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August 18, 2004

Breaking Balls

The Bizarro Dusty Baker

by Derek Zumsteg

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Has a general manager even been more thoroughly slapped around by fate then Mariners GM Bill Bavasi? If I read tomorrow that he'd locked himself in the darkest corner of the Safeco Field subterranean complex, and was only listening to classic Soundgarden, I wouldn't doubt it.

Set aside for the minute that his grand plan for the team (maintain the core, give up some defense for offense, make another modest run at contention) collapsed around him. Or that it took him (and the organization) months to make it through the five stages of grief. Bavasi has been doubly cursed: not only did the organization's 2001-inspired hubris result in the embossing downfall of the franchise, but he has also demonstrated an amazing Midas touch in reverse, where everything he discards turns into gold. Since Bavasi came on, almost to a man every player traded away for nothing or simply released has performed far better than they had been doing with the Mariners, and far beyond what you'd expect to see.

We can argue whether this is mostly small sample sizes, or if the organization is such a depressing place to work that any players who leave spring out renewed and regooded, but there's no disputing that the effect exists and it's dramatic so far. Rich Aurilia hit .241/.304/.337 for the Mariners. Traded to the Padres for a promotional giveaway to be named later or a roll of quarters, he's hit .333/.390/.583 in warmer climes.

John Olerud hadn't slugged over .400 since 2002, and had been totally ineffective against lefties since before that. While he was still an on-base threat, the Mariners decided to release the free-agent-to-be to make room for Scott Spiezio (who also stinks because he hasn't been tossed away yet) and others in a complicated 3B/SS/1B/DH rotation scheme that defies easy explanation. Olerud, put in the trash compactor in part because of his punchless hitting, joined the Yankees. While I'm sure Yankee fans live in ignorance about this, the rest of the league's fans, from Seattle to Oakland to Tampa, would almost to a person rather their favorite players would be taken out (mercifully, so they didn't suffer) before they joined the Yankees.

Mariner Olerud: .245/.354/.360
Yankee Olerud: .333./405/.485

This makes me want to scream.

Ben Davis was so bad for the Mariners this year that he lost his job to Pat Borders. Not Pat Borders, Jr., no, this is the same Pat Borders who was regarded as an innovator in the 1880s when he started to use a padded glove behind the plate. The resulting decrease in broken bones and other hand and arm injuries meant teams no longer had to carry three or four catchers, and gave him eternal life as Pat Gillick's unholy servant of the night.

Davis had stretches where it looked like he could and should take over the full-time job from Dan Wilson but there was no chance he couldn't squander.

2002 Davis: .259/.313/.404
2003 Davis: .236/.284/.382

That's no catcher of the future, that's a dead catcher. You could stick mannequins up at the plate with a bat and they'd get on base more than Davis did.

2004 Davis: .091/.162/.091

That's right. 33 at-bats, three hits, none of them for extra bases. Three walks.

2004 Davis for the Tacoma Rainiers: .248/.321/.397

That's Triple-A! After being in the majors for years, Davis hit for a line that, using Clay Davenport's translation tools, made me throw up.

Even a player like Davis isn't bad enough that he can't haunt Bavasi. He was traded to the White Sox as part of the Freddy Garcia deal, presumably because Kenny Williams didn't want to risk damaging the batting practice backstop in blowouts.

Davis for the White Sox: .305/.305/.475.

There you go.

The biggest example is Carlos Guillen, who Bavasi attempted to trade for Omar Vizquel. After the Ms signed Rich Aurilia (see above), Guillen was traded to the Tigers for Ramon Santiago. Guillen has hit .317/.383/.547 for Detroit and is likely to finish in the money when the American League Most Valuable Player votes are tallied.

Even the guys who still suck come back to haunt him. Jeff Cirillo and his toxic contract were shipped to San Diego in exchange for the equally noxious attached to Wiki Gonzalez and Kevin Jarvis. Those guys got injured and were awful, and while Cirillo's been mostly bad, his best performance of the year, arguably, was when he went 1-for-3 with a homer, two walks and three runs batted in his only start against the Mariners, a 5-1 win for the Padres. I had the best seat I'd ever wrangled and got to see him dismantle the team close-up "Why couldn't you hit like that when you played for us?" the fans around me lamented, as Cirillo broke into his rusty home-run trot, and I swore I saw the edges of a barely-suppressed smile at the corners of his mouth.

Only Kevin Jarvis, who… well, he's 34-46 lifetime, so I suspect he's developed a thick skin by now, so I'll go ahead and say this… is a bad pitcher, has managed to defy the trend of succeeding or, barring that, sticking it to the M's. After the team decided they were better off paying him to not play than using a roster spot and occasional innings on him, hoping for an unlikely string of success that would entice fish to bite (sure, it sounds stupid, but people will tell you that you have to play the lottery to win, too), the Rockies picked him up and he was awful for them, too.

This is crazy, though. It's like the Dusty Baker effect, only stronger and in reverse. I've never believed that personal conflicts or organizational atmosphere or phases of the moon for that matter had anything to do with player performance, but in all honesty I am forced to admit that watching this Mariners season has me wondering if maybe there are circumstances where things are so bad they can effect performances.

A sure way to test this would be to fire everyone responsible for constructing and managing this team, and hiring replacements of opposing styles and philosophies. As a fan, I highly recommend that this experiment be fully funded and carried out immediately.

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