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December 20, 2009

Prospectus Q&A

Don Wakamatsu

by David Laurila

There are some loud tremors emanating from the Pacific Northwest this offseason, and nobody feels and hears them more than Don Wakamatsu. The Mariners skipper isn't quite quaking with excitement, but with the recent acquisitions of Chone Figgins and Cliff Lee, there is clearly an extra bounce to his step. There may also be an elevated heart rate, as Mount Rainier-sized expectations are already beginning to cascade down upon a team that won 85 games in Wakamatsu's first year at the helm. The 46-year-old skipper talked to Baseball Prospectus via phone-a conversation briefly interrupted by a call from GM Jack Zduriencik-to discuss the season that was, and the future of what clearly seems to be an organization moving in the right direction.

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David Laurila: One year ago, you became a big-league manager for the first time. What do you know now that you didn't know then?

Don Wakamatsu: I think the biggest thing for me is just having gone through the experience. You can prepare, you can sit in as a bench coach for a number of years and watch other managers do it, but until you do it yourself, you just don't know what it's like. Probably the biggest thing is the time-consuming, day-to-day thing with the media. That takes up a lot of your time and focus sometimes. But the rest, for me, was validating things that I already believed in. I think it just strengthened some of the belief systems, because I don't know that we were wrong in too many areas.

DL: When you sat down to interview for the job, you would have offered your vision for the team under your leadership. Did that vision unfold pretty much as you expected that it would in your first season at the helm?

DW: I think it did, and probably better in some ways, just because certain dynamics came along after I got hired, and one of them was Ken Griffey Jr. I've been real fortunate throughout my career to be around some tremendous baseball men, and men of different personalities and different thought processes. And different teams. So, to be on teams that had superstars such as Alex Rodriguez, and Carl Everett and Rafael Palmeiro and Mark Teixeira, you can go down the list-just different types of players-to be able to watch how other managers handled those guys was valuable for me. Then, to get Ken Griffey Jr., not knowing what we had, and what kind of person he was going to be on the team-what a pleasant surprise. Especially the situation where he came in, with everybody thinking he'd maybe be playing some outfield, and getting, in a sense because of his knee and his injuries, more of just a DH.

DL: Griffey was re-signed for 2010. How much value does a player like him bring to a team beyond his stat line?

DW: A tremendous amount. The reason I say that is that he built this franchise, or at least helped build it. He's the face of this franchise, and for him to go through last year…and I think there was a rekindling in his heart, because he took on probably as strong of a leadership role as he ever has, and he enjoyed it. And at different times, he played some tremendous baseball. The last week of the season he hit three home runs. So knowing that he had the injury, and that the diagnosis was that if he got it fixed, he would pretty much be pain-free, we were willing to take that gamble, in a sense, and bring him back, for that reason. Another is that he's such a strong leader in the clubhouse.

DL: I asked about the vision you offered for the team. What about the vision Jack Zduriencik, and ownership, presented to you?

DW: Well, I think that Jack has been around the game long enough to understand what the situation was, and our expectations, if I was hired, of how we would build, not only for immediate success, but for the future. I think he liked what I had to say, and I liked what he had to say. He gave me full rein to hire my whole staff, which is unheard of in today's game. He believed enough in me to allow me to do that, and I think that's paramount in any business venture, that you're allowed to bring in the people that you believe in and trust, I think the vision was that we were going to try to constantly, on a day-to-day basis, make the organization better through our evaluations of players, and from our side, from the teaching side, the development.

DL: The organization has obviously placed a lot of emphasis on defense since you and Jack came on board. Was that discussed right from the get-go?

