Thursday, March 11, 2004

Responding to the Challenge... Again 

Alrighty then, it would appear that I've been called out again (I apologize for the fewer posts lately, but work and family obligations have taken away from my baseball time). Last time, David Cameron at USS Mariner challenged me (calling out "those who pride themselves on being optimistic about the team and the front office") to find a team with a worse offseason than the Mariners, and a worse talent evaluator than Bill Bavasi. Without flinching, I responded with about 15 teams that had worse offseasons and named Pirates GM Dave Littlefield and Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd worse talent evaluators. San Shin's Jeff Shaw called bulls**t, saying that I had skirted the issue, so I responded again.

David is at it again, this time calling out "those whose sole point is to be contrarian for the sake of it" to "find anything positive to say about the fight for the last few spots on this roster." I had not connected the first string with myself, but Fire Bavasi labelled it a Challenge to the Optimist, so I'll assume the challenge was meant for me (or maybe its meant for Olympia Mariner, who you should read anyway).

First, I'd like to say that I'm not contrarian for the sake of it, and I resent the implication. I appear contrarian because I focus on the good things the Mariners have done and will do, and believe that a move may make good sense for a baseball team, even if it is not endorsed by the statarazzi. I also believe that getting the players you like is not as easy as it seems, unless you overpay a la the Yankees. I am happy to appear contrarian to those who constantly belittle every move the Mariners make because it does not follow the tenets laid down by Baseball Prospectus, who, having done a fantastic thing in bringing more prominence to statistical analysis of the game, still have not led a single team to a World Series (Nor, for that matter have the GMs they endorse like Billy Beane and Theo Epstein). I am not blindly optimistic, nor do I paint negativity in bold strokes just because ownership's vision for a team incorporates the character of its players and an eye toward the bottom line. I am optimistic because Edgar, Jamie, Ichiro, Bret and company give me every reason to be and because, as Eric Neel said, "these guys not only deserve our love, they deserve our reverence."

That out of the way, here's the crux of the challenge, I believe...

...I can't imagine that even our braintrust would carry Bocachica or Owens for long enough to do any real harm. But, to those who still hold out hope that we're wrong about Bill Bavasi and he has some kind of master plan that is only apparent to those with rose-colored glasses, please, let us know exactly where these guys fit in that plan. How does having two of the worst players in any spring training camp fighting for roster spots on a team built to contend make this team better? How were they unable to find anything resembling a major league player with their non-roster invitees? What part of the plan necessitates wasting spring training at-bats on washed up players who never had a prime?
Rather than just address these points, I am going to try to articulate what I think the Mariners plan was and is for the bench.

We are trying to build a major league bench, and at the same time, we do not want to stunt the growth of future Seattle Mariner starters like Chris Snelling and Jose Lopez, so no cheating by putting a true prospect on the bench as it may hurt their development much more than it helps the team. We will consider players with lower upside like Jamal Strong and Justin Leone, but we think that some more time in AAA will help both, and if they get off to a hot start, we can bring them up to be bench players. We want our starters out there for 95% of the time, and have brought in guys with track records of good health and don't believe a second coming of Jeff Cirillo could happen. In the event of an injury that removes one of our starters for any length of time, or a Cirillo-like implosion of any of our starters, we have the option of bringing up any of these minor leaguers to take a full-time job. Or we may deal one of them for an able replacement from the Pirates.

Since we are not counting on our bench to be full-time replacements for anyone, don't spend too much money. So what do we want in our bench players? We should have defensive flexibility and be able to cover the following postitions:
1. Second catcher
2. Fourth outfielder - hit some and play centerfield is key with Cammy gone.
3. Backup middle infielder - probably more emphasis here on a good glove. A shortstop is more important than 2B since we have a Gold Glove there already.
4. Backup corner infielder - probably more emphasis on a good bat. A 3B is probably more helpful than a 1B since our starting 3B and LF could play first.
5. Utility guy - someone who could play the corner outfield positions or anywhere in the infield.

Preferably, in that mix we would have the following offensive skills, ranked by need for your 2004 Seattle Mariners.
1. Pinch-hitter against lefties (Ibanez and Olerud have struggled against lefties)
2. Pinch-runner, but one who could hit would be preferable. (Edgar and Olerud on the basepaths in the 8th or 9th).
3. Pinch-hitter against righties (Catcher, anyone else on the bench when they are resting a player)

Our bench last year consisted of Mark McLemore (or Jeff Cirillo), Willie Bloomquist, John Mabry, Greg Colbrunn, and Ben Davis. In 2001, it consisted of Stan Javier, Mark McLemore (or more realistically Al Martin), Charles Gipson, Tom Lampkin and Ed Sprague. The point of mentioning this, is that a strong bench has not been a big trademark of the Seattle Mariners, even during their finest season. I don't believe a strong bench is important UNLESS you have a weak starter, which we don't. The arguments for "weak starter" that I've seen are centered primarily around platooning for Raul Ibanez or John Olerud.

