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July 1, 2013 at 10:47 AM

Mariners suffering from lack of accountable leadership at very top of organization

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong (left) and chairman Howard Lincoln (right) honor Felix Hernandez after last year's perfect game. Photo Credit: AP

Mariners president Chuck Armstrong (left) and chairman Howard Lincoln (right) honor Felix Hernandez after last year’s perfect game. Photo Credit: AP

About seven years ago, give or take a few months, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln put himself on the proverbial “Hot Seat” when it came to accountability for running one of the worst on-field teams in professional sport. Here’s what Lincoln said at the time:

“The entire organization, and especially me, is on the hot seat. I thought long and hard about continuing with Bill (Bavasi) and Mike (Hargrove). I’m putting my neck out on the line because I believe in them.

“I’ve made it clear to the ownership group that, having made the decision, I’m fully responsible for it.”

Since then, the Mariners have suffered two 101-loss seasons, another season of 95 losses and an additional 87-loss campaign. We’re also now halfway through a season heading for 90+ losses in what is the fifth year of a rebuilding plan headed up by GM Jack Zduriencik. In a year in which the Mariners were expected by many — including, most importantly, themselves — to be a .500 team, aided by the prospect of 19 games against the new divisional doormat Houston Astros.

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Since Lincoln spoke of a “Hot Seat” there have been five new managers, along with a new GM in Zdureincik, untold hitting coaches and organizational changes, not to mention a change in every player on the team not named Felix Hernandez (we won’t count Raul Ibanez, since he left and returned years later after several playoff appearances with other teams).

Despite all this, Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong remain in place. Armstrong has been president going on nearly 30 years, starting in 1981 and with a brief interruption from 1989 through 1992. While those pink slips keep getting dished out from above, the Mariners, in the interim, just formed their own regional sports network and likely doubled their franchise value to around the $1 billion mark or higher.

That’s your “Hot Seat” when it comes to Mariners accountability. The Mariners’ upper brass are accountable to nothing — it would appear — but the bottom line. At that, they are great. At the baseball part, they have fallen woefully short, with their club becoming one of the bottom-feeders of Major League Baseball going on a decade now.

Once this season is done, the Mariners will face key leadership decisions on both GM Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge. There are pros and cons to argue for both, but in a results-oriented business, the results for the Mariners simply have not been there.

The question now is, will the people tasked with making the call on both Zduriencik and Wedge make the right one? And what baseball qualifications do those people have to be left to a decision as important as this one?

Because if there is ultimately no accountability to anything but the bottom line at the very top of the organization, there is no way to be certain that critical baseball decisions can be made about things as important as a GM and manager.

What we have in Seattle right now is the worst kind of management setup, one where the futures of too many decision-makers appear directly tied to the fates of men whose own futures they are expected to decide.

After all, if Armstrong fires Zduriencik, what does that say about the job he is doing? Zduriencik was his hand-picked guy, a GM he allowed to embark on a rebuilding plan that — five years in — has produced a lot of birth certificates with dates around 1990 and later on them, but very few tangible results to suggest the Mariners are any better off than they were under Bavasi in 2007 and 2008.

Armstrong used to walk around telling people that the Mariners did not want to be like the Cleveland Indians, endlessly rebuilding through youth, cutting payroll and losing their fanbase in the process. And yet, that is exactly what has happened here in Seattle. They even hired the exact same manager who guided those rebuilding Cleveland squads.

At least in Cleveland, Wedge had his team on the verge of contention by his fifth year. By 2007, the Indians were a win away from going to the World Series.

So, who gets to make the call on Zduriencik and what reasoning will be used? Will Armstrong and Lincoln look merely at baseball reasons? Or will their own lack of baseball accountability come into play? Will any call on Zduriencik’s future be made with political reasons in mind?

After all, the Mariners have gone five years into this dice roll. What’s another year or two of waiting to see whether it all works out? Especially if the reputations of Lincoln and Armstrong are riding on Zduriencik succeeding?

