Beane and Zduriencik: Mirror Images

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Who would play Jack Zduriencik in the movie version of the Mariners rise if it were to occur and one were to be made? I’m thinking Paul Giamatti with glasses and a shaved head. Right now, though, it won’t matter unless they choose to make Moneyball 2 and have Zduriencik as a character in a supporting role. If they really decided to make an accurate version of Moneyball 2, it would center on the amount of luck that Billy Beane had in becoming the worldwide phenomenon he did and why the opposite end of the spectrum is exemplified by Zduriencik and what’s happened with the Mariners.

Zduriencik is running out of time. In his fifth year on the job, the Mariners may have a better farm system than the one he inherited; they might be cheaper; but they’re still losing and he’s in the last year of his contract. An 8-15 record is bad enough, but when the record is accompanied by losing 2 of 3 to the historically horrific Astros; by the offensive players they acquired to improve their run totals failing to produce; and by their home attendance hovering between 10,000 and 15,000 per game, it’s not hard to see what’s coming next: a new regime to enliven the fan base. If a change is made, I could easily see a Pat Gillick return as a short-term solution for two years with Mike Arbuckle as his heir apparent.

When this is going to happen depends on how antsy Chuck Armstrong gets and whether ownership tells him something needs to be done to make it look like they’re doing something. The Mariners are better than this, but unless it shows on the field, that won’t matter. The downfall for Zduriencik that has him heading toward being fired stems not from the Mariners’ poor record and dwindling attendance, but that the expectations were driven upward due to his status as a scout who was also willing to use the new metrics. This led to the hapless columnists like Joel Sherman to refer to him as a “truly Amazin’ exec” in an attempt to bash the Mets while simultaneously bolstering his skewed and ignorant view of how a team “should” be run. Zduriencik’s potential for success was made worse by the Mariners’ leap from 101 losses in 2008 to 85 wins in 2009. That it was a byproduct of luck didn’t matter when penning the narrative. He won, therefore he is a “genius.” It was puffery to further a stat-based “revolution” that created the legend of Jack Z and it’s the reality that it’s not so simple to find players based on sabermetrics that will bring him down. Sometimes the numbers don’t result in players performing.

This relates to Beane in the following way: Beane’s “genius” was crafted by a clever and crafted storyline, Moneyball, that eventually wound up being a movie of the same name starring one of the most bankable stars in the world, Brad Pitt. That the book was twisted and the movie was ludicrous doesn’t make a difference to the lay-fan who believed every word and screen movement as if it were coming from the mouth of God himself and if Michael Lewis is that God, I’ll pull a maneuver straight out of Paradise Lost.

Ironically, when the movie was released, the A’s were tumbling and spiraling like a wounded bird. At that time the only people still clinging to the “Beane as genius” narrative were those who had something invested in it still being seen as accurate. Beane has taken the portrayal and adapted it to the front he puts up. He’s an actor in a show. When his stock was down, he became the passive, “aw shucks,” everyman who did little more than take advantage of market inefficiencies and happened to be the subject of a best-selling book that he didn’t have anything to do with other than allowing Lewis access. It was rife with significant dramatic license, but Beane still took full advantage of his newfound fame. While the team lost, no one wanted to hear it from him other than the aforementioned Beane-zealots. Then when the team started winning again, out came the blustery, Type-A personality to shove it in the faces of those who doubted him and his fickle “fans” reappeared. He’s out there again and is the go-to guy for quotes and validation on subjects aplenty, and they don’t just have to do with baseball.

Beane’s reputation was gone by mid-season 2013. He wanted to go to the Cubs after the 2011 season, but the Cubs preferred Theo Epstein over him. He was with the A’s and stuck with the A’s. Beane and the franchise were like a longtime married couple maintaining the pretense for mutual benefit, to save face, and because there was nowhere else to go. They’d settled into a comfortable, mundane day-to-day existence hoping to win the lottery with their young players and cheap free agent signings. Then, like a family in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy and divorce, they inexplicably did hit the lottery.

