maybe we can have a real debate about that next winter when the time comes for teams to go free agent shopping again.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins, Jesus Montero


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