DW: I think that we both grew together, but what we talked about a lot was my past experiences in the American League West. I had been with all three teams prior to coming to the Seattle Mariners, so I had witnessed different scenarios. In Texas, we led the world in hitting for just about every year I was there, but we couldn't catch the ball and had trouble getting any quality pitching because of it. And to go to Oakland and watch young pitchers pitch extremely well by attacking the strike zone, and letting their defense work, we had as much or more success than we ever did in Texas. And to watch Anaheim work, and to be a part of that development process through the early 2000s, and putting athletic players in position, and having versatile athletic players with tools who can do some things-we kind of set out that we were going to get more athletic and we were going to get better defensively. We were going to allow that to benefit our pitching staff, and in the process we're still trying to build an offense.

DL: How much do you and Jack communicate about the lineup, and in-game strategy, during the course of the season?

DW: Jack has been tremendous. He allows me to do my job, but also, I think we have a great partnership in the fact that we look at things. He's seen it from an above angle, which I would always cherish if he sees anything, to bring it to my attention, and vice versa. I'll always ask him, because they're running numbers, they're doing different things upstairs. The bottom line is that we get it right and I probably talk to Jack just about every day in some capacity, not always on-field stuff. It could be what's going on with players off the field, but we are in contact just about every day.

DL: The Angels, under Mike Scioscia, are very aggressive on the base paths. Is that an approach you'd like employ with your team, assuming that you have the personnel to do so effectively?

DW: Absolutely. And again, the key word is "personnel." I think that you can push a club to what its ability is, but beyond that, you're going to run into trouble, so I think that our vision, our game plan, is to get faster and more athletic.

DL: Your ball club has obviously been aggressive this off-season, signing Chone Figgins and trading for Cliff Lee. What has your role been in those acquisitions?

DW: Well, Jack has done a wonderful job, first and foremost, of including just about everybody in the organization as far as having some input in what's going on, and I'm no different. Jack runs just about everything by me, and wants my opinion, and in turn we'll turn around and get dialogue from the coaching staff. And he does just the same on the scouting side, so I think that's the important, key ingredient in any organization, that the leader makes people feel that they're part of the process and has some ownership in it. He's done a wonderful job with that.

DL: What role is statistical analysis playing in your player-acquisition discussions?

DW: Again, for me, going through a year in Oakland was a tremendous benefit. And not that we didn't use it in Texas-Buck [Showalter] looked at just about every stat that there was. As far as being detailed and organized, we looked at a lot of stuff. But then, to go over to Oakland, and not that they're the only ones in baseball to use it, but it gave me a different look of how to interpret it and maybe what to use and what not to use. And that carried over. One of the biggest parts of our organization, initially, when Jack was hired, was the addition of [special assistant to the GM] Tony Blengino and creating a department where we have as many resources as just about anybody in baseball. The rest is a job of deciphering. I think that you look at statistical analysis two different ways. One is that it can benefit on-field player development, and the other is that it can help you in acquiring talent. I think there is usefulness in both of those. From the field side of it, there can be paralysis by analysis. But I'm the type of guy that would like to look at everything that comes my way, anything that they can bring to my attention, so I do have an open door in that aspect. It's my job to decipher how much benefit that's going to give our baseball club.

DL: Chone Figgins rates very well in most defensive metrics. You're obviously very familiar with his game, but were you aware that the numbers show him to be as good as he is?

DW: I've seen him play since he was in Double-A, and I've seen him play several different positions. Again, athleticism is a tremendous tool, and it allows the versatility, but to witness it firsthand, I mean you can sit there as a baseball man and say that this guy took so many hits away from us last year that it cost us tremendously and saved his pitching staff. And we saw it on our side, so again, that was our vision, to try to continue to get guys that are going to be able to help us with those kinds of metrics.

DL: Despite his Gold Glove-quality defense at third base, you're reportedly not committed to playing him there. What is your reasoning in that indecision?

DW: Again, we acquired a tremendous athlete. I think that you have to look at the whole of the ball club, and put the pieces together to try to figure out what's going to be the best all-around picture, and we won't know that until…I told Chone the same thing. Until we get to spring training, and until we finish acquiring what we're going to acquire, then we'll decide whether it's third or second or wherever it is.

