As I write this, the Seattle Mariners have the worst record in baseball at 24-42. They stand 16 1/2 games behind the first place Angels and, worse, they stand a staggering nine games behind the third place Texas Rangers. The team will have to play inspired baseball for the rest of the season to just avoid finishing in last place, and suffice it to say, this isn't how the front office saw the 2008 season going.
"It's a completely demoralizing position we're in right now, based on the completely legitimate (preseason) expectations" was the line recently offered up by General Manager Bill Bavasi after last week's sweep at the hand of an Angels roster missing Vladimir Guerrero and Chone Figgins in a series where John Lackey didn't take the mound. Even with the reality of lousiness staring them in the face, the executives in charge of compiling this roster are unwilling to admit that this team was assembled poorly. It wasn't just a bad move here or an underperforming player there, but a long series of poor decisions that have led to this abysmal season. In fact, the foundations for this failure were laid years ago. Let's look at where this disaster started.
October 27, 2003
Coming off a 93 win season that saw the team fade down the stretch and fail to make the playoffs, Pat Gillick resigned as GM and was replaced by Bill Bavasi, but the basic plan for that offseason was laid before Gillick ever stepped aside. Central to that plan was the decision to decline an offer of arbitration to Mike Cameron, who badly wanted to stay in Seattle. Cameron was vastly underappreciated by the organization due to his contact problems and their failure to understand just how valuable his glove was in center field. Two weeks later, they announced the signing of Raul Ibanez to play left field, shifting Randy Winn to cover center in Cameron's absence. At the time, they noted the defensive downgrade but explained that it would be more than offset by the offensive improvement. Ibanez has hit well since returning to Seattle, but his defense in left field can only be described as atrocious and is one of the most glaring issues that has sunk the 2008 team to the bottom of the A.L. West. The seeds of the Ibanez-as-LF disaster were planted on the day that the team decided to jettison Cameron and make a conscious decision to sacrifice defense while chasing minor offensive improvements.
January 8, 2004
The Mariners organization has long been infatuated with player personalities and their effects on team chemistry, often making headscratching decisions based not on on-field ability but instead on thier preconceived notions of leadership and how the game is supposed to be played. That move is typified in the decision to literally give Carlos Guillen to the Tigers, as the organization had grown weary of his late-night drinking and his perceived negative influence on Freddy Garcia. They decided that they would rather go with Rich Aurilia as their shortstop - a guy who more fit their mold of how players should approach the game than Guillen. Aurilia was a gigantic bust and was released four months later, while Guillen has gone on to become one of the American League's best infielders ever since. It was impossible to see Guillen's breakout coming at the time, but the logic used - choosing to field a worse baseball team in order to have better people on it - has haunted the organization repeatedly over the years.
December 15, 2004
After a disastrous 2003 season, the organization was determined to make a big splash and find some new offensive stars to build around, using their financial advantage over the rest of the division to rebuild through free agency. They coveted Carlos Delgado's left-handed power, but after a long dance with him over contract terms, they got tired of waiting and threw $52 million at Plan B - Richie Sexson. Heading into his age 30 season and coming off a major injury while possessing classic old player skills, making a long term commitment to a player with Sexson's profile looked remarkably foolish at the time, and the concerns we raised about guaranteeing an aging Sexson big money have proven true with time. He's simply aged very poorly and is not a major league quality starting first baseman anymore, but the Mariners owe him $15.5 million for the 2008 season. Instead of looking at an aging veteran heading for decline and finding a younger, cheaper alternative, the organization focused on intangibles such as Sexson's intimidating power and ability to be an RBI man. Unwilling to admit that they had missed the boat on how he was going to age, Mariners fans instead got to watch his career end mercilessly during both the '07 and '08 seasons, while Sexson became the embodiment of everything wrong with this team.
December 22, 2005
If there's one glaring flaw the front office of the Mariners has, it's a total inability to evaluate pitching talent. They come from a bent that is entirely seduced by results and cares nothing about the process or the context that those results were produced in. Nowhere is this more obvious than when the Mariners gave Jarrod Washburn a 4-year, $37.5 million deal to leave the Angels and join their starting rotation. Washburn was coming off a 2005 season where he posted an obviously flukey 3.20 ERA, built entirely on a house of runner-stranding cards. His league high left-on-base percentage predictably regressed to the mean, and he went right back to being the #5 starter that he's been for years. Instead of being a solidifying force in the rotation, Washburn has given the M's 445 innings with a 4.72 ERA in a terrific pitcher's park since signing. Despite having to watch him implode in 2008, the M's are on the hook for another $10 million in salary in 2009, and they'd be lucky to give Washburn away at this point. Thanks to a pitching analysis based on results, the organization continues to just wildly misunderstand how to predict future run prevention, and this is most obvious with the Washburn contract. By the way, the next best offer Washburn had on the table was 2 years at a total of $14 million.
