Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The sinking Mariners

Don Wakamatsu was fired Monday as manager of the Seattle Mariners. He wasn't a completely innocent bystander in the M's implosion, but their 42-70 record when he was fired wasn't all his doing either.

He got the job for the 2009 season, part of a new regime that featured Jack Zduiencik as the general manager. Zduiencik had been the scouting director of the Milwaukee Brewers, and he had a distinctive style in that job. He focused on bats.

Prince Fielder was too fat and too slow for most teams; Zduiencik took him in the first round. Rickie Weeks was an amateur second baseman, and there's a long-standing scouting rule about not signing amateur second basemen, because a player with the athletic ability to play infield in the majors is going to be a shortstop in high school or college. Zduiencik took Weeks with the second overall pick. Matt LaPorta was a man without an obvious position; Zduiencik took him in the first round.

Then he came to Seattle and — surprise — reshaped a bad team around defense.

The M's already had Ichiro Suzuki. Zduiencik traded for Franklin Gutierrez, a bit player in Cleveland; Wakamatsu installed Gutierrez in center; Gutierrez quickly established himself as an eye-popping defender. At times the M's played three legit center fielders in their outfield. They made a midseason trade for a legitimately outstanding defensive shortstop. The sophisticated defensive metrics were off the charts.

Seattle was last in the league in runs scored, batting average, walks drawn and on-base percentage. They had just two pitchers work more than 100 innings. And they won 85 games. Eighty-five wins off Felix Hernandez and defense.

Zduiencik doubled down on this strategy. His corner infielders, Russell Branyan and Adrian Beltre, left as free agents; he replaced their 39 homers with a second leadoff man (Chone Figgins) and good-glove, weak-stick first baseman (Casey Kotchman). He traded a handful of prospects for Cliff Lee. He exchanged high-cost disappointment Carlos Silva for high-cost disappointment Milton Bradley.

And somebody — maybe Zduiencik, maybe the ownership, maybe even Wakamatsu — decided to bring back aging legend Ken Griffey Jr.

There was Internet chatter about how brilliant Zduiencik is, praise for his grasp of defensive metrics, how Silva for Bradley was a no-lose proposition. The M's were a trendy pick to win the division.

And it all went to hell.

The offense is even worse than in 2009. Lee has been shipped off for a different handful of prospects. The pitching staff, with Lee gone, is back to being King Felix and a cast of thousands. Bradley was a pain, and Silva is 10-5 with the Cubs.

Griffey might have been the key. He was there because he was Ken Griffey Jr., and that helped sell tickets in '09. He was expected to be a good influence on the troubled Bradley. More than that, he was supposed to contribute something as a DH. He hadn't been great in 2009, but he had his moments.

But he was toast, and Wakamatsu was in an impossible position. Griffey, as it turned out, held more respect in the clubhouse than the manager did. When Wakamatsu benched Griffey, and the superstar retired, the rest of the team turned on the manager. Bradley acted up. Figgins, long seen as a class act, rebelled. Wakamatsu's superiors — Zduiencik or the people above the GM — were unwilling to take the heat for ending Griffey's career.

Now Wakamatsu is gone, and the same people who were so impressed by Zduiencik's reshaping of the M's are jeering his missteps.

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