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February 26, 2013 at 8:41 AM

Modern players, including several Mariners, relying on more than just teams in seeking improvement

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Some of you may have already read my story in today’s paper about how several Mariners are continuing an MLB-wide trend of going outside their teams for more personalized skills training and conditioning. Much of this is driven by player agents, who recognize the fact that a healthy, productive player at the top of his game is going to command a bigger salary than the struggling player who isn’t being all he can be.

And when those players make more money, the agents themselves do. So, it’s in their best interests to work as a team with their player/client in order to strive for on-field production. That’s also, naturally, the end goal of the team itself, which invests millions every year in players and their development. With higher-end draft picks, the millions are invested the day the player signs. Then millions more once they go on to become a major league piece with a little service time. Even with low-cost players, if a young one doesn’t pan out, or a rebuilding plan fails, it can cost teams untold millions in lost revenue opportunities.

So, needless to say the stakes here are very high. And everybody wants a say in what type of training a player is going to be doing. Everybody wants their input into the development process. Where it gets complicated — and you see the potential for some real head-butting between teams and agents for control of the process — is once the players head home for the winter. As Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik correctly states in the story, no team has the resources to supervise every single player each and every day when they are scattered across the country and even the world.

Teams can pick and choose, maybe send a trainer to make a personal visit to a very special player’s home. But the resources just aren’t there. In the end, in many cases, the agents themselves have known the players since they were teenagers, have a vested interest in their individual development (as opposed to an interest in the entire team) and when you break it all down, they are probably best-positioned to be making the on-the-ground decisions regarding a player’s day-to-day well-being in the off-season.

It’s all great until somebody disagrees. And it happens, believe me. I once saw a former MLB power-hitter take his game to the next level when he stopped listening to what his manager wanted him to do when it came to being a pull-hitter. That manager — a very good hitter in his day and a former hitting coach as well — kept on that player until he wasn’t the manager any more. In comes a new manager and hitting coach, out goes the pull-hitting approach and what do you know? The hitter becomes a star and goes on to pull down eight-figures per year.

Like I said, this happens more often than you think in baseball, where the boss is still the boss and players are required to listen. This manager happened to be very good at what he did, but like all humans, he could be wrong from time to time. Mostly, he got it right, but that player and his agent — one of the biggest in the game at the time — weren’t so much concerned with the manager’s record on guiding the other 24 guys. It’s every man for himself in this rough-and-tumble business of professional — not high school, or Little League, or American Legion, but professional — baseball, where life isn’t always fair and players do get messed around with in the name of the greater good.

That’s the context I’m coming from here. I don’t believe all agents are conniving and diabolical and I certainly don’t think all team executives are greasy, self-centered egomaniacs. Some are and believe me, there are folks in both camps who view the other side exactly how I just described them. When there are millions of dollars per person at stake, the tension gets ratcheted up.

But this is where we’re at, today. With both sides having a vested, self-interest, the player certainly having a big interest, and the need to try to straddle both sides and keep everyone happy always there. The alternative for the player? Well, how’s a five-hour bus ride in the minors sound? So, everybody wants the player to get better, but the team only has him eight months per year, while the agent and his private team gets him for four.

I find it interesting that today’s starting outfield for the Mariners against the Milwaukee Brewers consists of Michael Saunders in left field, Franklin Gutierrez in center and Michael Morse in right. If you look at it, all three players can be said to, at one time or another, have done things away from team supervision that led to both positive and negative consequences.

Saunders re-made his career by going to private hitting coach Mike Bard in Colorado and employing a series of pretty different training methods with some “outside the box” tools. Morse was once caught taking steroids back in his younger days, a move that — as far as we can tell — was not sanctioned by the team and did not occur on team property. And Gutierrez lost most of the 2011 season to a stomach ailment that plagued him the latter half of 2010 and which the Mariners did a less-than-complete job of monitoring and following up on in-person over the winter of 2010-2011.

The cases of Morse and Gutierrez don’t really pertain to skills training. But the Morse issue does involve conditioning training and the extra help that sometimes goes with that, while Gutierrez highlights the need for teams to sometimes prioritize players for off-season visits. In the Gutierrez case, the Mariners undoubtedly wish they’d done some more personalized follow-up to his stomach issues and had him thoroughly checked out by their own doctors before 2011 spring training, instead of relying merely on phone conversations. After all, he’d gone to a doctor in Venezuela for treatment of the same stomach issues in November 2010 on his own. It wasn’t until he arrived in 2011 spring training with the same, lingering issue that the Mariners sent him to the Mayo Clinic and had a full battery of tests done.

This isn’t meant to nitpick in hindsight. Just to demonstrate the millions of real dollars that can be lost in any given year if the team makes the wrong call about who to spend valuable resources on when it comes to personalized supervision.

The Mariners were naturally alarmed when they found out how many calories per day Nick Franklin was consuming in order to gain the 34 pounds he’s put on since last September. It isn’t so much the new weight — he’s still not even 200 pounds and the club was initially happy with the gain — as much as the lack of control over the process the M’s suddenly learned they’d had. If Franklin goes on to hit and field this year, the whole little episode will be quickly and happily forgotten, as this is a business and all the team really cares about in the end is a player’s production. But if production suffers because Franklin has lost too much mobility, or he suffers any health effects from the weight gain, the team will be kicking itself for not having known what he was doing.

Again, though, Franklin got the eating advice from a training expert in Florida that has known him since he was 17, knows the player’s body and how it trains and what it can handle. From a guy who is business partners with a former NFL player and has trained professional athletes before. Franklin didn’t go to some quack. He went to a qualified, college-educated, professionally trained expert who he has known for years and trusts. A guy who only gave Franklin the eating regimen he did becasue of his young age and the idea that his body was already primed to put on several additional pounds through natural evoluation.

Yes, it was outside the box as far as an approach goes. No, the team would not have used the same methods. But we don’t know yet who is right and who is wrong here, or whether there’s a real gray area in the middle. I’ve personally tried three different eating regimens the past 20 years in order to lose body fat, while gaining and maintaining lean muscle. I can find you literature from swarms of medical people who all swear by at least one of the programs while demonizing the other two.

And I can tell you one program worked best for me, one is something I view as a complete joke designed to keep doctors and pharma companies in business and the other is simply not a sustainable lifestyle choice.

That’s just me. We have a difference of opinion.

Just like teams will inevitably have differences of opinions when it comes to the training methods employed by players no longer directly under their supervision. It’s something that is only destined to grow as a concern, since the training and conditioning now being done by players is radically different from even 10 years ago. I remember interviewing Jim Thome about his Pilates workouts back in 2000 when nobody knew what the heck that was. Now, core training is the foundation of most professional athletes. Part of the mainstream.

Wrapping yourself in rubber bands and swinging a 52-ounce bat in the cage, like Saunders does, is not. And as we go forward and baseball evolves from the most traditional of sports when it comes to training — still emerging from the Dark Ages compared to other team sports — we’re bound to see more head-scratching and hair-wringing.

As Zduriencik says, the best he can do is to keep a strong line of communication with players each winter. As Hunter Bledsoe, the agent for Justin Smoak, told me, the best teams are the ones that are eager to work with players and help them develop in their spare time.

In the end, they’re all on the same team.

It just sometimes takes a few sleepless nights to remember that. And with training getting more outside-the-box and bizarre, sleep might come at more of a premium for all teams in the years ahead.




Comments | More in spring training | Topics: Jack Zduriencik, michael saunders, nick franklin


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