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September 10, 2010

Prospectus Perspective

Man Up, Mariners!

by Steven Goldman

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Man up, Seattle Mariners. On August 27, Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln e-mailed his employees a message which read in part:

If it seems to you like the local media is going out of its way to trash the Mariners, well, you're right, they are! And you can expect this to continue as the season winds down. We're getting hit like never before--or at least never before in recent memory! Indeed, if you read between the lines, you get the clear impression that at least one beat reporter would love nothing better than to step right in and run the Mariners. (Don't worry, that's not going to happen!)

[snip]

I want you to know that Chuck, Jack and I have very thick skins and that nothing said by the folks in the media or, for that matter, the bloggers, is going to distract us from continuing to do our jobs to the best of our ability, with the goal of giving our fans a championship team.

As the old saying goes, “Denial is a river that flows out of Puget Sound.” This year, the Mariners have accomplished something, if not unprecedented, then very unusual. Hitting .236/.300/.341 and averaging 3.2 runs per game in a league that averages .259/.327/.406 and 4.4, The Mariners have at once placed themselves among the hundred-worst offenses of all time, the 40-worst offenses of the postwar period, and the 10-worst offenses of the last 20 years. Where they will ultimately rank on those lists is still an open question, but by some measures it could be quite high, which is to say, low. It is truly an amazing offense. Mariners catchers are hitting .199/.266/.310. Mariners designated hitters are hitting .191/.268/.350. None of their positions has enjoyed aggregate production superior to the league average. Even right field, where Ichiro Suzuki may slug less than .400 for the second time in his career, doesn’t quite make it to average. The 1952 Pirates, a team which lost 112 games and whose lineup featured Ralph Kiner’s bad back and eight guys named Del Greco, could have battled them to a draw.

Along the way to this dubious accomplishment, the Mariners have fired their manager, alienated the biggest star in franchise history , took their above-average defensive third baseman and turned him into a below-average defensive second baseman, and dealt Cliff Lee to the Rangers for a take that already looks questionable given (A) they backed out of what might have been a better deal with the Yankees, (B) Justin Smoak’s utter failure to hit, and (C) their acquisition of sketchy personality Josh Lueke, who in 2009 pleaded no contest to a charge of “false imprisonment with violence,” having plea-bargained his way out of rape and sodomy charges. Their denials of awareness of Lueke’s record rank somewhere between Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton on the credibility chart. It has been a special year in the Emerald City. The only thing that might keep them from losing 100 games is the 1 ½ seasons of excellent pitching they received from Lee and King Felix Hernandez, who, if there is any justice in this world, will win the Cy Young Award.

Rather than acknowledge that general manager Jack Zduriencik, in his eagerness to create a team that won with leather, totally neglected the wood and thus created a disaster, as did all those that signed off on the plan, Lincoln opted to blame the media and circle the wagons. This is a bit like Admiral Kimmel blaming the New York Post for Pearl Harbor. It is a desperate obfuscation at best, a weak-kneed excuse at worst.

Parenthetically, even if one of the beat writers did want to “step right in and run the Mariners” that wouldn’t be so ridiculous. A newspaperman was hired to run the Chicago Cubs in 1917 and won three pennants over the next 15 years, a record that no modern Cubs GM could claim. His name was William Veeck, Sr,, and despite his ink-stained origins, he taught his son Bill enough about running a baseball team that he won two pennants of his own and was elected to a place in Cooperstown.

In fairness to the GM and the Mariners braintrust, some aspects of the club’s attack were destroyed by a series of unlikely worst-possible outcomes. Whatever Milton Bradley’s personality problems, he seemed certain to hit better than .205/292/.348. Junior Griffey might have had one last encore in him. Franklin Gutierrez seemed like his could support his excellent glove with at least league-average hitting after last season’s breakthrough. Jose Lopez, just 26, had hit .297 and 25 home runs in consecutive seasons. It wasn’t impossible that heading into his peak years, he might do both at once, solving the problem of his resistance to taking a walk. Instead, both Gutierrez and Lopez crashed and burned, the former teasing with a .326/.378/.483 April, but hitting only .235/.298/.349 since.

Even if those hopes were excusable, there were so many that were not. Catcher was simply never addressed—no backstop of major-league hitting ability would be on the roster. First baseman Casey Kotchman, acquired from the Red Sox for Bill Hall, was a career-long disappointment even before a 2010 seasons which should permanently end his aspirations to starting. Free agent signee Chone Figgins was speedy and patient, but not an impact hitter at any point in his career. Another free agent signing, Eric Byrnes, had hit .218/.271/.382 over nearly 500 plate appearances over 2008 and 2009. Shortstop Jack Wilson is of long standing one of the worst hitters in baseball. In short, even had all the wishes spent on Bradley, Griffey, Figgins, and the rest come true, this offense still would likely have failed to carry the pitching.

In an extraordinary turn of events, the Mariners who went from 101 losses in 2008 to a very promising 85-77 in 2009, gave back all their progress of last year. You could get whiplash trying to follow that kind of U-turn. But no, the Mariners haven’t fouled up from within, they’re under attack from without. Funny thing about the media, the sports media in particular. Because the bottom line in sports is so basic—wins and losses, runs scored, batters struck out—it can’t really make things up about a team’s performance and expect to get away with it. A political commentator can say that the president is a Muslim or wasn’t born here and some people will believe him despite a general lack of evidence, but a sports commentator can’t say that Albert Pujols is hitting .211 and having a miserable season when he’s really hitting .311 and leading the league in home runs. He can’t say that Mariners are winning when they’re losing.

If the Mariners were winning, they would be getting the coverage they think they deserve. To paraphrase the Rolling Stones, since they’re losing, they’re getting the coverage they need instead of the coverage they want. With little room to invent (most of the creativity goes into explaining what sportswriters “know” about the effects of PED usage), journalists must report the reality of the Mariners, and that reality is that they stink on ice. Howard Lincoln, with his manic usage of exclamation points, might have wanted to buck up his employees, but instead he conveyed nothing more than a man as detached from the truth of his team as the Mariners are from winning baseball.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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