An Alternate Offseason Explanation

If the goal of this offseason was improving the Mariners by adding new talent, I think we can all agree that it's been a pretty spectacular failure. Sure, they signed Hisashi Iwakuma, but he was already on the team. They swapped Trayvon Robinson for Robert Andino, which was a good deal, but that's like an upgrade from one cent to two cents. (No offense, Trayvon and Robert). They sent Jason Vargas to the Angels for Kendrys Morales, and while that seemed like a good deal at the time due to the abundance of SPs on the market and the relative dearth of 1Bs, the Mariners haven't acquired the pitcher that would have allowed them to capitalize on that market distribution, so that move's been pretty much a wash. Depending on what you think of John Jaso's catcher defense and Michael Morse's fragility, the Morse trade was either a significant downgrade or a very tiny upgrade. They signed Jason Bay, Raul Ibanez, and Ronny Paulino, which... drops in the bucket, man. The only reasonably significant "upgrade" has been the Shoppach signing, which still just barely offsets the loss of Jaso.

This is a far cry from what we were expecting when the offseason began. The Mariners had money! Lots and lots of money! They were linked to Josh Hamilton! They tried to trade for Justin Upton! Check out the old roster posts and you'll see that the upgrades we were clamoring for--expecting, even--were pretty big. Nick Swisher. Alex Gordon. Edwin Jackson. No, the Mariners' offseason hasn't been as big as we were hoping for. And yeah, they could still sign Michael Bourn, or make an unexpected balls-out move for another outfielder... but with a week left before spring training, are any of us really expecting that? I'm not.

So there's a huge discrepancy between what we were expecting the Mariners to do, and what the Mariners did. Why? Well, it could be that the Mariners are just bad at actually executing things, or that the players they were trying to target were priced out of their range. (Which would seem to be implied by the Hamilton and Upton negotiations.) But even then, if they'd really set out to add new talent to the roster... would they really have made all these lateral moves and minor free agent signings? I find it hard to believe.

It seems to me that the saner explanation is that the Mariners were taking a different approach to thinking about this offseason that we were. So a couple of the discussions that we were having in the Casper Wells thread and the "Have The Mariners Done Enough" thread got me thinking: How did the Mariners approach this offseason? What were their goals at the outset? And what I came up with actually makes sense, in the context of what we know and think we know about the Mariners' front office.

Jack Z was hired for his ability to develop talent on the farm. His job should be predicated on his ability to internally develop talent. If he's amazing at drafting and producing major league ballplayers, then that strength offsets some of his deficiencies in mediocre major league talent evaluation. If his homegrown players bust, then he is a GM without a talent, regardless of how highly valued the prospects down on the farm are. His job is to translate draft picks, international signings and farmhands into successful major leaguers.

The three players in which Jack Z has so far invested the most resources are Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and Jesus Montero. These three were all acquired at a hefty price: Ackley with the #2 overall, Smoak for Cliff Lee, and Montero for Michael Pineda. Z has put his stamp on these players. Their success--or failure--is crucial to the success or failure of the franchise, both in 2013 and in the future. They were featured in their own commercials. They were top-billed prospects. They were given every opportunity possible at the major league level... and so far, they have been spectacular busts.

I submit that the Mariners' primary goal this offseason was not improving the roster by adding new talent, but rather improving the roster by fostering the development of the talent already on it.

The big moves that have been made are all consistent with one goal: ensuring that Ackley, Smoak and Montero develop into the stars they were always supposed to be. The Mariners spoke of the psychological effects of playing in an extreme pitcher's park; then they moved in the fences. They spoke of the pressure of being forced to hit in the middle of the order without protection; then they imported two slugging 1B/DH types and tried to add two slugging outfielders. They spoke of the need for veteran leadership; then they signed Raul Ibanez, the leaderiest leader of them all. They spoke of the importance of fitness and good health; they performed surgery on Ackley, had Smoak get into the Best Shape Of His Life, and tried to teach Montero how to run.

This also explains their seeming disregard for some of the role players already on the roster. The Mariners very clearly did not care one jot about John Jaso, and they pretty clearly do not care one jot about Casper Wells. Why? Because, while these guys are already good players, they were never going to be the 4-5 WAR stars that the teem needs in order to succeed. John Jaso could've been a 2.5 WAR catcher, and it wouldn't have meant shit if Ackley and Montero and Smoak had all continued to bust. The team is very clearly prioritizing the development of these three position players over the continued presence of "role players" like Jaso, Wells and Carp.

Eric Wedge has, in a lot of interviews, made it very clear what the Mariners believe are necessary for proper player development. Veteran leadership. Experienced hitters in the middle of the order. Not hitting in an extreme pitcher's park. Fitness and dedication. Can it really be a coincidence that these are exactly the things that they have added this offseason? The Mariners, it seems, have blamed the absence of these things for the failures of Smoak, Ackley, and Montero, and are desperately trying to rectify them.

Fans like us can just say "well, maybe the problem is that these players just aren't very talented." Jack Z can't say that. He was the guy responsible for identifying these players, acquiring them at extreme cost, and giving them buckets of major league playing time. Declaring them untalented and unworthy of roster time would be admitting that he has misidentified talent. Since his forte is supposedly identifying talent in the minors and in drafting, that would in turn basically be admitting that he has failed at his one supposed strength and needs to be fired. Obviously, Jack Z will not admit that he needs to be fired.

So that's why the Mariners signed Raul Ibanez. And that's why they moved in the fences, and why they traded John Jaso for Mike Morse, and why they acquired Kendrys Morales. It's why they weren't interested in Nick Swisher, who's hardly the prototypical #3/#4 hole hitter they would've plugged in to take pressure off the kids. And that's why, given the choice, they're going to start Justin Smoak over Casper Wells. They don't really care about the success of the 2013 team; everyone knows this team is finishing fourth unless the young talent seriously breaks out. They care about the development of Ackley, Montero and Smoak.

The more I look at what the Mariners have done, the more I think this offseason was never about winning now. It was never about adding external talent to the franchise. It was about developing the talent that's already here. The Mariners have now used all of their excuses for the continued failures of their three stud position player prospects. They've changed the park, they've taken lineup pressure off of them, they've brought in mentors, they've gotten them fit and they've given them playing time. This is the last chance for Ackley, Montero and Smoak to prove their talent.

By extension, it's also the last chance for Jack Z to prove his.

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