How else do you explain Brandon Moss? Beane saw it coming with the failed-with-four-franchises journeyman Moss? Then why was he in the minors for the first half of the season while the A’s messed around with Daric Barton and Kila Ka’aihue? Was he saving Moss as a secret weapon?

Of course not.

It was luck.

The young players they acquired in gutting trades from the previos winter—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Josh Reddick—all developed and contribued at once.

Luck.

They came back from 9 games under .500 on June 10th and 13 games out of first place on June 30th to win the division.

Luck.

They were talented, but they took advantage of a Rangers team that had grown complacent and whose main star, Josh Hamilton, was in the midst of a dreadful slump in which he looked like he didn’t want to play.

And they were lucky.

The public doesn’t want to hear the details of how a baby’s made or about genetic good fortune to make said baby into a handsome 6’4” star athlete and number one draft pick like Beane or the same genetics that made Zduriencik a 5’11” infielder who never got above A ball, hit .140 in a brief minor league career, and grew pudgy as he aged. The public just wants to see the baby. With Beane, he’s had an endless stream of good fortune to maintain this veneer; with Zduriencik, he hasn’t been so fortunate. That’s what it comes down to.

The flickering memories of the days of Zduriencik as the next “great” GM are dimming as rapidly as the desperate leaping from the caravan those who created the myth. Now the same people who called Zduriencik the new breed of GM, spending his formative years in scouting and eventually educated in stats, are calling for his dismissal.

If the Mariners start hitting and the back of their rotation pitches better, they’ll play better. If they don’t, they won’t and Zdruiencik is likely to be out of a job at the end of the season or sooner.

It’s better to be lucky when one is closer to the end than at the beginning because if it’s at the beginning, it will be expected; if it’s at the end, it was just luck. And you might save your job.

The A’s sudden rise in 2012 might buy Zduriencik some time as an example of what can happen if a little patience is exhibited, but given the way his tenure has mirrored Beane’s, the luck won’t be present in Seattle and unless they make a drastic turnaround, nor will Zduriencik for much longer.

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2013 Astros Will Be A Pennant Race Factor

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The aftermath of the Astros gutting and pending 2013 disaster won’t simply affect their organization. In a positive sense, they’re getting rid of their moderate-to-highly paid players and bringing volume into their farm system, plus they’re at the top of the MLB draft and will be so for the foreseeable future. In a negative sense, they’ve all but conceded any and all pretense of fielding a legitimate big league team.

Unlike Michael Kay’s ridiculous, uninformed, petty and vindictive “prediction” that the 2012 Mets were going to lose well over 100 games, I can say without rancor or bias that the 2013 Astros are, at best, a 55 win team. It’s probably going to be fewer than that. Let’s look at why this is the case and why a horrendous club will play so great a role is the 2013 playoff chase.

Their division and status as a target

Two teams from the AL West, the Athletics and the Rangers, made the playoffs last season. A third, the Angels, significantly underachieved but still won 89 games. The fourth team, the Mariners, has improved. Because they’re going to play 19 games each against all of these clubs, the Astros and their opponents will enter each series knowing the Astros will be lucky to win a game.

Other clubs are going to go all out to beat the Astros. The games won’t take on the tenacity of Yankees-Red Sox, Reds-Cardinals or Dodgers-Giants, but they’ll entail opposing managers treating them as such because they’re games they have to win. Losing to the Astros this season will be tantamount to a fundamental gaffe such as failing to touch a base, getting caught leaving too soon on a sacrifice fly, not having the proper reliever warming up or hitters batting out of order. It’s inexcusable.

The rest of the American League

For the Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, White Sox and Royals, the Astros are a problem. With the strength of the AL West teams, three from the division might make the playoffs based strictly on the extra few victories they’ll accumulate by beating up on the Astros.

