Our Seattle Mariners begin what could be the most important three-game series in their history this weekend, entertaining the San Diego Padres, their joint tenants at their Peoria, AZ spring training complex, at Safeco Field.
Both teams entered the season with high expectations. Both, on the field, have been just plain dreadful.They have the worst win-loss records in all major-league baseball.
Attendance has been weaker at Safeco Field than at any comparable time in several years. It could fall off a cliff if the Mariners fail to win the series or, worse yet, lose all three games. The 2008 Mariners, at B-grade level on paper, have been playing at D-minus level on the field. Their player payroll, for several years running, has been among the highest in baseball and their on-field record the weakest. That is what you call cost-ineffectiveness. In real-world business, it gets management fired.
Baseball is not a sport run by geniuses. Some 40 years ago a friend of mine bought a major-league franchise. Knowing I was a baseball nut, he offered me a job roughly equivalent to Chuck Armstrong's present job in Mariners management. As it turned out, I did something else. But I never forgot what my friend told me when we discussed the matter. "We would be the smartest management team around," I told him. "Oh no," he said, "there are many management teams much smarter than we would be. But none in baseball."
Except for the 1995 miracle season, and a couple other strong seasons during Lou Piniella's field managership, the Mariners have validated my friend's observation. They have presented their product attractively, providing a nice family experience at Safeco Field. Their promotion and advertising stresses the "niceness" of the players and their readiness "to give back to the community" with appearances at charity events and schools. Niceness — at least surface niceness — counts in Seattle. But ticket, parking, and concession prices are high. And the Mariners' core product, the team on the field, has earned the scorn of fans who really know baseball.
Famous tough-guy manager Leo Durocher once observed that "nice guys finish last." And, when it comes to our local team, he may have a point.
After Piniella bailed out in frustration at management's unwillingness to provide the one or two additional players who would make the team a true pennant contender, the hiring pattern has been clear. Bob Melvin, Mike Hargrove and John McLaren, Piniella's on-field successors, have for the most part been bland, in-the-background company men unlikely to complain if not provided with talent they thought sufficient. Not boat rockers.
General manager Bill Bavasi has great bloodlines. His father, recently deceased, was a legend in the Brooklyn Dodgers (and then, San Diego Padres) front office. But Bavasi himself has continued the long Mariners tradition of holding too long onto aging veterans; trading or releasing valuable players in favor of duds; bestowing huge long-term contracts on mediocre performers; and not in general being able to judge talent at major-league level. His strongest suit has been the rebuilding of what had become a weak farm system — the assembly line of younger players moving upward to the majors.
The current roster, on paper, should be successful, especially in light of the expensive additions over the winter of pitchers Erik Bedard and Carlos Silva. But it plays without energy or intelligence. Their body language tells you, when they take the field, that they expect to lose. Until last week, they had failed to win any game in which they had trailed by as many as two runs. There are impolite words to describe teams that never come from behind. They would be unappreciated in nice Seattle.
Bavasi last winter traded outfielder Adam Jones, who could be a star, and outstanding relief pitcher George Sherrill, along with three promising young pitchers, to the Baltimore Orioles for Bedard. Bedard has been a quality starter for the Mariners but, earlier this week, he collapsed completely against the Texas Rangers after being given a 5-0 lead. Watching him, it was easy to observe that his heart and mind were not in the game. There is no certainty that Bedard will sign a long-term contract with the Mariners. He could be a quickie rent-a-player hire and gone — with the Orioles, meantime, reaping benefits from Jones et. al. for many years.
Bavasi paid highly for outfielder Brad Wilkerson, as a replacement for Jose Guillen in right field, after refusing to meet Guillen's relatively modest contract demands. Guillen was one of the few Mariners who last year played with fire and intensity. Wilkerson already is gone, and the Mariners are eating most of his $3 million contract. He signed utilityman Greg Norton to a more modest contract and, then, after he performed well, unaccountably dumped him to Atlanta. Bavasi also has bestowed unaccountably big multi-year contracts on first baseman Richie Sexson and designated hitter Jose Vidro. Both no doubt will be put on waivers at mid-season, in the hope that some other team will pick them up. If they have any takers, the Mariners no doubt will have to pickup most of their contracts in order to dump them off. At 32, catcher Kenji Johjima is on a down-curve. He has three good young catchers — Jeff Clement, Rob Johnson, and Adam Moore — waiting for playing time behind him. But, a few days ago, the Mariners extended his contract for three more years, at $8 million per year.
What players are worth keeping? Inconsistent right-handed pitcher Felix Hernandez and Silva are starting-pitcher keepers. So is Bedard, if he is interested in sticking around. Brandan Morrow, Mark Lowe, Sean Green, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and J.J. Putz are solid relief pitchers. Johjima is good for this year but not three more. The younger players behind him all are keepers. Third baseman Adrian Beltre is an all-star fielder and all-around professional although he has never learned to bunt. Shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt and second baseman Jose Lopez have loads of talent if they can maintain their focus; both are prone to dumb lapses in fielding concentration. Lopez is becoming a truly good hitter. Sexson, at first, is a Statue of Limitations. He strikes out regularly on sliders outside the strike zone. He makes more money than anyone on the team yet pouts at what he regards as insufficient fan appreciation for his waning talents. Raul Ibañez, badly slowed as an outfielder, could just as easily move to Sexson's first-base position for the remainder of this year. He is a professional hitter but is in the last year of a contract which should not be extended. Ichiro Suzuki in center is a brilliant fielder and hitter although he still refuses to bunt and appears not to understand situational hitting. Vladimir Balentien, a rookie, is developing as he plays in right field; he could turnout to be a journeyman with some power or a blossoming star. Vidro, the expensive DH, is done and his big 2008 salary has ben wasted.
There is a core there which should be maintained but several expensive, waning players who should be traded or dumped outrightly, post haste.
Your heart goes out to McLaren, who has surrounded himself this season with what is perhaps the major leagues' best coaching staff. He clearly is earnest and hardworking but probably more suited to being Lou Piniella's No. 2, which he was for many years, than a premium leader in his own right. His awkward silences and explanations, during the team's slow start, have been painful.
Bavasi comes on strong and leaves an impression of knowledgeability. But his track record, regrettably, indicates a lack of judgment about player talent and value. If someone has to go, and there is justice, Bavasi should walk the plank before McLaren.
In the end, of course, responsibility comes down to the people who own the Mariners and constitute the team's senior management. So long as fans keep coming in large numbers, they are unlikely to take any decision action toward change. But if fans decide to spend their discretionary income elsewhere, stuff will happen.
I will be at Safeco at least one day this weekend. May the fates favor our lads against their San Diego cousins. One part of me wants a Mariners sweep. Another says it might take a Padres sweep to bring awake the complacent Mariners brass who believe a pleasant day at the park can substitute for winning baseball. Imagine if you put the two together: a pleasant day and a good team. That is something which would shatter all attendance and revenue records in the Northwest.