Yesterday, Milton Bradley became a former major league baseball player. The earplugged thirty-three year-old outfielder limped to a .218/.313/.356 triple-slash line, offering a negative WAR for the second consecutive season. The move mercifully allows us to close the book on the Silva-Bradley trade of 2010, the only winners of which are you, the American viewing public. I’ve never held too strong an opinion of Bradley; I blame my attention span. Baseball and Milton Bradley felt like the Hatfields and the McCoys: I simply couldn’t remember what made everyone so angry in the first place.
Much has been said and much will continue to be said, by capable men and women, about Milton Bradley. The man was a raw nerve. Jeff Sullivan already mentioned that there can be no cost benefit analysis for a player such as Bradley if there is no benefit, and after nearly four hundred frustrating plate appearances, it became clear that there was no regression, no luck. His walk rate plummeted and his strikeout rate rose, as his swing transformed into a bitter, ineffectual swipe. His defense somehow found ways to depreciate. Even without the ejections and the distractions, it was clear that the end had come.
Ken Griffey, Sr. was signed as a free agent by the Seattle Mariners on August 29, 1990. It was a blatant publicity stunt for a fifth-place team, but by all means a forgivable one. The opportunity to watch a father and son share an outfield warmed the cockles of America’s heart and eased the foreboding of increased Middle East tensions, as well as a fourteenth consecutive losing season. But then, the strangest thing happened: Griffey the Elder cast off the shackles of humanity and strode the earth, hitting .377/.443/.519 in spot starts. Human interest stories swirled the Pacific Northwest, while poster companies scrambled for pithy titles and cheap photographers. The Mariners were virtually forced to bring the band back together for 1991, and at age 41, Senior didn’t embarrass himself, hitting .282/.380/.400. These were the salad days.
I bring this up because, for Seattle Mariners fans, this does not happen. Most of the local talents are drawn to the bright lights like moths, and those that remain gasp and crawl into the ground to die. Imported ballplayers fare even worse under the cold, unblinking gaze of the slate-colored northwestern sky. Mariners fans are typified by their loyalty, where the players are referred to by first names and patronized accordingly.
Below is a chart of prominent Mariners who spent at least part of their final season in a Seattle Mariners uniform, ranked by FanGraph’s Wins Above Replacement (click to zoom):
This graph wouldn’t look so bad if the number zero weren’t the third line over. That zero, in this case, represents the value of a "replacement level player", the sort of talent that is conceivably available on the market to play for the minimum salary. They’re the kind of guys who get designated for assignment and clear waivers sometimes, guys like Ryan Langerhans and Josh Wilson. The average starter, on the other hand, earns about 2.0 WAR over a full season.
This means that two players in Seattle history have retired after an average big-league season. I’ve written about Stan Javier and his love of trees in the past, but the other name is a bit of a surprise: plucky little Joey Cora, he of the tear ducts and the career .369 slugging percentage. Cora was pretty crummy with the glove, but it’s easy to forget that knocked in 32 home runs in his 3.5 seasons with the M’s, and took his share of walks, too. He even helped out the Mariners when they shipped him off for David Bell at the trade deadline in 1998. Then he struggled with the Indians, hit .059 in the playoffs and was done. Still: second best final season of all time.
The other surprising name on that list, from a positive standpoint, is Kenji Johjima. Johjima’s departure was celebrate by the fan base after he forsook an unknown fraction of the $16 million dollars left on his extension. With the exception of his own two full seasons, the season that got Johjima fired exceeds the WAR total of any Mariners catcher since 2002. As of this writing, Miguel Olivo does not appear to be threatening this record.
The rest are ashes. No one begrudges Edgar’s final season at age 40; WAR punishes him for DHing, but he didn’t scar anyone’s retinas. Buhner’s final season lasted 53 plate appearances, and he was pretty decent the year before when healthy. Dan Wilson was pretty. Richie Sexson lands somewhat higher on the list than you might expect, mostly because of his contract. In terms of production, Sexson was basically Jack Cust, except at six times the salary. Bret Boone was terrible in his final season, combining his -0.4 WAR as a Mariner with an amazing -0.8 WAR with the Twins in only 58 plate appearances. Of his nine hits with the Twins, nine were singles.
Resting at the very bottom of the graph is the Bavasi legacy in three lines. These men manned the designated hitter position for four and a half years, from 2006 until Griffey’s final nap halfway through 2010. If anything encapsulates the self-loathing of the Seattle baseball fan, it is these three men, unapologetic in their ineptitude. They are the earthquake that levels our homes, the raccoon that rips up our azaleas. They are our own mortality, staring at us, grinning.
And there in the center of the graph, for once the median of them all, stands Milton Bradley. Writers have commented their surprise at the affection Seattle has bestowed upon their troubled child, when Bradley did little to endear himself to them beyond wearing a normal-sized jersey. When the barometer began to tilt over the weekend, Bradley’s name came up as a target; but then, so did Cust, and Langerhans, and Saunders. It was no longer a question of affection, but bleary acquiescence. There was no suspense, no anticipation. Replacement level is a phrase that has taken on its own significance in the city of Seattle, a collection of existentialist short stories with miserable endings, and we’re never allowed to shut the book.