Let’s say the Red Sox are out of contention by August and the Yankees are hovering around a playoff spot. On the weekend of August 16th the Yankees are playing the Red Sox while the Angels playing the Astros. The Red Sox won’t have a personal stake in the outcome, but nothing would please them more than hurting the Yankees. The Angels will have what amounts to a sparring session while the Yankees and Red Sox are staging a typical four hour wrestling match regardless of their positions in the standings.

Having a team on the schedule for 19 games and realistically penciling in 13-15 wins goes a long way in bolstering one’s win total and assisting a playoff run.

Job savers and game changers

The Mariners 2013 offense is more potent with the additions of Kendrys Morales and Mike Morse. Their pitching will be affected by the decision to move in the fences at Safeco Field. They were 75-87 last season and GM Jack Zduriencik and manager Eric Wedge are both in the final year of their contracts. Zduriencik’s job is on the line. Would a perceived “improvement” of rising to, say, 84-78 be enough to convince ownership that the Mariners are on the right track and that Zduriencik and Wedge deserve at least one more season? If the Astros weren’t in the AL West, the Mariners would probably be around a 75 win team again. With the Astros there, the Mariners should be over .500. This could potentially save the jobs of their GM and manager.

The Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia’s job is also in jeopardy if the high-priced group plays in a similar lackluster fashion as they did last season. In spite of insistence to the contrary, GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not on the same page. Owner Arte Moreno wasn’t happy with anyone in his organization after splurging for Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson and missing the playoffs. This past winter he spent even more money on Josh Hamilton and kept his management team in place. None of that changes the fact that this current configuration is not a Scioscia team that, in the past, relied on deep starting pitching and bullpen. The starters gobbled innings; they had a proven closer and set-up men; they embodied solid fundamentals, inside baseball strategies, speed and defense. Apart from Mike Trout and Erick Aybar, this team is plodding. They rely on power, power, power with a shaky starting rotation. Could the Astros’ presence give the Angels with the extra 4-5 wins they wouldn’t get otherwise? A number of wins that last season would’ve vaulted them into the playoffs despite the dysfunction?

On the other coast, the Yankees have gotten worse this winter, not better. They’re relying on ancient veterans and reclamation projects, pinching pennies and have a manager, Joe Girardi, on the final year of his contract. If they don’t make the playoffs, someone is on the chopping block. History has proven that Brian Cashman is now the Teflon GM. It won’t be Girardi’s fault, but hypothetically if the Yankees miss the playoffs, he could be gone and it would be in large part due to the Astros getting beaten so consistently by other playoff contenders who have the advantage of 13 more games against them than the Yankees do.

The Astros will get worse as the season moves along

You wouldn’t think it possible for them to get worse with a projected payroll of $25 million and open admission from GM Jeff Luhnow that they’re going to be awful. In response to the criticism for his latest deal in sending Jed Lowrie to the A’s, Luhnow said:

“We’re not going to do something to improve a few games in 2013 that comes at the expense of our ability to compete over the long haul.”

In other words, “We’re going to be as bad or worse than we’ve been in the past two years when we lost 107 and 106 games.”

In a sense, he’s right on all counts. What’s the difference to the Astros if they win 65 or 50 games? But there’s something untoward about a team not even putting forth the affectation of caring whether they win or lose—in fact, trying to lose to get a higher draft position.

The remaining big league-caliber players they have will be traded as well. They’re already willing to listen to offers on their best pitcher and highest paid player, Bud Norris. He’s going to be dealt at some point. The other mediocre veterans they have will be available at mid-season. Carlos Pena still has power and a good glove at first base. Strikeouts and under .200 batting average aside, a contender will take him for their stretch run. Jose Veras is the Astros’ closer and if he’s pitching well is a veteran bullpen asset for the second half. Wesley Wright is a lefty specialist and every team needs more than one lefty specialist in the playoffs.