Well, I’ll tell you what the problem is.

The problem is if it doesn’t work out. If all the Mariners really have is a few good young players on an otherwise lousy baseball team that will need another five-year rebuilding plan once this one goes by the wayside.

Lincoln and Armstrong already allowed Bavasi one year too many as a GM and we witnessed some of the added damage that was done in 2008. And now, again, they are being entrusted with making a call on the future direction of this club, having accomplished very little that would lead us to believe they have the baseball know-how to make the right decision.

The future of Wedge as a manager carries similar political overtones. Zduriencik has already fired one manager in Don Wakamatsu after the lethal front office decisions to bring back Ken Griffey Jr., sign Chone Figgins and trade for Milton Bradley. That clubhouse trio, more than anything else on the 2010 club, led to Wakamatsu’s downfall.

So, does Zduriencik now have the ability to make a call on Wedge for purely baseball reasons alone? Or, is he hamstrung by the reality that firing a second manager in two years will look really bad on a GM whose rebuilding team is on-pace for 90-plus losses in Year 5 of his plan?

At what point does Lincoln actually sit on a real Hot Seat for his continued tolerance of Armstrong as president of a lousy team? And if Armstrong is eventually held accountable after years of GMs and managers losing their jobs, what does that say about the choices Lincoln has made when it comes to the on-field baseball product?

When you have so many key decision-makers so closely linked to one another up and down the food chain, the result is a situation where no one is truly accountable to anybody. There is an organizational paralysis, with each superior loathe to hold a direct underling responsible out of fear he’ll be in the crosshairs next.

Let’s get serious. If there was really a Hot Seat under Lincoln, he’d have been fried to a crisp five years ago.

But that seat never existed. Instead, Mariners baseball has been and continues to be about turning a yearly profit, boosting franchise value and putting people in place who will not risk that.

The Mariners can argue otherwise. In fact, Lincoln and Armstrong have argued the contrary for years. But results speak louder than their empty words about Hot Seats and other nonsense. The continued tolerance of on-field mediocrity screams what they are really all about to anyone intelligent enough to take off the blinders and figure it out.

So, the Mariners celebrate the fact that they didn’t succeed in signing Josh Hamilton, rather than beat themselves up for not trying to ink a relative bargain-priced Michael Bourn to lead off and play center field, letting him instead help the Indians go from last place to first place in one winter. The Mariners high-five themselves for ignoring the advice of East Coast pundits and giving two contract extensions since 2009 to Felix Hernandez, rather than questioning the value of paying him to be the ace of a losing team now into a fourth extension year — with the pitcher taking up more than a quarter of this team’s current on-field payroll all by himself.

Good teams ask those tough questions about themselves and some of them even do something about it.

Teams like the Mariners plod on aimlessly, citing dates on birth certificates as proof their future plan could work someday rather than setting any minimal degree of on-field expectation in the present and following through if goals are not met. That’s what happens with an organization with no on-field accountability at the very top. With an absentee majority owner and invisible minority shareholders who allow all the talking to be done by a CEO who claims to be on a Hot Seat that doesn’t exist.

The Mariners don’t have to like these things being said about their organization. But they keep doing little to change the perception, other than increasing the value of their business while the on-field product continues to not achieve.

That’s the situation the Mariners are now in.

They have some huge decisions to make about the front office and coaching staff this winter. But the evidence suggests that those tasked with making the decisions have concerns that stretch far beyond the baseball-related considerations that should come into play.

And it’s rarely a good thing when politics just could be the overriding factor in those decisions. It starts at the very top. When accountability there gives way to self-preservation, the entire organization suffers for it. And the Mariners, as much value as they’ve built for themselves, are suffering big-time in the one area any of you really care about.






Comments | More in management | Topics: howard lincoln; chuck armstrong; jack zduriencik; eric wedge


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