The teardown is already underway. On Monday, news broke that the Mariners had already informed a scout, a scouting supervisor and two special assistants to the GM that their contracts would not be renewed for the 2016 season. There's a good chance more firings will come soon, maybe today.
Then, once the subtractions are over—maybe even while they continue—the reinforcements will arrive.
It makes sense, with their woes in the area, that Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners would start by nailing down who will be responsible for player development. It sounds like he may be doing just that, per a recent Bob Dutton piece featuring his usual strong reporting:
Industry insiders believe it’s only a matter of time before Dipoto lures one of his former top lieutenants, Scott Servais, away from the Angels.
Scott Servais, huh?
For those of you over the age of, I don't know, 25, you remember Scott Servais as a middling catcher—one who amassed as much value in fWAR over a 11-year career with the Astros, Cubs, Giants and Rockies as Nelson Cruz did just this past year.
But for those of you who follow the game closely—honestly, closer than me—you already know Scott Servais is pretty good at this. If you don't already know, as I didn't, allow me to elaborate.
Servais' post-playing career began in 2002 as a catching coordinator for the Chicago Cubs, before moving on to become a scout for the Rockies. From there, starting with the 2006 season, it was on to what's clearly his best and most accomplished step, when he was Senior Director of Player Development for the Texas Rangers. He was lured away from the gig in late 2011 to serve as assistant general manager under Dipoto.
It's hard to get a clear sense of accomplishments, or to have any, after just a couple years in Los Angeles—but if you want to get a sense for what Servais is capable of accomplishing at his finest, look at his work in Texas.
There's obviously a lot that goes into this—not just development, but drafting, scouting and more—but take a look at the Rangers' organizational talent rankings, as provided by Baseball America, for the year of his hiring through year following his departure.
After the system bottomed out in 2007, and Servais and others had time to really put in work, the Rangers placed in the top five four of the next five years.
The 10,000-foot view is impressive, but there are anecdotes to match. While Dipoto will represent one familiar face should Servais make his way to the Pacific Northwest, there actually stands to be another here in Seattle—one who's on the roster.
It's Nelson Cruz. Yes, the Seattle slugger owes much of his late-career success—maybe even his career at all—to Servais, as revealed by Ben Lindbergh on Grantland this summer. In 2008, the then-27-year-old Cruz possessed a career .655 OPS and, when the Rangers didn't take him north, any team could've had him for practically free, but he slipped through waivers bearing a figurative "quad-A" label.
It was then that Servais really put in work:
"There were some things with his swing that weren’t working," Servais says. "We had exhausted all of our options and outrighted him off the roster. … When he was back in Triple-A, kind of his last go-round, being the director of player development at the time, it was kind of a last shot sitting down and asking him to make changes in his swing. Physical changes, not just approach."
Servais asked Cruz to try two things. The first was opening his stance, turning his body toward the pitcher like Andres Galarraga, another hitter who had reinvented himself (and who, with an assist from Coors Field, became one of only three players to hit 40 homers for the first time at an even more advanced age than Cruz was when he managed the feat1). Servais suspected that the pitches Cruz flailed against revealed the root of his problems. "When the ball was down, out over the plate, he was fine. He could handle the pitches. It was just when the ball was elevated he cut his swing off a little bit, so it was an opportunity to see the breaking ball a little bit better, getting him in a more consistent athletic position when he got to the hitting position."
But the biggest thing, Servais says, was "flattening out his swing so he could catch up to the plus fastballs at the big league level. When they got elevated, he was always underneath the ball. This helped him get flat through the ball, and that’s where his power had a chance to play."
It's impossible to view his tenure in Arlington as anything but impressive, but there's always the question of how much the skill translates when moving organizations. Having joined the Angels in just late 2011, it's difficult to get a good sense on progress made there, particularly with the organization constantly losing top draft picks for signing premier free agents.
While the accomplishments aren't there, the anecdotes are—at least around his player dev philosophy. On that, I point you to an excellent 2014 piece on ESPN from the great Sam Miller. In this in-depth article, Miller—in addition to providing a plethora of other details—reveals the three tenets of Servais' approach to player development:
- Spend, Big and Small.
- Try Everything.
- 3. Get 55 Coaches to Feel, and Act, as if They're on the Same Team.
I can't implore you enough to read the article, but to give you a taste, here's the explanation on #2:
The Angels' PD staff -- half of it hired or in new positions since Servais took over -- has become used to seeing its unconventional ideas tested. In the Dominican Republic, the Angels started measuring time of possession. (The quality of pitches increased significantly the quicker the pitcher worked.) They're filming instructional leaguers from ladders so players can see their footwork on defense. They're incorporating elements of advance scouting in rookie ball: Idle pitchers will sit in the stands, chart the way opposing pitchers attack hitters, then run back to post the results in the dugout. They measure new stats -- like how often batters fight back from a pitcher's count -- and share them with the players.
The Angels expect to finally install TrackMan video technology, at a cost of $500,000, at one of their minor league parks this season, giving them access to troves of information on pitcher spin, hit trajectories and other granular data -- and shrinking the large data gap between them and other forward-thinking organizations. A team can have one of three relationships with advanced metrics. Tier one: Ignore them. Tier two: Embrace and employ what's already out there. Tier three: Create its own intelligence.
"We want to get to three," Servais says.
Just as Dipoto's done in his short time here with the Mariners, Servais seems to say all the right things and have all the right ideas.
Going back to Dipoto—there was a bit of uproar, or at least general malaise, at the idea of the Mariners going with a general manager who had some experience. This, right here, is why you do that.
It isn't just not being in over your head when you get in the big chair, it's having the ability to lure in talent this organization wouldn't otherwise, and it's the experience that comes with working with them before—hey, Dipoto and Tom Allison teamed up in drafting Max Scherzer and Paul Goldschmidt once upon a time.
Still, this isn't a certainty. For that experience to matter, Dipoto has to actually seal the deal and lure Servais and other talented execs to Seattle.
Here's to hoping he does.