DL: There is also a question of whether Figgins, or Ichiro, will be your leadoff hitter. How are you approaching that decision?

DW: I think it's the same thing. We're going to make the decision of what's best for the ball club, and I think that Ichiro will be one to tell you, first and foremost, that he's willing to do that. Getting back to the original question, until we get to spring training, or until the season starts, we'll play around with some things. I did that last year. I batted Ichiro third in spring training. I batted [Franklin] Gutierrez anywhere from leadoff to ninth. And we do that to kind of get a look at them, and again, we try to look at the whole picture and figure it out. Obviously, we have some strong thoughts of how we're going to do it, but I've told everybody that until I get to spring training and sit down with these guys, and talk to them a little bit, I'm not going to make that final decision

DL: There is talk that Dustin Ackley is going to be tried out at second base. What are your thoughts on that possible move?

DW: Everybody assumes that we're making that move, but we've done it with several players, and we'll continue. I mean, you take a player like him and you're trying to expedite him getting to the big leagues. And you're also trying to find an optimal position. Not to say that he can't play a lot of them, but that gives us another valuable asset, and we do that a lot, with a lot of players. If you look at how many guys can play different positions for us this year, you might be amazed. What happens is that if you get limited so much on your major league club, you don't have that versatility and you're going to have to go out and get players. It's nice to have the flexibility and freedom to move a player from an outfield to an infield position, during the course of the season and not have to go outside the organization, or maybe just bring up somebody that's younger. So with [Ackley], it's something that we all decided would be nice to look at him and see how he progresses, to see if it's a viable option.

DL: The middle of your lineup is somewhat of a question mark, which brings to bear the fact that you have not re-signed Russell Branyan. What are your views on players like Branyan, and another similar hitter who is currently available, Jack Cust? Each obviously hits for a lot of power, and draws a lot of walks, but also strikes out a lot and is limited defensively.

DW: It becomes a lot more difficult to have a priority of defense and want a middle-of-the-order bat. Those guys are going to cost you a tremendous amount in today's market, so you're always looking to give and take. And how much are you willing to do that? Obviously, with Ken Griffey Jr. a majority of the DH is taken up. So with that player, what we're looking at, at this point, is: where is he going to fit outside of that? You have to have versatility, and those are things that we're weighing right now. We scored 640 runs last year, and I went back and looked at the history of the Seattle Mariners, and no team had a winning season with 640 runs, and the majority of those had lost over 90 games. So, we're going to stay the course with pitching and defense, and in the meantime try to get the best bats that we can possibly get. [Editor's Note: this interview took prior to the acquisition of Milton Bradley.]

DL: How excited were you to learn that Jack was working on a deal for Cliff Lee?

DW: I was just ecstatic. I think that any manager is going to be, to have an opportunity to get a Cy Young Award-winner, especially one that has pitched as well as he has recently. I've watched his progression over the years, and the thing that has intrigued me is that he's getting a lot more systematic and routine-oriented. And the key word is "efficient." I saw him early in his career where he would be at 100 pitches early in the ball game, and now you see him being able to get deep into ball games. That's exactly what we've tried to do with Felix [Hernandez] this year, is try to educate him on how to eliminate those big innings and not coast during the course of a ball game. But this guy, obviously, can really, really pitch. He's effective on both sides of the plate, and he won two games for the Phillies in the playoffs. The thing that I like is that you're talking about a team in Seattle that has a lot of young guys that have never been in a playoff situation, and anytime you can bring somebody in who understands what it takes to get to the postseason, you're going to benefit. With Figgins and Cliff Lee, it's tremendous, because in one shot you're bringing in some mentorship and some leadership inside the clubhouse. Number one, they're both quality, quality individuals. Number two, they love to win.

DL: With Lee and Hernandez, you obviously have a great one-two punch in the front of your rotation. Have you had discussions about the innings load you foresee them taking on?

