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On A Problem With GM Evaluation

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haha funny story about end-of-career decline
haha funny story about end-of-career decline

Many of you will have already seen this article, from Jon Morosi, published yesterday afternoon. Morosi was checking in on the Mariners, and he began by asking the usual question, to which he received the usual response. Jack Zduriencik has been saying the same thing about Felix Hernandez from the very beginning. He gets asked probably several times a month. Writers keep thinking they might get a different answer but they never do. I don't know how special these writers think they are. What did Jon Morosi think Zduriencik was going to say? Did he think about his question before he asked it? He must not have, because if he had, he wouldn't have asked it. Asking that question was a genuine waste of time.

Morosi got something else, though, something of more interest.

Zduriencik added that he expects Ichiro, who turns 39 in October, to return next year. [...]

"He’s a big part of this team," Zduriencik said of Ichiro. "He’s a franchise player here, and we have phenomenal respect for him."

Zduriencik later retreated a little bit in talking with Larry Stone.

"I would just say what we've said from day one. We've been very consistent in saying we're not going public with anything like that," he said. "It's been our policy that whether we're discussing things or not is an internal matter."

Asked if he expects Ichiro to return next year, Zduriencik said, "What we're trying to do is play the season and see what happens."

So Jack Zduriencik wouldn't commit to anything regarding Ichiro and 2013, not that one would've expected him to. I don't know what he said to Jon Morosi, and the part Morosi quoted doesn't say much, but good on Stone to follow up, and the follow-up is inconclusive. It's always inconclusive with the Jack Zduriencik front office, unless they're talking about Felix.

But the thing about this is that, no matter what happens, it's almost assuredly not going to be up to Jack Zduriencik. Ordinarily, you go to the GM if you have a question about present and future roster construction. If Ichiro leaves, it'll presumably be because Ichiro wanted to. If Ichiro comes back, it'll presumably be because Ichiro wanted to, and because ownership wanted him to. Jack Zduriencik gets to make most calls, but he doesn't get to make every call, and I imagine this call is out of his hands.

The Mariners would never publicly indicate when a call has come from above, and if Ichiro were to re-sign, Jack Zduriencik would do his best to defend it. But over the past year and a half, Ichiro has batted .267 with nine home runs, and just about all of his value comes from his defense. His defense is terrific, or at least it looks that way, but it also looks like the offensive magic is gone, now that Ichiro's coming up on 39 years. Zduriencik is a guy who's all about the rebuilding project, and while he's fond of veteran role models, Ichiro isn't the kind of veteran a GM has in mind as a mentor.

Let's say that Ichiro doesn't suddenly bounce back. If he were to re-sign for a year, it wouldn't be the end of the world, but he'd get paid more than he'd deserve. If he were to re-sign for multiple years, that would start to lean toward disaster. That would be just about impossible to justify. And if Ichiro were to re-sign, one figures it wouldn't have been Jack Zduriencik's idea. He'd just have to act like it was, and highlight all of Ichiro's off-field significance.

There are so many complications that make it difficult to evaluate a general manager. You get a limited sample size of moves made, you hear about next to none of the moves that almost were made but weren't, and you just don't know about context and conditions. If ownership were to re-sign Ichiro, for example, then Jack Zduriencik would have to deal with an expensive move he wouldn't have made. He'd have to make sure Ichiro got playing time. We wouldn't know what Jack Zduriencik would've done, were it up to him.

Ichiro, of course, wouldn't be the only instance of Jack Zduriencik presumably doing something against his will. Zduriencik has had decisions taken out of his hands before, and the same goes for a lot of other general managers as well. Ownership matters, even if ownership isn't always made up of the most baseball-savvy of characters. For this reason and others, general managers are tricky things to figure out. You'd like to evaluate them by their philosophies instead of their moves, but even there philosophies can change according to budget, and philosophies can change over time. Each one doesn't have a static profile.

As it stands, Ichiro could play his final game in Seattle and in the Major Leagues on Wednesday, October 3. I know Matthew's already planning on getting tickets, just in case. But there could still be a lot of Ichiro in the Mariners' future yet. Should that be the way that things go, try to aim your frustration with caution and care.