Wow, it seems like we were just in the high teens, and now we’re all the way up to #6…
Present Talent – 70.00 (25th)
Future Talent – 85.00 (t-5th)
Financial Resources – 78.08 (14th)
Baseball Operations – 78.33 (t-15th)
Overall Rating – 76.76 (17th)
It has been quite a ride for both the Mariners and the organizational rankings the last couple of seasons, a simultaneously entertaining and irritating saga that has been recounted from a multitude perspectives in a wide swath of locales around the ‘net (including here). As you may have heard, the 2010 Mariners, who started with such great aspirations, crashed and burned. There is a curious (and somewhat ironic) parallel between the 2010 Mariners and the 2009 Royals: high hopes among portions of the fan base for a flawed attempt to contend, things going south fairly quickly, and the team’s young ace winning the Cy Young despite a relatively unimpressive won-loss record. This is a limited parallel — there is obviously a pretty big difference between acquiring Cliff Lee and acquiring Mike Jacobs to give your team a boost. Seattle’s farm system isn’t nearly on the level of Kansas City’s has become (it isn’t awful either) and players like Michael Pineda and Dustin Ackley should be significant contributors in the near future.
In the meantime, Seattle is looking at a season in which finishing anywhere but last in the American League West would be pretty surprising. Every Felix Hernandez start is worth watching, of course, and Ichiro Suzuki continues to defy and confound typical aging curves. After that, Franklin Gutierrez’s fielding (assuming he can work through his stomach problems) is one of the few things that will be appealing to watch, although I’m sure many eyes will be glued to the main piece in the Cliff Lee trade: Justin Smoak. The team brought in some stopgaps of varying value (Cust, Ryan, and Olivo) in an attempt to keep the 2011 team somewhat respectable. But overall, it’s an ugly scene.
The differences between the teams ranked somewhere around #13-#21 are fairly small, and changing one or two grades would have altered the order a fair bit. The Mariners current talent is seen as one of the worst in baseball, and that is the main thing keeping them from being ranked any higher. Their minor league talent is part of the big blob in the middle. That leaves the financial situation, which is ranked higher than teams just below them, like Oakland and San Diego, without being considered great, and then baseball operations, ranked right in the middle of the pack.
Financially, the Mariners seem to be fairly well off. Although their payroll has come down from its peak of around $118 million in 2008, it has still been over $90 million dollars the last couple of seasons, and a projected 2011 payroll of about $86 million is still pretty big for a team that isn’t anywhere close to contending. This isn’t a comment on whether or not that money is all well-spent, but it does indicate a decent degree of financial stability and willingness to spend. Although attendance and ratings plummeted as the 2010 season went into the tank, a 10-year TV deal worth $450 million goes into effect in 2011. The Mariners have a couple of big contract commitments going forwaord. Ichiro’s current deal expires after 2012, and King Felix’s salary will go up to around $20 million starting that season, although that contract is reasonable for a player of his value. The Mariners should have plenty of payroll room when it is necessary provided they manage it somewhat sensibly. They won’t be the Yankees or Red Sox, but they will have some margin for error.
Minimizing such errors is one of the responsibilities of the various parts of the organization that fall under the tag “baseball operations,” a big lightning rod for discussions about the Mariners. From the the signing of general manager Jack Zduriencik at the end of the 2008 season through most of the 2009-2010 offseason, the front office could seemingly do little wrong. But things like trying to contend with a Zombie DH Platoon of Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mike Sweeney were cracks that presaged the disastrous 2010 campaign that ended with 101 losses.
Now, the team obviously had some “bad luck” in 2010: no one expected the team to hit well, but hitting collectively like Jason Kendall was something I think few can honestly say they anticipated. But when rewinding oneself back to the 2009 team, one notes something similar: some players clearly played somewhat “over their heads” (e.g. the offensive performances of Russell Branyan and Franklin Gutierrez), and while Pythagorean Expectation isn’t a good way to evaluate a team’s “true talent,” a team that outperforms it by nine games should raise some eyebrows. In other words, while the 2010 Mariners probably weren’t as bad as their record, the 2009 Mariners probably weren’t as good as theirs.
Those were two differently composed teams, of course, but my point isn’t about those players, but rather about how to think clearly about the baseball operations department. I can’t speak for other people who have participated in the ranking of organizations the last couple of seasons, but as I explained elsewhere, I think my personal mistake with regard to my own overrating of Jack Z. and his staff after 2009 was primarily a case of getting sucked in by a “small sample size.” Just as a front office probably isn’t as good as its best decisions (whether evaluated from the perspective of process or result), they probably aren’t as bad as they are at their worst. As with player performance, one season of a front office tells you something, but it’s still a relatively small sample. Neither the apparent shrewdness of the earlier decisions nor the massive failures of many of the more recent ones are probably representative of the “true talent” of those in charge of baseball operations in Seattle. The likely (and boring) truth is somewhere in the vast space in between.
There isn’t space to discuss all the important and relevant data. This year’s grades for baseball operations put them right in the middle of the league. While the front office obviously experienced some good and bad fortune related to their transactions, it isn’t as if we are unable to give some sort of inferential evaluation of their decision-making process. We should, of course, evaluate decisions by how bad or good they seemed at the time they were made. Almost all of them were and are subject to debate heavily covered by how they worked out afterwards, with the Chone Figgins contract and Carlos Silva–Milton Bradley trade probably being the biggest lightning rods. I’ll mention three different decisions from each side of the ledger to get a sense of how baseball operations has done since the changeover after the 2008 season. On the “naughty” side: attempting to contend in 2010 with Griffey and Sweeney as the two-headed awful DH (no matter who made that call, it doesn’t look good for baseball operations), trading Brandon League for Brandon Morrow (Morrow’s 2010 didn’t seem likely, but given that League’s ceiling of was never more than “good reliever” was probably not far from Morrow’s “floor”), and the Josh Lueke fiasco (leaving aside moral issues, simply from a baseball operations perspective even the most generous take on the situation makes the Mariner’s front office look bad). Those were pretty bad, but they don’t eliminate the significance of those on the “nice” side, either: grabbing Russell Branyan for a mere $1.5 million as the new front office’s first free agent signing, the big three-way trade that brought Franklin Gutierrez to town for his apotheosis as a monster in center field, and getting better value for Cliff Lee than what they gave up to get him (although I personally think that the reported offer from the Yankees centering on Jesus Montero was better; we’ll see).
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I believe we are in many ways back to square one in evaluating Seattle’s current baseball operations staff. Undoubtedly, the acquisition and development of amateur talent will also be significant in that regard, and it will take more time to get a good read on that. Another relevant issue is if the Mariners really bomb again this season, there is always the chance of a firing at the top, and Zduriencik’s abililty to keep the team somewhat respectable in order to avoid that while not doing things that screw up the development of the team’s younger talent (e.g., calling up guys too early, or blocking other players with mediocre stopgap veterans) will be yet another test.
The 2011 season in Seattle will consist primarily of a long series of waits between King Felix starts and Ichiro plate appearances. Better days might not be that far down the road. Money probably won’t be an excuse when Seattle is ready to try for contention again. The onus for future success (and where the Mariners end up next season in these rankings, undoubtedly a major concern for them) lies on the front office’s ability to put the embarrassment of 2010 behind them and make the right calls for the future.
Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.