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May 28, 2012 at 9:57 AM

Mariners have much more evaluating to do before we’ll know much about their future

Many of you asked about yesterday’s pre-game comments by Mariners manager Eric Wedge in which he called out some fans and (maybe) media for being “yahoos” in wanting to see a more consistent lineup with added playing time for younger players.
“You’re not going to have a consistent lineup until you know what your players are capable of doing,” Wedge said. “They’re too young. So for all the yahoos out there that say you should play the same people every day, that you haven’t had a consistent lineup, you don’t know (expletive). Period. Because you can’t do that until you know what you have.”
For me, this is pretty similar to the stuff Wedge has been saying all season long as he defended his use of Miguel Olivo over Jesus Montero and John Jaso, his attempts to jumpstart Chone Figgins in the leadoff spot and other efforts. We’ve mentioned before that there’s been a degree of a false “veterans versus young guys” debate dominating the landscape of Mariners analysis and fueling much of the anger and resentment that some fans and bloggers have towards the team’s approach in 2012.
To me, the debate should always have centered around: what has this team done to try to make 2012 better than 2011? And has the team done all it can to maximize the level of progress that we’ll see in 2013 compared to 2012?
For me, that’s always been the true measuring stick we should be using. Whether this rebuilding plan is really going as quickly as it could be. Or, whether the Mariners are treading water an additional year or two longer than is really needed in order to buy time for the franchise to either be sold, receive a huge cash influx on a new TV deal, or both. Whether this rebuilding exercise has more to do with shedding pricey veteran contracts and offsetting a decline in attendance revenue with lower-payroll teams designed to break even.
After all, if your owners don’t want to push new cash into a last-place team and fans aren’t buying in like they once did, the only way you’re going to break even without significantly improving the team is by going younger and cheaper. Some of those younger players might even develop into something really good. But are they building into a core of something that’s going to last? Or, just developing for development’s sake with no real vision of anything?
I think that’s the issue many fans and some analysts are only now waking up to. Some may have thought this rebuild was going to start bearing fruit by 2013, but are looking at the team’s 21-29 record in the standings and the progress/lack of by some defined “core” players and realizing that contention a year from now seems to be a pipe dream at best. That any real contention hope won’t happen until 2014, or, more likely, 2015, given that the pitchers and position players who are supposed to round out that contending team are still in Class AA.
And that’s where, to me, there is some legitimacy to the whole “veterans versus young guys” argument.
Not as the central premise for fan discontent.
More like a component of a much bigger question: where the heck is this rebuild going and how long is it supposed to take?
Photo Credit: AP

