Tonight will begin an important “second half” for a Mariners team that, so far, continues to be allowed to get away with underachievement. By that, I mean, no position players on the roster have paid for the team’s 36-51 record with their big league roster spot.
So far, in any event.
As we discussed on the blog earlier this week and on last night’s hour-long show on Sports Radio KJR, there are pros and cons to this approach the team has chosen to take with its largely young, relatively inexperienced group. On the one hand, giving the team room to relax, breathe and live up to the minimal expectations set for it is an understandable strategy given the inconsistency of young players. I mean, this is why teams are often loathe to call up prospects and throw them into the heart of a pennant race: you just don’t know how they will respond to pressure and often, they are not as reliable as veterans who have learned the art of consistency.
That’s MLB 101, so yeah, I get it.
The problem is, this approach sits in direct contrast to some other MLB 101 rules, the primary one of which states: in Major League Baseball, it’s all about performance.
You can be a top-5 overall draft pick and if you don’t produce, you eventually stop getting chances. No player is immune from the need to perform because those paying the freight in ticket prices and TV viewership are usually not doing so in order to dream about what will be in five years. They do it for the here and now.
So, there is a balancing act between the soft approach and the hard one in regard to how to push young players to achieve.
And right now, the Mariners hierarchy appears a bit stuck in the middle in figuring out the best strategy.
Despite some suggestions to the contrary, it was a bit unusual to see Eric Wedge hint so strongly last week — not once, but twice on Friday and then again on Saturday — that he was considering a move to ship some players out. Then, less than one week later, to have him making suggestions yesterday that a less pressured environment where players could relax a bit was the way to go.
“Ultimately, we need to make sure that if certain guys aren’t getting it, then maybe we need to make some changes,” Wedge said of hs younger players last Friday, adding that the upcoming All-Star Break was the time to consider implementing such changes. “We’ve been contemplating this for a while. You’d like to see them get it done and make some adjustments up here because if you send them out and bring them back up, they’ll still have to go through some things that they need to go through. But if they push our hand, it is what it is. That’s pretty much where we are right now.”
Then, on Saturday afternoon: “The bottom line is, they’ve got to do their job, You’ve got to do your job. Everybody up here is getting paid good money to produce and it’s just not happening.”
Fast forward to yesterday and everybody was still there. And that’s the way it will stay for the time being.
It was a bit of an amazing reversal, given how the only thing that had transpired between Saturday’s pregame and yesterday was a 1-1 record, a handful of positive swings and then an All-Star Break.
Don’t get me wrong. This latest, softer approach could indeed be the correct one to take.
But this is a slippery slope indeed that the Mariners have started down. For one thing, it makes Wedge’s comments of last weekend appear somewhat heat-of-the-moment, frustration-laced and even desperate.
Not quite what he’s known for. Not what got him the job in Seattle based off his track record in Cleveland.
Wedge isn’t prone to public outbursts, which is why, when he suggests he’s prepared to ship players out, it makes news. When he does it not once, but twice, on successive days with time for a night’s sleep in between, it is a calculated measure. Wedge will be the first to tell you that. He does not say things — especially controversial things — by accident.
In fact, he said as much last Saturday, when asked whether his initial Friday night threats of shipping guys out amounted to just blowing off steam. “It was intentional,” Wedge said. “If I say something, it’s by design.”
So, any of you reading this with any lingering doubts about whether his quotes last week were misinterpreted, or “spun” a certain way, rest assured: they were interpreted exactly the way he wanted them to be. He was holding the hammer up high and threatening to drop it on somebody.
And now, he’s singing a completely different tune. Now, he’s back to being a nurturer. It’s as if he’s trying to play Good Cop and Bad Cop all by himself.
What happened in between? Nobody knows for sure. But at some point in his strategy sessions this week with GM Jack Zduriencik, the approach changed. And Wedge went from being the Tough Guy back to being the Teacher.
And it could still work. But only if the players respond. If the players go out and get their butts kicked this weekend by the Rangers, then again in Kansas City and Tampa Bay next week, Wedge and the Mariners won’t look very good for hanging on to the status quo.
That’s the slippery slope. The M’s have set themselves up big-time here by not following through on Wedge’s calculated, deliberate threat of last weekend. They have let the players off-the-hook yet again on the basis of minimal results delivered in the final two games at Oakland.
Now, they have an extremely tough portion of the schedue coming up in which the team will again likely lose far more than it wins. And if the losses start to pile up, the decision by the team to do nothing to send a message or make an example of some players in the time period before that stretch will leave a mark.
It will reinforce the image of a team where the performance bar has been set extremely low and where on-field success takes a back seat to off-field considerations. It will also weaken Wedge’s ability to be taken seriously by players or anybody else the next time he deliberately attempts to frighten anyone into performing.
Would shipping Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak or Jesus Montero to Class AAA have made the team better? Absolutely not. The Mariners, for all the talk of a revamped farm system, don’t have a AAA cavalry at-hand. At best, the moves would give young hitters a chance to regroup a bit outside the big league spotlight and would deliver a message throughout the organization that nobody is untouchable. That if you don’t produce to minimal levels, there are consequences.
That’s it. That would be the best such moves would achieve.
The Mariners, for now, are going in the opposite direction. They will hope some of the minimal success seen in Oakland those final two games represents the start of something. I chatted with Smoak in the clubhouse yesterday and he told me that, within the past week, he’d begun to develop a pregame routine he feels comfortable with. It’s taken him all season to do that and so now — with his hits last Saturday and Sunday and stronger swings overall — you can see how Wedge and Zduriencik might buy-in to the noton that they have reached a turning point. That relegating Smoak to the minors now might be contrary to everything they’ve waited for to get to this stage.
And they may indeed be right. The problem is, they may be wrong.
And if that’s the case, they’ve already flip-flopped once this week. If they have to flip-flop again next week — in quick fashion — it undermines both of their positions even more.
Let’s face it, this team is almost certainly going to lose 90 games. It may even lose 100 for the second time in three seasons under Zduriencik.
And when the post-mortem on 2012 is eventually done, too much flip-flopping could come back to haunt the architects of this plan. At the very least, throughout the highs and lows of rebuilding, Zduriencik and Wedge have to give the impression they know what they are doing.
Based on the past week, they seem to be winging it. Going forward from today, their latest hunches will have to start bearing some fruit.