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June 3, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Mariners find ‘going young’ gets old pretty fast

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ADDITIONAL NOTE: If you missed my Talkin’ Baseball segment earlier today on Sports Radio KJR with host Mitch Levy, you can listen to it by clicking the box above.

There has been this myth prevailing the past decade or so after some successful playoff seasons by the Oakland Athletics, Minnesota Twins and Tampa Bay Rays that “going young” is the key to solving a team’s problems. Proponents of the strategy suggest that “the right way” to rebuild consists of spending years of building up a young core of players and then — and only then — using resources to shore-up that foundation and move on to the next level.

It’s all so Cinderella — until, of course, the pumpkin seeds start to chaffe.

I mean, I hate to sound so gauche, but has anybody noticed that those A’s, Rays and Twins squads have never actually won a World Series? Oh, you have? OK. How about that Brian Sabean and his Giants, or Kenny Williams and his White Sox actually did win one or two? Heck, even Steve Phillips, a radio voice you can hear locally when I’m not filling the Sports Radio KJR airwaves, matched the Rays in getting his Mets to the World Series in 2000. Sorry, Steve. I’m merely including you among the list of general managers reviled by the right-thinking crowd who have actually won a pennant.

Look, the really smart folk know there is more than one way to win in baseball.

For some, the “going young” approach might work. Not that they always have a choice. The A’s, Rays and Twins didn’t want to spend money back in the day when their stuff worked to a degree. And that’s the one thing “going young” does guarantee: that you won’t have to spend as much money as other teams “going good” in their bid to win. “Going good” — the act of paying for players who have performed well in the past — also doesn’t always work: as witnessed by this year’s Toronto Blue Jays and a GM who today appears to have been a tad overrated.

Hey, it isn’t easy to spend big money either. A’s GM Billy Beane never had to do it. In fact, he ducked at the chance of doing it in Boston. Thus, he gets to keep playing the role of small market miracle worker without ever putting himself in the position of blowing a big payroll.

Brian Cashman of the Yankees has shown he can spend and put playoff teams on the field year after year. Dave Dombrowski in Detroit as well. Sabean of late.

So, what does that teach us? Well, not a whole lot we didn’t already know. Major League Baseball isn’t a classroom, it’s a game where grown men get paid to hit baseballs around.

But for those who like to argue that Team X, or Team Y, or, let’s just say, the “Mariners” are spending enough money, I think there is a lesson to be learned.

The lesson being: you are spending enough money when you are spending enough money.

If the name of the game is to win and put people in the stands (and in front of TV sets), then you are clearly not spending enough money if you fail to accomplish those goals.

So, it doesn’t matter if, say, the St. Louis Cardinals, have spent nearly as much as the Mariners, or less, over the past decade. If they are getting to the playoffs, contending every year and winning the odd World Series, they are clearly ahead of the Mariners. They don’t have to worry as much about spending more because they are accomplishing their goals.

The Mariners are not accomplishing any real goals right now: unless the goal is to battle the Houston Astros for last place some five years into their rebuilding plan.

Young players are great and all, if, in fact, they are great young players. The problem is if they are merely ordinary young players who eventually have to be replaced by better players. At that point, you can either replace them with more young players who will take multiple years to develop, or, spend some additional money and try to get more proven players.

The problem the Mariners face right now is that they bet the house on their young players producing and so far, by and large, they have not. We have also quietly, but consistently, seen the erosion of a once-heralded group of young players at both the MLB and minor league level. It’s not only Dustin Ackley and Jesus Montero and their hiccups. It was only a year ago at spring training when Mariners fans (and media) were buzzing about young prospects like Mike Carp, Vinnie Catricala, Francisco Martinez and Casper Wells.

I say this today because Wells returns tonight as a member of the Chicago White Sox, having been designated for assignment by three teams before landing in the Windy City. Catricala was DFA over the weekend, Martinez was DFA last week and traded yesterday and Carp was DFA (and traded to Boston) prior to this past spring training.

That’s a whole lot of hype and crash to swallow over a short period.

We have a longtime poster on this blog named Savannah who likes to chirp on about not counting your prospects before they hatch. Lines like that one catch her much ridicule, some of it deserved, but she is certainly on to something with it.

A bit too often the past five seasons starting in 2009, I’ve seen Mariners fans basking in the glow of promised youth more so than the reality of the product actually in front of them. It’s a product that has lost a whole bunch of ballgames since 2009, while the team’s owners have sent franchise value skyrocketing through a series of trimmed down payrolls and off-the-field business deals.

There were times when a higher payroll could have benefitted the team. When adding some proven players at the expense of youth that will never make it might have been the “right way” to go. But the Mariners went all-in on youth. And today, with the youth movement stalled in its tracks, the team is going nowhere.

When is a team spending enough? When it accomplishes a goal that somebody actually cares about.

Maybe it’s winning a World Series. Or a pennant. Perhaps it’s just a second wild-card spot like the Orioles last year, or simply being competitive until September, or beyond July. Your fans will usually let you know when you aren’t spending enough.

For me, finishing last every year isn’t spending enough.

I don’t care whether the Mariners are spending $80 million, $90 million, or $120 million. If they keep finishing fourth in the AL West, it is not enough.

Not enough for somebody who cares about winning, anyway.

If you root for owners to make money, or for your favorite “process” to pan out, well then, that’s different. Then again, this team’s process wasn’t winning many games back in 2010 when it had the hearts and minds of stats-oriented fans and it sure isn’t winning now that many of those fans have finally abandonned ship.

Once again, the only thing a youth movement guarantees is that a team will spend less than other clubs opting to bid for higher-priced free agents. There is no right or wrong. World Series trophies don’t differentiate between teams that went young and spent less versus those that went older and spent bigger. Actually, they usually don’t have to differentiate, since the all-young squads rarely even make it to the Fall Classic.

Eventually, if you aren’t winning, you have to spend more.

The Mariners aren’t winning. They have to get better players to fill some spots. They have to spend more. It’s been five years. They can stay young, stay cheap and not spend for five more years. But they may have a few less people watching.

For Mariners fans, this whole “going young” thing is getting old real fast.






Comments | More in rebuilding plan | Topics: billy beane; casper wells; vinnie catricala; brian sabean


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