After all, Wedge may have arrived on the scene in 2011. But this “rebuild” has been going on since 2009 and didn’t just start with him. You don’t get to keep hitting the “reset” button and calling it a two-year plan, just because the “four-year” current plan involved firing the previous manager two years in.
This rebuild involved signning a 32-year-old Figgins to a free-agent deal after the 2009 season. It involved trading a developing starting pitcher named Brandon Morrow for a relief pitcher named Brandon League.
Those usually aren’t the kinds of moves a rebuilding team makes. As frustrating as Morrow has been as a starter, most rebuilding teams usually will try those types of players out over full seasons in the rotation before dealing them for relief pitchers. But not in Seattle, where the 2009-2010 off-season reeked of “go for it” mode — until, of course, ownership stuck to a mandated payroll cut when the team clearly needed some much bigger bats.
So, one can forgive fans for a little skepticism. Doesn’t make them yahoos.
Now, four years after rebuilding began, fans and media are again being told to be patient. But here’s where the whole “veterans versus young guys” argument can be used to question whether anyone from the Mariners is justified in demanding the same, unquestioning patience that many fans, bloggers and media (too many for my liking) have been willing to give them to this point in their rebuilding.
It’s tough not to notice that Wedge’s latest admonition for patience came after a week in which the M’s were thoroughly lambasted for their handling of the whole Casper Wells-Figgins debacle. I mean, talk about uniting the blogosphere. Not to mention uniting the blogosphere and mainstream media. Has that ever been done before?
But it was tough to find anyone out there arguing that keeping Figgins and dispatching Wells to AAA made a whole lot of sense. At best, holding on to Figgins until the trade deadline might score you a million or two in cash plus a player with a pulse — if the team was actually playing Fggins enough to generate any trade value.
Instead, the Mariners seemed caught in a holding pattern, not really sure of what they’re doing. They seem to care more about hoping for a miracle at recouping some of the $15 million-plus owed to Figgins through 2013 than they are at admitting reality and moving on with this rebuild.
Look, no one is arguing that Wells is the second coming of Barry Bonds. But since the Mariners traded away a pretty good pitcher to get the 27-year-old Wells, I’d like to know if he really is a future fourth outfielder. If he has a prayer of ever starting in Seattle. I’d like to see him get a little more playing time.
All I know right now is, Wells barely played for the Mariners. And Wells is a better defender in left than any of the miscast bench guys the Mariners currently have out there, so this latest quasi-salvage effort with Figgins does risk costing the team losses late in games. That much I know with a fair degree of certainty.
The rest? I don’t know much. Neither do the Mariners, as they’ve fully admitted with Wedge saying he needs more time to evaluate guys.
Know what would help with the evaluation of outfielders? Sit Ichiro down once a week. This is where the whole “veterans versus young guys” camp would gain credibility in my eyes. If they’d be willing to admit that starting a 38-year-old singles hitter in right field every single game in the final year of his contract really doesn’t mesh with any notion of a rebuild, I’d be prepared to take the Olivo complaints a bit more seriously.
Ichiro is no longer the hitter he once was. He’s now a below average hitter in terms of OPS+ and probably the fourth or fifth best hitter on this team according to advanced stats. As a power hitter, he’s one of the worst everyday guys in the lineup other than Brendan Ryan. Yes, he can still hit singles and no one says he should be benched permanently. But he’s long overdue for a rest for a team that claims it is serious about rebuilding.
Yes, his defensive stats are good, though you have to take Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) with a grain of salt. Same with his Fangraphs WAR (Wins Above Replacement Level) results overall, since the defensive component is UZR-based and much of Ichiro’s WAR value comes from defense.
But I’ll readily concede Ichiro looks better defensively this season. That’s why he is still an everyday player. But he should not be an every single day player. A team that is serious about rebuilding should have somebody else playing right field at least two days a week, with Ichiro getting a day off in one and maybe DHing another.
That way, this team could have taken a longer look at Wells, a longer look at Mike Carp, a longer look at Alex Liddi and whoever else has to be “evaluated” before the “yahoos” are allowed to speak.
Right now, this team is tying itself in knots with a lineup that is woefully miscast in terms of batting order and fielding positions. This coming winter, the Mariners will have to decide whether Kyle Seager or Dustin Ackley is their second baseman. Whether Ackley or Franklin Gutierrez or Saunders is their center fielder. Whether Carp, Saunders, Ackley, Carlos Peguro or three or four other guys can be the left fielder.
Who is the next right fielder going to be? Or is that Ichiro? Is Seager your third baseman, or does Liddi get that job? Does Vinnie Catricala get it? Francisco Martinez? Who indeed?
We won’t even get into first base, but yeah, the M’s will need to have a clue about that going into 2013 as well. Is Montero going to be a full-time catcher? Nick Franklin looks like the contending shortstop of the future, but again, he is at AA.
So, without being flippant, I’ll suggest the Mariners still don’t have a clue who is going to be manning any of the eight fielding positions or the DH slot once this team is ready to take a serious shot at contending. And that’s four years into this rebuilding plan. Sure, they may hope they have some idea who will be where. But if I can make a strong argument for change at every single position on the field, that’s not a team preparing to contend any time soon.
That’s why, I’ll suggest there is validity on this particular front to the whole “veterans versus young guys” debate. As part of a larger question about whether the Mariners are really doing all they can to speed this rebuild along as quickly as possible.
Because it’s one thing for the Mariners to argue that they are using Olivo regularly behind the plate simply because 22-year-old Montero isn’t ready to catch every day without hurting his development. It’s quite another to argue that there is no room to give playing time to a 27-year-old corner outfielder like Wells when you continue to play Ichiro in right field every single day.
Another argument altogether to send a superior defender in Wells to AAA while keeping Figgins on the major league roster and not using him.
That’s not making it easy to evaluate guys. That’s delaying this rebuilding plan even more.
And this plan — as it stands — is already going to take quite a while to produce the results I think too many fans were hoping would come around by 2013. No need to delay it any further, unless, of course, the delay is part of the plan. Unless the plan is more about waiting for future money than it is about true developing.
Only the team’s owners know that for certain. We’ll have a better idea come this winter. Wedge keeps making the case that the veterans the team currently has are not good enough to help the rebuild by taking pressure off the young guys. Hopefully, that’s the clue needed for the team to go look for some better veteran producers (an outfieder would be a great place to start) next winter, the kind not always found in the bottom of the bargain bins.
We’ll see.
In the meantime, the other case Wedge keeps making — the pleas for patience — would gain further traction with the fanbase if the team didn’t keep contradicting itself. If the team’s stated goals of building for long-term talent and success didn’t keep running up against what appear to be much shorter-term goals, many of them financial in nature.
These contradictions didn’t just start with Wedge, as mentioned. Many can be traced to moves made in 2009 and 2010.
Yes, patience is a virtue in baseball. But too many teams rely on it to avoid setting and attaining realistic goals for success. And the open-ended, ever-changing nature of this rebuilding plan is starting to wear on the patience of even the “yahoos” once firmly in Jack Zduriencik’s rebuilding corner.
Time for the Mariners to get serious about rebuilding. Right now, any team still keeping Figgins on the roster and playing Ichiro seven days per week in right field can’t really make the claim that the serious stuff has begun.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins, Jesus Montero


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