DW: You know what's interesting? I had an opportunity to talk to Bobby Cox the past two winters, and I talked to him specifically this winter, at the Winter Meetings, about when he had [Greg] Maddux and [John] Smoltz and [Tom] Glavine, and those guys. If you go back and look at their innings, even when they were fairly young, you're looking at 230-240 innings. Then you look at the overall length of their careers. So…and they've had some issues along the way, but that's pretty impressive. You can say, "Well, they're special," but I think our two guys are pretty special, too. But yeah, we look at all of that. We look at the amount of innings that Cliff threw during the season and the postseason, and you're up there around-what is it, 273 or something like that? That's just a number I'm throwing out, because I haven't looked it up yet, but you go in with that thought process, and we were fortunate enough to have hired Carl Willis as our pitching coordinator this year. Well, Carl had him all through his Cleveland days, so he's seen his progression of innings, and he's also seen, last year in particular, where they didn't throw him in A games until late. We look at all of that stuff, and we're trying to formulate a plan even as we speak. We just got the guy, and we're thinking about what we're going to be able to do to protect ourselves, and to protect him.

DL: As of right now, what does your starting rotation look like beyond Hernandez and Lee?

DW: Well, everybody has asked me, and there was something that was made a couple of years ago about [Erik] Bedard and Felix, and who should be number one and who should be number two, and I kind of told everybody that I'd let them know what the rotation is before the season starts. I know that you're asking me about the back end, and there are guys in place to vie for those jobs, regardless of three, four, or five. We're looking at [Ryan] Rowland-Smith probably being close to the top of that, along with Ian Snell and Brandon Morrow. Those are three guys. We had several guys come up and do well for us in short stints. Doug Fister was one of them, Jason Vargas was another. Even Garrett Olson has pitched for us at different times, so the one thing we feel we gained last year was that we allowed guys to pitch in situations that will benefit them long-term.

DL: What were your impressions of Snell after he came over from the Pirates?

DW: I think it ran its course in Pittsburgh, obviously. He actually asked to be sent down. Here's a guy who had thrown 200 innings and had a couple of good years for them, and is still fairly young, and the stuff is there. The rest is…what we try to preach a lot is guys trying to understand themselves and understanding what makes them successful, and what probably takes away from that. What I saw was somebody that was a little bit confused, in the fact that I know he tried different things, trying to regain what he had in that 200-inning season. But not a smart game plan. Rick Adair did a phenomenal job with him in a short period of time, of getting him a routine that we think is going to work for him, and he ended up pitching well for us, and pitching deeper into ballgames. That's one of the things, because he's a guy who had a little bit of trouble pitching away from contact, which got his pitch count up. But again, I thought Rick did a phenomenal job of getting to him, and getting him to trust his stuff and challenge hitters down in the zone, and to try to simplify it. We also talked a little about mechanics, but that was probably secondary to the mental side of it. And the other fact is getting guys to understand winning. He was in a situation where they hadn't been in a playoff situation or in a situation even closely remote to that, and sometimes that's a mindset, too. You have to rebuild it in guys.

DL: Snell and Olson are both cerebral guys who have been accused of maybe thinking too much. Is it possible for a pitcher to do that?

DW: Absolutely. That's probably not any different than the question you asked me about sabermetrics. Too much information sometimes is not as good as whittling it down and deciphering what's right, and I think it's the same thing with pitchers. The fascinating thing for me is to watch a Cliff Lee, an Andy Pettitte, a CC Sabathia as he's grown. These guys, if you look at the expressions on their faces, and it's probably the same thing if you look at a Cole Hamels in the past, where you saw a lot more going on upstairs than normal. These guys seem to understand that less is more, and I think the word is "focus." And what does that really mean? I think that the routine is so important, to where you can hone your mechanics to the point where they become non-thought, and that's what you have to get to. So, there is a work ethic, and we can't do much about guys who don't have a work ethic, and don't have the conviction to be the best that they can be. We can try, but that's harder than getting guys to stop thinking about their mechanics. I think that you can make some good adjustments and educate guys on how to be a little bit more professional.

