A long time ago some guy once said we shouldn't judge GM's by their moves, but by their philosophies. I don't remember who said it, or where, or in what context, but it's absolutely true. How many transactions does one GM make before he gives way to another? 10? 20? 30? Willie Ballgame hit .455 over 33 at bats five years ago, and everybody knows that's a meaningless sample, so why should it be any different for executives? Sometimes good moves don't work out (Freddy Garcia trade) while bad moves do (dealing Jeremy Giambi for John Mabry). GM's just aren't around long enough for their level of success to be a direct measure of their ability.
And so it is with that in mind that I've come to be deathly afraid of Bill Bavasi's gameplan. So much so that I think it would be in the organization's best interests to send him packing now and start rebuilding the front office as soon as possible. Allow me to explain.
Three seasons ago the Mariners were the third-worst team in baseball. After a four-year run of considerable success they bottomed out and fell one loss shy of 100. What was left of the fan base cried out for help and, for the first time in forever, the front office responded by adding Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre with the two biggest contracts in the franchise's history. While various people had various problems with the contracts themselves, the message was clear - this group of suits wasn't afraid to make a big splash or two in order to get their team back to playing competitive baseball as quickly as possible. We hadn't seen this at all under Gillick, and for once it felt good to be a player for the top talents in the free agent market.
Here's the thing, though - there is no easier job in baseball than being the GM responsible for rebuilding someone else's lousy ballclub. Ownership is all but obligated to give you a lot of money to spend, the fans want to see a name they recognize in order to become interested again, and no matter what you do you're all but guaranteed to come out looking good in the end because, at least in the short-term, it's almost impossible for the team on the field to actually do worse. You have free reign to do pretty much whatever you want, and in the winter of 2004, Bill Bavasi exercised his.
Over the course of the 2005 season it became clear that the Mariners weren't nearly as far away from being competitive again as they looked a year earlier. Even with Beltre struggling, the team had a lot of young talent getting ready to blossom at the Major League level - Felix, Betancourt, Reed, and Lopez in particular. They were strong, cheap, and talented up the middle, forming a terrific core with a ton of upside potential around which a winner could be built pretty quickly provided the front office knew what it was doing. And the fans were excited, because they saw what Bavasi did the previous offseason and thought that more could be on the way.
At the time, I declared that Bavasi's reputation would depend on how he responded to a team that wasn't too far away from winning a lot of games. I said it without any inclination one way or the other, as I still wasn't quite sure what to think about him. All I knew was that how a GM adds the finishing touches to a roster is a lot more revealing than how he spends his money after the team completely bottoms out. So I waited with bated breath.
Swing and a miss.
Oh, it wasn't all bad. Roberto Petagine and Matt Lawton looked like good moves. Nabbing Guillermo Quiroz, getting a prospect for Yorvit Torrealba, and ridding ourselves of Matt Thornton's sorry ass also made me happy. But alas, the offseason was defined by Jarrod Washburn and Carl Everett, two bad ideas that have only come to look worse with time (Johjima was handed to Bavasi on a silver platter). Washburn indicated an inability to properly evaluate pitchers, Everett indicated a reluctance towards trusting lesser-tested bats at DH, and both of them indicated that too much value was being placed on veteran-ness and a "winning attitude." These were problems.
The season went on, and the minute the Mariners caught fire Bavasi addressed his DH problem by landing Cleveland's stellar platoon for Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-soo Choo. The two of them bombed, but I appreciated the attempt, even if it was a little too "win-now" for most of our likings. Then the Mariners collapsed and we forgot that they were ever two games above .500 as late as they were.
So we were faced with another offseason much like the last, where the Mariners were still only a few pieces away, and they had money to spend.
Swing and a miss.
In landing Miguel Batista, Jose Guillen, Horacio Ramirez, and Jose Vidro, the Mariners have given up a lot for a marginal upgrade. There's no other way around it. The team as a whole may be a few wins better in 2007 than they were in 2006, but at this cost, it's hardly justifiable.
By this point we have enough evidence to evaluate the front office's philosophies, and simply put, they aren't the philosophies of a winning organization. Their collective heart is in the right place, but they just don't have it in them to turn this into a club that wins 90 games every year, which is something you'd expect them to be able to do with a $95m budget.