Luhnow has shown total indifference to trading his players. He’ll send them to division rivals or anywhere that he can get the most in exchange. Pena, Veras, Wright can help the Angels, Rangers, Yankees, White Sox—anyone to win that extra game or two to take a playoff spot.

The Astros are a Triple A team now and will be a Double A team by July. They can talk about the future all they want, but the present has consequences for the rest of baseball.

Expect complaints from teams like the Yankees that it’s not fair. Opposing franchises will say that the Astros should have to field a reasonably competitive big league team. Eventually, something might be done about this strategy with MLB forcing teams to provide a competent product. There’s not much MLB can do right now, but they could try to install a payroll floor in the future, something the Players Association and most other owners would agree to.

In 2013, though, it won’t change the reality or the outcome. As a direct result of the Astros switching leagues, people will save or lose their jobs because of it.

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Your Final 2012 Manager/GM Hotseats and Predictions

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Some managers have already been dismissed and others will be gone as soon as the season ends tomorrow night. Let’s go through the list of the obvious and otherwise.

Manager Joe Girardi/GM Brian Cashman—New York Yankees

The Yankees are in the playoffs and barring a dreadful stumble in the final two games against a Red Sox team that’s waiting to be put out of its misery, they’re going to win the division. But, as the Yankees from top-to-bottom have repeatedly said, they’re not in it to make the playoffs. Anything short of a good showing in the ALCS and the manager could be in jeopardy. It’s not Girardi’s fault and if he’s going to be tossed over the cliff, I would advise him to handcuff himself to Cashman as they’re going over because it’s Cashman who should be in trouble.

From the trade that sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos (both on the disabled list), to his questionable development of pitchers (Manny Banuelos is going to have Tommy John surgery), and his off-field mishaps, there are many reasons to say enough’s enough with Cashman.

In an ordinary situation, firing the manager/GM for a team that has won 90+ games and made the playoffs would be ludicrous, but the Yankees have a World Series or bust attitude and a $200+ million payroll. Add it up and people will be held accountable for a fall.

Manager Bobby Valentine—Boston Red Sox; Manager John Farrell—Toronto Blue Jays

I’ll discuss them together since they’re all tied together.

Valentine’s putting up the front of expecting to be back because no one’s said anything to him directly and he has a contract for 2013, but he’s gone and he knows he’s gone. This Red Sox disaster was not due to the manager. He was part of the problem, but even had they kept Terry Francona or hired one of the candidates preferred by GM Ben Cherington, 2012 wouldn’t have gone much differently.

Farrell and the Red Sox are eyeing one another like desperately lonely singles at a middle-aged mixer and the Blue Jays will take advantage of that and get a player in exchange for Farrell. I doubt it’ll be someone as significant as Daniel Bard, but they might get something of use and not have to pay Farrell off if they wanted to fire him.

The Red Sox had better get Farrell better talent because his stoic countenance, handling of the media, and remembrances of years gone by as the Red Sox pitching coach aren’t going to yield any better results than what Valentine got without massive changes to the personnel. In fact, since Farrell’s in-game managerial skills are poor, the Red Sox might be worse with Farrell than they are with Valentine.

The Blue Jays know what Farrell is, are unhappy with his open flirtation with the Red Sox, and have seen his “strategery” on a daily basis for two years now. If there wasn’t this clear lust between Farrell and the Red Sox with the Blue Jays thinking they can get something out of it and not have to pay Farrell for 2013, they might fire him.

They need a manager who will handle the youngsters and correct mistakes as they happen; someone they can trust to make the sensible game decisions. I’d go with someone older and uncompromising like Larry Bowa, but if (when) Farrell leaves, they’ll hire a Don Wakamatsu-type. Most anyone would be a better game manager than Farrell. After a short honeymoon, the Red Sox will learn, much to their dismay.

The Blue Jays should wait to see what the Yankees do with Girardi. He’d be a great fit in Toronto.

