September 17, 2013 at 9:40 AM
The difficult dynamics of firing just one guy for Mariners woes
These final two weeks are not going to be easy ones for Mariners manager Eric Wedge. There’s a public perception that he’s Dead Man Walking — fueled largely by the silence of those way up above him in the grand scheme of all things Mariners — and that perception has filtered on into the clubhouse, where players young and old wait to see whether these are indeed his final two weeks on the job.
Right now, odds are that Wedge will not survive. Baseball is still a results-oriented business and the results have not been there for him. The Mariners have lost 95, 87 and now likely another 90+ during his three seasons and he knows better than anyone that accountability is usually first exacted out of the field manager rather than his underperforming players or the front office people who hired them in the first place.
Wedge has his clubhouse supporters, but also his detractors. And when blood is in the water, the sharks can smell it and start circling. The Mariners are a bloody mess these days, at risk of a sub-600 run season offensively despite the years of “playing the kids” and offensive additions last winter that boosted the team’s home run power. At this rate, five years into the team’s rebuilding plan, the offense is not demonstrably better than it was a couple of seasons ago — at least, when it comes to scoring. Even if you’re not a guy who looks at win-loss records, the snail’s pace development of the first “young core” and lack of overall results would be damning to any manager.
And Wedge has not been perfect. No, he wasn’t responsible for all the team’s draft picks and trade acquisitions. But it is his job to get the most out of those players. In some cases, that’s been lacking. Three years in, his players still have troubles executing the fundamentals when asked and often come up short at situational baseball.
But it will be difficult for the Mariners to fire just Wedge alone. This indeed is where things get tricky.
Getting rid of Wedge means bringing on a new manager. And it’s going to be tough for the Mariners to bring on a good one if GM Jack Zduriencik is entering the 2014 season on a one-year extension. No half-decent manager will want to enter a situation that volatile because then, if Zduriencik is fired in a year from now, the new GM will want to eventually hire his own guy to run the clubhouse.
This is almost always the case in baseball. No matter what people say at their opening press conference and how nice everyone seems to be getting along, if somebody else brought you in, you’re not part of that general manager’s “team”.
I saw it firsthand in Toronto back in 2001. Buck Martinez, a longtime, beloved former Blue Jays catcher, was hired to manage the team that season by GM Gord Ash. Martinez finished a couple of games under .500 that season — largely because the team dumped all of it’s veterans at the trade deadline and called up a fresh wave of new players from Class AAA (sound familliar?) to begin the first in a series of cost-cutting and rebuilding moves by ownership.
Fast forward to October of that year and Ash gets fired. His successor, first-time GM J.P. Ricciardi is very political and says nice things in public about Ricciardi. Martinez was allowed to stay through May, when Ricciardi dumped him less than halfway through a three-year deal and brought in Carlos Tosca. The hilarious part was that Ricciardi fired Martinez in the middle of a three-game winning streak, after the club had swept the Tigers right here in Detroit. Toronto’s schedule was a tad soft going forward and the last thing Ricciardi wanted was a six-or-seven game winning streak after which he’d then look like a real idiot for going ahead and firing the manager anyway.
The point of that anecdote was, it didn’t matter what Martinez actually accomplished on the field that season. The wheels of change were in motion regardless of what was happening. Martinez just wasn’t Ricciardi’s guy — plain and simple. And the minute he showed signs of doing well, he was canned before he could disrupt the planned changes.
And any new manager hired by Zduriencik would be brought in to be part of a plan and an overall strategy that could change overnight if a new GM is eventually brought on-board.
That’s why, if Wedge goes, Zduriencik has to go right along with him. For the good of the organization, to prevent this endless, repeated cycle of wheel-spinning that never leads anywhere.
What’s the alternative? The only one would be for the Mariners to commit to Zduriencik the way a real team does it. By giving him a three-year extension.
Yes, you heard me right. By extending him, even if this team loses 90+ games.
