Like the clouds parting after a devastating Midwestern tornado, finally the Seattle Mariners baseball organization has blue skies in its sight.
Last week, the one-man wrecking crew Bill Bavasi was finally relieved of his duties as Mariners general manager, and unsurprisingly, manager John McLaren followed suit with his termination earlier today.
While it’s a relief that the tornado has run its course, its aftermath will be felt for years. The Seattle Mariners currently resemble a destroyed trailer park, brandishing the worst record in the majors in a year that they were set to contend for the AL West title.
In his four and a half years as the Mariners’ GM, Bavasi could do no wrong—at least when it came to not doing anything right. His win-now-so-I-don’t-get-canned approach that brought in aging sluggers for young prospects has all but depleted the farm system and assured that the rebuilding process will be as long and painful as possible.
Yes, there are so many missteps that have led the Mariners from averaging over 100 wins from 2001 to 2003 to less than 70 in Bavasi’s four abysmal seasons, but there is so little time in the day to discuss them all.
Seeing Richie Sexson get paid $15 million a year to strike out three times a game is beyond laughable, so let’s focus on the straw that broke the camel’s back: the Erik Bedard experiment.
Erik Bedard finished last season with a 9-1 record and a 2.62 ERA in his last 14 starts with the Baltimore Orioles. Widely slated as the best left-handed starter in the American League, he appeared to be the perfect compliment to Felix Hernandez in a rotation short of one more power arm needed to propel the team deep into a playoff run.
The Mariners won 88 games last season on the back of an outstanding bullpen and a solid year by Ichiro, Raul Ibanez, and first half all-star Jose Lopez. They finished six games behind the Angels in a second-half collapse strongly attributed to poor outings from the bottom of the rotation by the likes of Jeff Weaver and Jarrod Washburn (both Bavasi guys).
Enter Adam Jones—the most widely touted young Mariner prospect since A-Rod—and George Sherrill, the left-handed setup ace that put J.J. Putz in the ninth inning driver’s seat just about every night.
It had been discussed for years how Adam Jones would breathe new life into the franchise with his bonafide twenty-homer and twenty-swipe talents playing alongside Ichiro in the outfield for years to come.
Naturally, the nearsighted Bavasi went blind to the magnitude of Jones’ prospect by staring directly into the shiny veneer of the peaking and available all-star over in Baltimore.
The idea was to trade a great player of the future for a great player of today. The reality is they got swindled out of two great players of today for a mediocre player that was great yesterday.
Erik Bedard has yet to even come close to expectations. Even with a 4-4 record and an ERA above four, his home outings have still been mostly commendable; his road outings, however, have been nothing short of horrid.
Featuring such gems as six earned through two innings pitched in Texas, and nine earned in four and a third at Yankee Stadium, Bedard has given nothing for the Mariners' dormant batting lineup to work with.
Chock it up to miscommunication with Kenji Johjima, a bum shoulder, or even poor sleep in hotels, the M's "ace" has given no solid production on the road while barely scraping by at home, with as many no-decisions as wins.
With all of the problems the Mariners have faced after 70 games of being the worst team in baseball, two of their bigger problems happen to be at the positions that they gave up for Bedard.
The efficient but mostly unnotable Sherrill was supposed to merely supplement the package, not become its primary piece. Upon arriving in Baltimore, however, he quickly acquired the closer spot in spring training and has run with it ever since.
He is currently second in the majors with 23 saves, ahead of the likes of Jonathan Papelbon, Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, and Jose Valverde. His 3.37 ERA is only attributed to several recent blown saves, as he has otherwise been completely lights out.
Sherrill’s success may be even harder for the M’s to digest as they have had to watch their all-star closer J.J. Putz suffer through injury and inefficiency all season long.
The Mariners have only racked up 14 saves this season—and while it is unfair to directly compare totals with Sherrill, whose saves are two shy of the number of the Mariners’ total wins, it is not like the bullpen has been without its chances.
In between stints on the DL, Putz blew four saves in 13 of his opportunities. He only blew two saves all of last year as he made AC/DC’s “Thunderstuck” synonymous with a closed door in the ninth for Seattle.
His replacements have all been spotty, with Mark Lowe, Eric O’Flaherty, Ryan Rowland-Smith, and Sean Green all blowing several late leads. Former first-rounder Brandon Morrow struggled early but has since come around, executing flawlessly in relief and regularly hitting double-nines on the radar.
Still, it’s a rare circumstance that he gets that ball with the lead, as the Mariners’ batting lineup features more holes than the plot of an M. Night Shyamalan movie.
The only move that McLaren made more than changing the lineup was switching up the right field position—that’s right, the same right field position that Adam Jones would have occupied.
Willie Bloomquist, Jeremy Reed, Brad Wilkerson, Mike Morse, and Wladimir Balentien have all shared time in right and combined to hit a dismal .234 with next to no power numbers.
Adam Jones, meanwhile, has carved his niche in Baltimore as an athletic centerfielder, smart base runner, and clutch hitter. He is batting .260 and has shown the ability to both produce runs and drive them in.
His four home runs and five stolen bases are humble compared to expectations, but he is only 22 and has nothing but time to reach his limitlessly high ceiling. And by the time he hits his peak, Chris Tillman, the Mariners’ former top five pitching prospect and Bedard trade bait, should be coming into his own with the Orioles as well.
So what’s next for the Mariners? Fire sale, Marlins style. It’s time to trade every asset they have and bolster the farm system in hopes that there is a Hanley Ramirez somewhere waiting in the wings.
Erik Bedard is all but gone, and good riddance, too. While there is no way the Mariners will get equal value in return, it would not be surprising if the Yankees try to make a late season playoff push and offer up either Joba Chamberlain or Chien-Ming Wang for Bedard’s high profile name.
Ichiro is growing older as he closes in on 35, and his numbers are gradually beginning to show it. For the first time in his major league career he is batting under .300 toward the end of June.
Sure, his 30 stolen bases currently rank him third in the majors, and he likely still has another five or six solid seasons left in the tank, but the Mariners have really done all they can with his services.
If there is a suitor that would take on his currently lofty-but-falling price tag, the Mariners ought to take it. Use him to acquire some young blood like Jay Bruce from the Reds or that Washington Husky alum that Mariner fans know oh so well, Tim Lincecum.
The same should be done with J.J. Putz: sell high and buy low. Putz may very well be showing this season that last year was just a flash in the pan. The Mariners should unload him for some prospects and early-round picks while his clout is still fresh, and before he becomes the next Barry Zito/Rich Harden/Tim Hudson.
But the fire sale shouldn’t end with the roster—it should flame its way all the way through the front office, up to CEO Howard Lincoln and primary shareholder, Nintendo president Hiroshi Yamauchi.
Sure, Nintendo can make an awfully fun and lucrative gaming console, but they certainly don’t know how to properly invest in a baseball franchise.
It’s not even fair for this team to be compared with the likes of the Kansas City Royals, Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, Pittsburgh Pirates, and other traditional bottom-feeders.
No, this team is worse—they have money. The Mariners are on pace to become the first team with a salary of over $100 million to lose over 100 games. That is impossibly bad.