Manager Jim Leyland—Detroit Tigers

Much was made of the Tigers underachievement and that Leyland is working under a 1-year contract with no deal for 2013, but the Tigers problems weren’t the fault of the manager and they came back to win the AL Central. He’ll be back if he wants to come back, but I’m getting the inkling he might retire. The Tigers are a great spot for Francona.

Interim Manager Sandy Alomar, Jr.—Cleveland Indians

The Indians are interviewing Francona, but the team is restarting their rebuild and won’t have the money to pay Francona or to bring in the players he’s going to want to win. It’s a no-win situation for him because he’d be risking his reputation by overseeing a team that’s starting over and would revert to the “nice guy and meh manager” rep he had with the Phillies before he wound up in Boston.

Alomar is a top managerial candidate, is popular in Cleveland and will get the fulltime job.

Manager Mike Scioscia—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels missed the playoffs after spending a ton of money on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson; GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not exactly buddies; and owner Arte Moreno is understandably upset.

They’re saying that Scioscia will be back, but I’m not so sure. This is another great situation for Francona.

GM Jack Zduriencik—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik should be safe to at least fulfill the final year of his contract and see if the team improves in 2013.

The entire Marlins baseball ops

From President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest on down to manager Ozzie Guillen, it’s been speculated that the baseball people in the front office were in trouble, then that was quashed after which it was said that Guillen is on the firing line.

I don’t see anyone as safe and I think owner Jeffrey Loria is simply going to fire everyone in a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort them out,” manner.

Team President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington—Pittsburgh Pirates

After the Pirates came apart in the second half and the scandal of putting young prospects through Navy SEAL training, Huntington’s and assistant GM Kyle Stark were rumored to be in trouble; Coonelly put the kibosh on that, but Coonelly himself isn’t all that secure.

I think they all get fired.

Manager Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

There’s an odd dynamic in Colorado in which everything is done in a friendly, agreeable manner. Former GM Dan O’Dowd willingly took a demotion in favor of new Bill Geivett wielding the power in the baseball ops. Manager Tracy has an indefinite, handshake agreement to stay as manager, but it sounds as if they’re going to make a change with Tracy staying in some capacity.

Presumably they’ll go with someone younger in the Chip Hale variety as the new manager.

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Managers/GMs on the 2012 Hotseat

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It’s never too early to talk about who might be in trouble in the front office and dugout.

Let’s take a look.

Jack Zduriencik, GM—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik was hired in late October of 2008. In retrospect, the worst thing that could’ve happened for the Mariners was the turnaround from 2008-2009 when they went from 61-101 to 85-77.

The 2008 team wasn’t 100-loss bad. They sustained crippling injuries to closer J.J. Putz and would-be ace #2 Erik Bedard and the entire season came apart. By the end of May, they were 15 games under .500 and double-digits out of first place.

When the news came out that Mike Morse had signed a contract extension with the Nationals, the trade Zduriencik made sending Morse to Washington for Ryan Langerhans was referenced on Twitter along with the now-laughable ranking of the Mariners of the sixth best organization in baseball a couple of years ago.

The trending topic is #6org as if it’s the most absurd thing in the world.

But, like the rise from 100-losses to moderate contention in the span of a year, it’s all in the details.

Zduriencik has done many good things as he’s reduced the Mariners’ payroll from $117 million when he took over to around $94 million in 2012. His drafts have yielded Dustin Ackley, Daniel Hultzen and Kyle Seager.

He’s also done some stupid things like signing Chone Figgins and engaged in activities that, at best, are described as amoral such as trading for Josh Lueke, signing Milton Bradley and double-dealing on the Yankees in the Cliff Lee trade negotiations.

It’s not all his fault. Some of what’s happened has been forced on him by the front office (re-signing Ken Griffey Jr. and keeping Ichiro Suzuki). But he got the credit for the 2009 rise, he gets the blame for everything else. That’s how it works.