It's not that they can't evaluate what does and doesn't improve the team. Guillen, Batista, Ramirez, and Vidro as a group will make the Mariners better than they were a year ago, and I don't think anyone's arguing that point. Unfortunately, Bavasi & Co. spent way too much for those upgrades, demonstrating an inability to (A) interpret proper market value for trading chips, (B) trust cheaper in-house solutions, (C) understand what's available in the bargain barrel, and (D) get creative when the free agent market isn't bearing the necessary fruit. How much better are Guillen/Batista/Ramirez/Vidro than Snelling/Thomson/Generic Starter/Broussard/Morse (platoon)? 10-20 runs? Certainly more if Snelling gets hurt, but then Vidro hasn't exactly been the model of durability in recent seasons. And don't give me that "Thomson clearly isn't healthy, that's why they didn't sign him" crap, because if his arm were really an issue the Mariners wouldn't have made him their fallback option if the meetings didn't go as planned. They had Thomson in their grasp and let him slip away so they could spend more on an equivalent - or worse - starting pitcher.
This front office is wasteful. You can afford to overpay when you're a 63-win team in need of a rebound, or when you're a 93-win team in need of that one last piece to get over the hump, but the Mariners qualify as neither. Yet they're perfectly willing to throw their resources away in pursuit of that elusive .500 season, even if said resources may have been better bets in both the short- and long-terms. And for what? More veteran reliability? I have news for you, Bill - old guys are actually less dependable than young ones. Age causes more problems than it solves. An established veteran is no more likely to have success in the coming year than an equivalently-talented youngster, and you'll have a hard time persuading me that Jose Vidro has more ability than Chris Snelling, or even Ben Broussard and Mike Morse as a platoon. In fact, you'll have a hard time persuading me that Jose Vidro isn't a guy who's going to be worse tomorrow than he is today, and worse in two days than he will be tomorrow. I'm glad we'll probably be paying for that mistake through 2009.
Needlessly wasteful. If the Mariners were determined to shake things up this winter, they could've gone cheap in a lot of places and made one huge push for an impact player. I'd much rather overpay for Manny Ramirez or Jeremy Bonderman or even Adam LaRoche than Jose Vidro and Horacio Ramirez, because at least that way you're guaranteed to get a shiny return, even if you gave away more than you would've liked to. You overpay for certainty, not junk the other team couldn't give away. The Braves were thinking about non-tendering Ramirez, and the Nationals couldn't dump Vidro on anyone. What does that tell you?
As the Mariners have gotten closer to being a competitive ballclub, the front office has gotten more conservative in roster management while remaining every bit as free in terms of how much they spend. Even the Jose Guillen move, which I like because of its upside, speaks to a reluctance to trust Chris Snelling, who deserved a shot more than anyone else in the organization. They're doing everything they can to build a decent team for 2007 in order to appease a frustrated fan base, but in doing so they've managed to limit the roster's upside in the present while dramatically reducing flexibility in the future. As Dave Cameron pointed out to me a few days ago, the Mariners will have about $45m tied up in Richie Sexson, Jarrod Washburn, Jose Vidro, Jose Guillen, and Miguel Batista this year. And, if Guillen stays healthy, they'll have about $45m tied up in the same players in 2008. Try to find another team with that much money committed to a worse group of players. The Giants were the only somewhat comparable case either of us could come up with. That's bad, because it leaves the Mariners with very little room with which to work when it comes to improving the roster. Younger players who can give you a lot of production for cheap can help with that situation, but instead the Mariners seem content to ship those guys away in order to make their flexibility worse.
This front office doesn't have what it takes to turn the Mariners into a championship ballclub. That isn't to say that a World Series title and Bill Bavasi are mutually exclusive, because you can never count luck out of the equation, but front offices don't deserve credit for luck, especially when they actively seem to be going out of their way to reduce the roster's breakout/upside potential. This front office is capable of bringing the city of Seattle a .500 baseball team, and while that's a significant achievement for any rebuilding organization, the damage they'll cause in creating that team will be substantial and limit its ability to improve in the future. We're already seeing it now.
There's an old line people like to throw around when it comes to making trades: better to deal a guy a year too early than a year too late. In this case, I think it's fair to extend that to the Mariner front office. Better to clear house now, while we still have enough young talent to build around and room to do so, than to wait until it's too late. Does anyone here actually trust Bill Bavasi to make another trade? I'm not talking about the inevitable deal where Broussard goes away for a right-handed reliever; I mean a trade where he's trying to make the team better. Anyone? What happens if the Mariners are 42-40 again next year and Bavasi thinks his team needs another arm to get ahead?
It's time for Bill Bavasi to go. He's had two years to show that he knows what it takes to build a championship ballclub, and he's failed. Not in spectacular fashion, mind you, but "not the worst GM ever" is never an appropriate benchmark. Try as he might, Bavasi just doesn't have it in him, the same way you and I don't have it in us to play in the Majors. We might work really hard, and sometimes we might get a hit or strike someone out, but at the end of the day we're short on talent. So why keep trying?
The good things that have happened under the Bill Bavasi administration so far, particularly the development of the farm system, probably outweigh the bad. It's time to end things now before that changes.