January 4, 2006
Faced with a strong desire for some "left handed sock," the M's focused on a list of low-cost, one-year options to fill the hole at Designated Hitter. Completely ignoring the entire concept of replacement level, the M's disregarded every player on the planet that wasn't a proven veteran with a long track record of success, essentially ensuring they were going to get a washed-up old timer on his last legs. That guy turned out to be Carl Everett, and his could-see-it-coming-a-mile-away failure both doomed the offense and led to an even more heinous transaction, when the Mariners shipped Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo to Cleveland in separate deals to acquire the DH platoon of Ben Broussard and Eduardo Perez. Neither of the new acquisitions did much to help an offense that was in disrepair, and the careless giving away of talented youngsters in search of proven veterans depleted the farm system of guys who could have helped the team down the line. When asked directly why the team chose Everett over free talent guys such as Carlos Pena, Bavasi replied that "we know Everett can hit 5th or 6th in the line-up, and Pena just hasn't proven that he can do that yet". Good call, Bill.
December 7, 2006
In another transaction that was bad enough on its own and unbelievably horrible based on the future events it led to, we have the inexplicable Rafael Soriano for Horacio Ramirez trade. The M's were tired of Soriano's lack of durability and believed that his elbow was a ticking time bomb, so they set out to trade him at the winter meetings that year. They settled on a left-handed National Leaguer with a NL fastball because "he'd won some games before" and the Braves were willing to make him available. Ramirez was a complete disaster, giving the Mariners 100 innings of below replacement level performance before getting released. To replace Soriano, the Mariners then converted 2006 #1 draft pick Brandon Morrow into a relief pitcher, believing that they needed a new power arm to replace the one they just lost. Two years later and Morrow is still stuck in the bullpen, losing precious development time and not being able to be viewed as a potential option for the rotation. Because Morrow wasn't considered starter material, the Mariners blew $48 million on tub-of-goo Carlos Silva and then spent a first round pick on Josh Fields in the 2008 draft in order to have a new power reliever in the organization to allow them to move Morrow back to the rotation eventually. By trading Soriano, the M's not only got back a horrible pitcher, but they also opened several holes on the roster that they then spent precious valuable resources trying to fill.
December 18, 2006
Finally, the cherry on top of this amazing series of bad roster moves. Determined to not let Everett go down as the worst designated hitter in organizational history, the M's made the decision to fill their DH role for 2007 with a broken down middle infielder who had the power of an eight-year-old girl. The Nationals simply wanted to move Jose Vidro, who didn't fit in a league where defense was required, and somehow convinced the Mariners to pick up $12 million of the remaining $18 million left on Vidro's contract. The rationale given was that a move to DH would somehow restore the 32-year-old's power and, besides, they really needed a #2 hitter who didn't strike out, despite the fact that they had a team full of guys whose best skill was contact and lacked power. Not surprisingly, Vidro's power never returned, and he's posted a .289/.350/.376 line since coming over in the trade from Washington. Only in Seattle would that be acceptable as a performance from a designated hitter completely incapable of playing the field or running the bases, but somehow, that's what the organization decided they wanted. Vidro's presence on the roster not only kept the remains of Ibanez comically chasing fly balls in the outfield, but it also has forced them to keep top prospect Jeff Clement languishing in Tacoma while he destroys Pacific Coast League pitching. Hilariously, Vidro's 2008 performance has been so terrible (.215/.260/.323) that most fans are amazed he hasn't been released yet, but John McLaren's lineup construction veers so far from reality that he's spent the last two weeks alternating between the 3rd and 4th spots in the batting order. Seriously, Vidro, he of the .583 OPS, spent several games hitting cleanup for the Mariners recently. I wish I was kidding.
Through it all, the Mariners front office has demonstrated a staggering lack of ability to evaluate and project major league talent. They have repeatedly misunderstood what makes a winning team and made brutally bad choices that are compounded by even worse decisions trying to fix the problems created by the first act of ignorance. Through it all, they've doggedly maintained that their ways are effective and will work despite mountains of evidence to the contrary. Team President Chuck Armstrong, talking about the season and the job status of the front office on May 25th, uttered the following quotes:
"In my 23 years, I have never ever seen anything like this," Armstrong said "We saw it the other way in 2001. I mean, you have to ask yourself, 'How did the Mariners win 116 games that season with that roster, compared to this roster?' This is just as inexplicable the other way."
"Their positions are secure," Armstrong said "They are not to be blamed for what's going on."
"We have given no thought to making any changes in managerial personnel," Armstrong said. "Same for the GM. Listen, he's part of the solution, not the problem."
What's worse than abject failure? How about rooting for an organization that can't even recognize the problem from the solution? The Mariners executives are so rooted in their ways, so dogmatic in their wrongheadedness, that there is seemingly no light at the end of this long tunnel that we call being a Mariner fan. $117 million dollars in payroll has bought them a roster on pace to lose 104 games, and through it all, they won't admit responsibility. It's inexplicable, after all. What else is there to be said?
David Cameron, along with Derek Zumsteg, authors the ussmariner.com blog that covers the Seattle organization in more depth than they care to admit. He also writes daily for fangraphs.com as he looks to remember what it's like to enjoy watching baseball again.