Building A Contender


I’ve been contemplating how to approach this topic for some time. Are the Seattle Mariners on the right path to eventually becoming a upper echelon team like they were in the late 1990s and the first few years of the 2000s, or are they doomed to mediocrity? Is there a “right” way to rebuild and get to a point where the team is winning year in and year out?

Geoff Baker posted this piece on the subject over on the Seattle Times this morning, and it raises some interesting questions. For the most part, I have to agree with him. The days of “Moneyball” are over. No, I’m not trying to say that OBP and defense aren’t important, but that wasn’t really what Moneyball was all about. Moneyball was about finding skills that are undervalued in the market. When the book was written, that happened to be OBP and defense, but that isn’t the case today.

The problem is that everyone has read Michael Lewis‘s book. Every team is a Moneyball team now, no matter their payroll is. While there will always be undervalued segments of the market, with every team searching for them they disappear quickly. Before the 2009 season, 30 HR very high strikeout hitters (Russell Branyan) could be had cheaply. Before the 2010 season the price has gone up considerably, and by 2011 they were back to being wildly overvalued and overpaid.

The market turns too quickly now for one team to exploit it was way that Billy Beane did a decade ago. So what is a crafy GM to do?

Baker’s conclusion is that the only way to contend is to spend spend spend the way the Yankee, Red Sox and Phillies do. While we all know that works, accepting that conclusion simply becomes a self-fulling prophecy of doom. The Mariners are never going to have the revenue to spend in that fashion. Though, while that’s true, they also are not the Rays, Royals, or A’s. The M’s are solidly in the middle in terms of payroll.

Moneyball and prospect advocates like to point to the Rays as a “proof” that the completely broken economics of baseball don’t prohibit small market teams from competing. This is entirely true in the short term, but consider what the Tampa franchise had to go through to accumulate all that young talent, like how many consecutive years of they had to have the top picks in the draft before they could assemble a good team. Also, notice how quickly it’s coming apart now that those star players, like Carl Crawford, are leaving as expensive free agents that Tampa can no longer afford. This is hardly an example of the sustained success the Mariners are hoping for.

The other side of the coin to Moneyball is also determining the parts of the market that are overvalued. Right now, the over valued part of the market is prospects. Recognizing this isn’t that hard to see. Players like Jesus Montero are still thought of as untouchable despite very pedestrian numbers in his second full season of AAA. The Yankees were crazy to have not cashed in him to acquire the pitcher they needed. But then again, they are the Yankees, they can just through $15 million at Erik Bedard next winter.

The Mariners have been smart to acquire a lot of young talent. Being able to fill in a few positions with very good, yet cheap players like Dustin Ackley will open up payroll to pay to fill in other gaps. If Robinson and Wells pan out in center and left field, then that’s more cash to spend on keeping Felix and finding a competent DH. All this overvalued young talent can also be flipped for undervalued established players, like the accusation of Brendan Ryan this past winter.

And this becomes the model the Mariners must follow to become perpetually a contender. They simply can’t afford to have high priced players at every position the way the big spenders do, but they don’t have to. Draft smartly, keep your own talent as best you can, trade away some of those prospects to fill holes, and spend big on occasion to fill a hole with a big time player simply because you can.

The problem the Mariners have right now is that they have 3 high priced players who aren’t performing. I’m referring of course to Bradley, Ichiro and Figgins. As a mid-market team, when you do spend money, you need to get something out of it. The $39 million being wasted on those 3 players this season is the difference between the M’s being a mid-market team and them being the Royals. They are the reason why the M’s aren’t currently contending. Imagine if that money had been used on Adrian Beltre and Adrian Gonzalez. How much better would this team be?

Or better yet, imagine what this team would look like if Ichiro and Figgins were playing like Ichiro and Figgins circa 2009, both getting on base at above a .365 clip. It would feel like every Dustin Ackley single was driving in a run, and you’d be reading many blog posts about not overvaluing Adam Kennedy‘s gaudy RBI numbers. Sounds like a much for fun team to follow, doesn’t it.

This isn’t meant to be a knock on Jack Zdureincik. The Bradley and Ichiro money was spent long before he got here. Only Figgins has been his fault, but at the time it seemed like a safe bet. Besides, he’s the cheapest of the three, and if the other $30 million was producing like it should, the wasted $9 mil in Figgins wouldn’t hurt as bad.

If you look at how I’ve laid out having a perpetual contended in Seattle, it would seem that the team is on the right course. The minor league system is now loaded with talent like it has never been before, thus creating a steady supply of cheap production and/or tradable pieces to upgrade the major league roster. The team is also close to freeing up vast amounts of payroll to to go get a couple much needed pieces.

The only thing missing, is a payroll equivalent to what Bavasi was given. Throw an extra $25 million into the pot, and Zduriencik will be able to cure many of the problems that currently infect the Mariners.