DL: Kenji Johjima won't be returning next year. Given any communication issues that may have existed, will it in any way be easier for your pitching staff to not have him as their primary catcher?

DW: The misconception with Johjima was that there was a big language barrier. What I found was that it was much more of a cultural hindrance, if that's the right word, because they just do things a little bit differently in their style of play. And that's a vital part. In Japan, pitchers don't shake the catchers off. That's number one. So, the things that we ran into were not so much the language as much as it was cultural. But Jo caught [Miguel] Batista for 16 wins [in 2007], and Jo led the league in throwing guys out this year. It was more of…I think the whole thing might have worked if he didn't get hurt twice for extended periods of time this year.

DL: What is your catching situation right now-are you satisfied with it?

DW: I love young, energetic catchers and we have two of them that I think…and I was fortunate enough to have been with Kurt Suzuki when he had to take over for Jason Kendall in Oakland. Kurt has really improved as much as any catcher I've ever had, and I think that we have two catchers that are similar in their hunger and their athletic ability. That's Rob Johnson and Adam Moore. Especially Adam at the end-he had an opportunity to come up and catch and really be exposed to a couple of…I think that his first game in the big leagues went 14 innings. But to sit there and watch…again, if we had to prioritize the responsibilities of a catcher, and you can look at what Scioscia has done with the two he's had for the last couple of years, [Mike] Napoli and [Jeff] Mathis, their number-one job is to handle the pitching staff. And I feel perfectly confident that both of these guys can call an extremely good game. The rest of the stuff is going to take some time, whether it's consistency in throwing runners out, blocking the ball, receiving the ball, hitting, hitting for power, and kind of in that order. As you've seen with several young catchers, even a Bengie Molina type, that, if they're allowed to play enough, they will develop over time.

DL: With your team building around pitching and defense, it seems like having a top-shelf defensive catcher would be a huge priority. As we speak, you arguably don't have that just yet.

DW: Ha, ha. I laugh for the fact that you'd like to have, you know, an All-Star at every position. But my retort to that is that Felix went 19-5, or whatever it was, with Rob Johnson. He was basically his personal catcher. So, here's a guy who, if he can catch Felix and get 19 wins out of him, he's built a strong enough belief system that he can do it with other guys, because of the way that he handles, and receives, and leads, a guy like Felix, who is 23 years old.

DL: Any final thoughts about the Seattle Mariners going forward?

DW: When people ask me what I want most out of a club, and I say this over and over again, and I try to instill this in the players, is that we want people to be proud of the way that we play the game. That might seem clichéd, or whatever, but if you can go in and educate players with… we want to give the fans their money's worth, meaning let's run balls out, let's try to play the best fundamental defense that we can. Last year we were able to play in…there are so many numbers going in my head, but I think that we set a modern-day record for one-run ballgames. In one- and two-run ballgames, we ran close to 80 games. That means that people aren't turning off their TV sets at 8:30. We're in ballgames, and that's what we try to preach from day one of spring training. If we play fundamental defense, and if we can pitch, we'll scrap out some runs, and as our offense gets better and better, then we'll get into a position…to me, I'd like the fans that watch the Seattle Mariners to respect the fact that we play the game the right way.

DL: Given the strides you made last year, and the acquisitions that Jack has already made this off-season, the Mariners are going to be a sexy pick for a lot of prognosticators going into spring training. What message will you be communicating to your players when you get to Peoria?

DW: My first message is going to be that two years ago, they picked that team to go to the World Series and they lost 100 games. Picking somebody, or having your vision on something that you haven't even come close to getting to yet, is a waste of time. Our focus is going to be, and it's going to start in spring training, to try to accomplish absolutely the most that we possibly can and come together as a team, and also to get guys prepared to come to battle. The rest is going to be series to series. We had a lot of success doing that this year, and it's probably going to be more critical as labels get put on our club. We'll be prepared to talk about that on day one of spring training.

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