Bill Bavasi has come under rather significant criticism of late (much of it from me) for the way he's handled the '05/'06 Mariner offseason. Although, like anyone, he still has his loyal fans, in the past few days we've seen people say anything from "Bavasi's an idiot" to "he has no plan" to "how long until Theo?" With that in mind, I thought I'd fight jetlag and offer my own quick perspective on how things are shaking out, if only because it seems like a much better use of my time than worrying about how Corey Patterson is going to protect Ichiro in the lineup.
About a year ago, I said a few times that Bill Bavasi was in a pretty easy situation, all things considered - he had just witnessed the absolute and total collapse of a team for which he wasn't responsible, and in a city that craves its competitive franchises, he was essentially given a blank check to try and return the Mariners to respectability as fast as possible. It's remarkably simple to have a productive offseason when you have tons of money to spend and tons of holes to fill, and Bavasi didn't disappoint, coming away having signed two of the biggest names made available during the winter. The team saw renewed fan interest in response to the shiny, guaranteed upgrades. However, to me, we still hadn't learned that much about Bavasi as a GM, because he just did what any GM with the same kind of financial resources would've done. The true test, I thought, would come when Bavasi was forced to improve a team that was already pretty good. Only then would we be able to gain some insight into the true extent of Bavasi's baseball acumen.
I think this current offseason presented that opportunity to Bill Bavasi for the first time, and, to be perfectly honest, I'm not real impressed. Johjima was a nifty acquisition, as was Marcos Carvajal, but with the roster only a good all-around left fielder and front-line starting pitcher away from probable pennant contention, Bavasi settled on Carl Everett and Jarrod Washburn, two guys who aren't real likely to push the team over the top. Although we obviously can't say with absolute certainty how they're going to perform, Everett looks like a needless addition while Washburn looks like a Gillick guy who received far too large of a commitment for a pitcher with his profile.
And it's here, I think, that we see the enormous separation between the current regime and the last one. Where Gillick was famously risk-averse and overly cautious, Bavasi's going to spend a whole lot of money on the guys who he thinks will make the best additions (and make no mistake, Bavasi truly believes that Washburn is the kind of front-line pitcher this team needs). In other words, his philosophy is that if you're going to get burned, make sure the failure is spectacular. Given the whole Mo Vaughn/Anaheim thing, it's not like we didn't know this ahead of time.
It should go without saying that this kind of roster-building strategy is the very definition of high risk/high reward. When it works, you get a team with a handful of superstars leading the way into the playoffs, but when it fails, not only do you have to suffer through the under-production in the short-term, but you're also handcuffed by the big contracts down the road. While it looks like Bavasi may have struck gold with Richie Sexson, it also looks like he whiffed on Adrian Beltre and, if I may get ahead of myself, Jarrod Washburn. This, I believe, will be Bavasi's undoing. A guy only gets so many chances to hand out big contracts, and Bill's already spent $146m on 13 years of three big-name free agents. His future, more than anything else, probably hinges on how Jarrod Washburn performs in 2006, and if he turns out to be as disappointing as I think, then I'm sure we'll see Bavasi replaced by next December. Management just can't afford to hang on to a guy who throws a lot of money at the wrong players, because every bad contract only digs the hole deeper.
But even with all that said, the organization is in much better shape now than it was when Bavasi first took over in 2004. The preseason starting lineup has seen its average age decrease from 33.4 two years ago to 28.8 in 2006 (barring any more moves). The roster is both incredibly talented and incredibly young up the middle, with Betancourt, Lopez, and Reed all under team control for a number of years. There looks to be more help on the way, too, in the persons of Asdrubal Cabrera and Adam Jones (among a few others). The starting rotation is anchored by a 20 year old who's already one of the five best pitchers in baseball, and the bullpen is both effective and cheap, with enough depth to cover for a few injuries.
Under Bill Bavasi, the organization has had significantly better drafts (although most of the credit should probably go to Bavasi apointee Bob Fontaine), yielding as much or more talent in last year's draft alone than we saw in all the Gillick years combined under Frank Mattox. They've done a better job of utilizing capable players already in the system in lieu of exploring the market for equivalently-talented veterans who cost twenty times as much. With the developing pipeline of young players onto the Major League roster, the Mariners can look forward to a future of further development and improvement, as opposed to a team-wide age-related decline. There's a reason why I think this was pretty much a .500 team before any offseason tinkering was done - its worst offensive players a year ago were 21, 23, 24, and 26 years old, and we can probably count on a fairly substantial improvement from all four in 2006.
There's so much you could write about the state of the organization under Bill Bavasi, but because I have neither the time nor the stamina to do that right now, I'll just boil it down to a simple, one-sentence message: while it may seem like Bavasi's legacy will be fraught with disappointment, the truth of the matter is that, under his leadership, the organization has done a considerably better job of acquiring and developing young talent. In that respect, the fruits of much of Bavasi's labor may not become readily apparent until well into the next GM's tenure with the Mariners. It's just a shame that that same GM will probably be struggling with limited flexibility due to a few bad contracts at the same time. How much of that is really Bill's fault? How much blame can we put on his shoulders for, say, Adrian Beltre, about whom I and several others were particularly ecstatic? I'm not really sure, but since Bavasi's the guy who's ultimately responsible for making the big decisions, he's the guy who has to take the fall when things don't work out.
Would the Mariners be in better shape right now had they hired a different GM in 2003? It's certainly possible, and just by glancing at the team's won/loss records since then, one might make the argument that we could be far better off. But it could also be a whole hell of a lot worse.
For now, let's just hope that Jeremy Reed remains a Mariner for a long time, so that I don't have to write a much angrier version of this post.