Colbrunn filled the role of backup corner infielder and lefty-masher. We signed him to a 2-year deal that would have paid him $2.5M this year, thinking that Edgar would retire after 2003, and that Colbrunn would become the full-time (or platoon) DH. As it turned out, Edgar was the healthy one, and it was Colbrunn who broke down. With just 58 at bats under his belt, he was gone for the year with a wrist injury that is still hampering him this Spring. So it was decided that a backup centerfielder was more important than a gimpy lefty-masher off the bench, and so we swapped Colbrunn for Quinton McCracken, who just a year ago hit a solid 825 OPS and plays a respectable centerfield to backup Randy Winn, and is a solid fourth outfielder. As a bonus, he is best buddies with Randy Winn, so that should help both players. Last year, Ichiro played in 159 games while Ibanez and Winn each played in 157 games, so any fourth outfielder is not going to get alot of at bats, maybe 100-150.

With Colbrunn gone, our one gaping hole is still a hitter who mashes lefties. We outbid the Red Sox for the perfect fit in Ellis Burks, but did not land him. This will continue to be a player the Mariners pursue. Until we find that player, Dave Hansen gets the job as backup corner infielder. Hansen probably only pinch-hits for other bench players against righties and helps to give Scott Spiezio, Edgar Martinez and John Olerud days off. He has a long history as a pinch hitter, but has done well in spot starts in the past. A dark horse in this race is Bucky Jacobsen, a non-roster invitee who has some pop, but still hits righties better than lefties.

Willie Bloomquist is the new Mark McLemore, a utility guy we look to be able to play a variety of positions, hit some, and run well. We need an upgrade here. Last year was a disappointing year for Bloomquist as a hitter, so it makes sense to bring in a guy to challenge him. Enter Eric Owens.

Eric Owens has decent range in the outfield, used to be an infielder and has worked on grounders this offseason to increase his versatility. By all accounts, he is a great clubhouse guy, and has some speed to be used as a pinch runner. In 2000, Baseball Prospectus said about him... "Another scrappy player. Owens is a great bench guy, especially because he wants so badly to play, and will play so many positions, that he’ll keep your starters on their toes. He’s one of the best backups in the majors; unfortunately, his speed, defense and patience aren’t enough to make him a reasonable starter anywhere on the field." In 2001, they write "His success last year arguably hurts his chance at being a component of a really good team. The problem: Owens does a lot of good things for a team in a reserve role but even in his best year was plainly overmatched as a starting outfielder. " So in 2002-2003, he is a full-time outfielder, and predictably, struggles. But somehow that time in the outfield has eroded the skills that made him a great bench player? No, it has made him back into a contributing bench player on a contender! If he can play the infield again, he sounds like a good addition to the bench, and if nothing else is a good veteran for Willie Bloomquist (and Quinton McCracken) to be pushed by and learn from. Personally, I think Owens would contribute MORE than Bloomquist, and am rooting for him to supplant Wee Willie, even if it is not until May or June.

Hiram Bocachica is a 28-year-older who has hit LEFTIES to a 750 OPS in 130 at bats over the past three years. He has some pop as over the last three years, 30 of his 69 hits were for extra bases. He has played second base, third base, and all three outfield positions in his 4 years as a major league bench player. He is one of 9 hitters ever to hit a home run into the loge level at Dodger Stadium, and he did it against Randy Johnson who some might consider to be the type of tough lefty that a bench player like Bocachica is likely to face. He started 1 for 22 last year for the Tigers and got sent to AAA. And this decision makes him pond scum or something like it in the eyes of the Mariner Pessimists. Yet, isn't this the same tiny sample size that they are railing against using Spring Training stats for?

And the weakest position on the bench is the backup middle infielder. In years past we have seen Luis Ugueto, Desi Relaford, and Charles Gipson take this role. They typically play solid defense and can be used as a pinch runner. Hitting capability is a huge bonus. Ramon Santiago is the nominee this year, but his first year in Detroit did not exactly, ahem, show off his glove, but then he was bounced from his natural position of shortstop to second base and that can mess you up. By most accounts he has good range. Before rotator cuff surgery after 2002, he had an exceptional arm, but now is average. He is quick and can steal a base, but he's not blazing fast. Its possible that he could lose this job to a minor leaguer like Leone or Lopez mid-season. Or he could falter, and it could go to the runner up for the utility job.

I will agree that our bench IS the weakest part of your 2004 Mariners. No question about it. Rotation - awesome and deep. Bullpen - excellent once again. Starters - about the only question mark is catcher. So that leaves the bench. The Mariners do want hitters on their bench and positional flexibility, but they are primarily looking for league-minimum players with flexibility to cover the rare days off for the big guys. They don't want to be the Yankees and spent $10M on their bench. They don't really need platoon mates as they consider Olerud and Ibanez full-time guys. Ideally, they will find their missing big bat through trade or through cuts. Unless you throw a lot of money around at players, you are unlikely to bring in high-potential guys to Seattle, because they know they are blocked this year, and not likely to get a full-time role, that they might find in places like Detroit, Milwaukee, and this year, Atlanta.

So, rail against M's management all you want. They brought in guys who will challenge the incumbent, don't cost much if they stick, are quality guys and have bench experience. Instead of railing on something, go for constructive criticism where you describe who you would have gone for your bench, and why. Its easy to be negative fellas, and while the sarcastic putdowns are funny for awhile, they wear thin.

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