The Mariners are in a nightmarish division and just pulled off a risky trade sending Michael Pineda and prospect Jose Campos to the Yankees for Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi. We won’t know the true end result of this trade for years, but if Pineda pitches well in pinstripes and Montero and Noesi don’t live up to expectations, that could be it for Zduriencik. The “right track” stuff won’t play if the Mariners again lose 90 games and with his contract running through 2013, Zduriencik may be running out of time.

Fredi Gonzalez, Manager—Atlanta Braves

Much to the chagrin of the more dialed-in Braves fans, unless they start the season 10-25, he’s not going anywhere.

He did a poor job last season even before the collapse that drove the Braves from a playoff spot that should’ve been assured. His strategic decisions were occasionally nonsensical and he appeared defensive and borderline arrogant in justifying the way he ran his team.

Do the Braves have an on-staff replacement and if they make a change? Would they be willing to hire an unproven Terry Pendleton? Probably not.

One intriguing option was Terry Francona, but Francona joined ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball and I doubt he’s going to step out of the booth and back on the field in 2012. I’m getting the feeling that he took his interviews with the Cubs and Cardinals right after leaving the Red Sox looking to keep managing and when he didn’t get those jobs, he came to terms with broadcasting as a new career option and will enjoy being around the game without the stifling pressure from managing in Boston for 8 years—pressure that negatively affected his health.

I wouldn’t be surprised if Francona doesn’t return to managing at all for the foreseeable future.

The one name that’s possible with Gonzalez—not likely, but possible if the season is spiraling out of control and needs to be saved—is Bobby Cox.

The veterans would welcome him back and while he’d be reluctant to replace his hand-picked successor, if John Schuerholz and Frank Wren tell Cox that Gonzalez is gone whether he takes the job or not, he’ll take the job. Chipper Jones could go to upper management and says enough’s enough with Gonzalez and try to convince Cox to take over for the rest of the season.

Remember that Cox didn’t want to move from GM to manager in 1990 when Russ Nixon was fired and Cox subsequently stayed until 2010 and wrote his ticket to the Hall of Fame.

Dusty Baker, Manager—Cincinnati Reds

Baker and GM Walt Jocketty have never been on the same page. Baker’s contract is up at the end of the season and the only thing that saved him from being fired at the conclusion of his last contract in 2010 was that he won the NL Central.

As evidenced by trading a large chunk of their minor league system for Mat Latos and the signings of Ryan Madson and Ryan Ludwick, the Reds are going for it now and have to win.

There’s no veteran successor on staff and Francona would be an option in Cincinnati if he were looking to get back in the dugout, but he’s not.

One interesting scenario is if Tony LaRussa is bored in retirement and his old cohort from Oakland and St. Louis, Jocketty, comes calling. LaRussa and Baker despise each other and it probably wouldn’t sit well with several of the Reds players, but if they’re not fulfilling their mandate, they’d have no one to blame but themselves and, like the Red Sox with Bobby Valentine, would have to deal with the consequences.

It won’t matter because the Reds are going to play well this year and Baker’s a survivor, but the expiring contract is hovering over the manager and team.

They’d better get off to a good start.

Brad Mills, Manager—Houston Astros

The new front office led by Jeff Luhnow kept Mills, but that may be because it makes no sense to pay a different manager to run a team that’s going to lose 100 games in 2012 regardless of who’s in the manager’s office.

Mills’s contract is up at the end of the season. The Astros mess is not his fault and he seems to be a competent manager, but Luhnow and new owner Jim Crane inherited him and it’s only fair that they hire their own man if that’s what they’d like to do.

One can only hope they don’t hire a new manager and, like Sig Mejdal’s new age title of “Director of Decision Sciences”, they choose to refer to the manager as “Director of On-Field Strategic Interpretations and Implementations”.

Maybe they’ll hire Keith Law to manage the team. I know I’d love to see that as he deals with Brett Myers.

That would be a narrative!

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