That’s a real commitment. This one-year favor they’ve done him is not. It won’t sell any good manager. You could get a retread has-been, or caretaker manager here for a couple of seasons — maybe — if you allow Zduriencik to continue on a one-year extension, but what’s the point of that? You’d probably have to fire that manager short-term and bring the real guy in a year or two down the road and that would delay this team’s ascension out of mediocrity even longer.
So, to avoid that, Zduriencik needs a three-year extension.
And the fact that you’re all laughing as you read that line demonstrates the very real problem the Mariners now face. They can’t extend Zduriencik long-term and maintain even a shred of credibility anywhere in Seattle or around baseball. And they can’t bring in a decent manager if they have a GM operating on a one-year deal.
For most normal teams, it would be to fire both. For the Mariners, who knows? But if they’ve really been planning to keep Wedge and Zduriencik all along, allowing them to twist in the wind in public like this for the past month is an exercise in poor employee treatment and upper managerial incompetence.
And if they were really just using this final month to wait and see what happened before making a definitive call on Wedge and Zduriencik, well, the results are pretty much in. And they aren’t very good.
While we’re at it, firing both Zduriencik and Wedge together raises some interesting questions about what to do with team president Chuck Armstrong, the man who oversaw the hiring of Zduriencik and then was on-board with his firing of Don Wakamatsu and hiring of Wedge. Armstrong has spent nearly three decades presiding over the baseball operations side of things and it’s been 12 years since his team went to the post-season and a decade since it’s truly been any good.
If Zduriencik and Wedge go, it’s tough to justify Armstrong remaining in his post as well.
Armstrong has done a lot of good for this organization over the years and it’s important to remember that he was in charge of the presidency when the Mariners made the playoffs four times during the season 1995 through 2001. And maybe there is still some good Armstrong — having cultivated numerous business relationships for the team — can continue to do for the franchise in that area. But his influence over baseball operations can’t continue along the same lines if both Zduriencik and Wedge are let go.
Armstrong rolled his dice with Zduriencik and spent five years championing a rebuilding plan that he would now be admitting has not panned out entirely as planned since he’d be letting his GM go. Plenty of other good baseball men have paid the price with their jobs under Armstrong’s watch both before and since Zduirencik’s hiring.
At some point, there has to be accountability upstairs as well. This team has a glaring need for a strong-minded, sharp baseball mind in the president’s chair. Somebody with the clout to hire a top-qualified GM who can pick up where this rebuilding plan left off. A new GM doesn’t mean getting rid of all the young players Zduriencik brought in. If those players are any good, the new GM’s job would be made easier by keeping them and completing the deal with better free agent moves and trades than his predecessor.
Think the 2002 World Series champion Angels under Bill Stoneman, who picked up where Bill Bavasi had left off in constructing that team’s core.
That new GM would have to hire the right manager, and so on. But true leadership starts at the top.
Howard Lincoln has made a lot of money for the Mariners as CEO. The team doesn’t need a CEO who knows baseball all that well in order to be a winner. But it does need a CEO and ownership — Lincoln sort of acts like both — intelligent enough to listen to a baseball president who knows what it will take to win, even if it means spending a bit more than planned on some in-season additions.
Lincoln has tried this arrangement with Armstrong as president for a big enough sample size of time and it’s stopped working. Bringing on a new president specifically in charge of baseball operations and allowing Armstrong to focus more on the financial and corporate deal-making side of things in a different role might be the way to go if you believe his long-term good has outstripped the bad. Not everybody has to be fired to make the Mariners win again.
But tough decisions are needed.
Up until now, the Mariners have usually taken the easy way out and avoided making the needed calls until it’s too late. That’s exactly what happened when they let Bavasi start the 2008 season instead of making the tough call on him back in 2007.
Today, there is no similar tough call. The Mariners aren’t coming off an 88-win season like that 2007 squad was. They are on-pace to lose more than 90 games and have the second-worst run differential in the American League.
There is only one solution if the Mariners want to avoid firing any one person.
Keep everybody. Leave things exactly as they are right now.
Good luck selling that one.