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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The Rejected Justin Upton Trade: Q&A

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The general reaction to the proposed Justin Upton trade from the Diamondbacks to the Mariners has been, “Why?”

Why would the Diamondbacks and GM Kevin Towers bother negotiating and completing the deal pending Upton’s approval while knowing that approval wasn’t going to come?

Why would the Mariners make such a deal while surrendering four players—Charlie Furbush, Nick Franklin, Stephen Pryor and Taijuan Walker—when the general consensus is that they need more than Upton to compete in a tough division?

Let’s discuss the answers.

Why did Towers bother?

Towers has no choice now. He has to get Upton out of there. He’s put himself in this position and there are lingering questions as to why there’s such a desperation to get rid of a 25-year-old, power hitting right fielder who’s signed to a reasonable contract. Usually in such a case there’s an obvious reason such as open animosity between player and club, money, poor performance or a rebuilding process. None of this is evident with Upton and the Diamondbacks. This is going to permeate the dealmaking process and clubs interested in Upton who may not have heard whispers (if they exist) of the real reason Upton’s available will hesitate and want an answer before they surrender a package similar to the Mariners.

The Mariners offer is important. Furbush is a useful lefty specialist, but the other players are significant. Pryor is a potential closer; Walker has a great power arm; Franklin is a former first round pick as a middle infielder with pop.

Towers was reportedly aware that Upton wasn’t going to okay the deal and perhaps he was hoping that the wearing down of the trade rumors that have gone on for over a year might spur Upton to say, “Let me outta here already.” But it was also a message to the rest of baseball that the cost for Upton is going to be steep for a deal to get done.

It makes sense in a way, but it might have backfired for Towers as the desire to trade Upton has now become a need. The difference between “I will” and “I must” is stark and the Diamondbacks have almost completely crossed that threshold. By that logic, they’re going to wind up with far less for Upton than what they were getting from the Mariners.

How did this help the Mariners?

On the surface, it’s a logical progression to use their farm system to acquire a superstar talent they’ll have at a reasonable cost for the next three years, but the Mariners knew that Upton would reject the trade just like the Diamondbacks did. But they tried anyway. Why?

Here’s why: Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik is in the final year of his contract. A surprising (and lucky) 85 wins in what was supposed to be year one of a rebuild in 2009 has lost its luster. He was referred to as a “genius,” and a new age thinker who used both scouting experience and new age stats to run his club. But disastrous signings such as Chone Figgins and off-field missteps like the allegations of lying in the entirety of his Cliff Lee dealings with the Yankees and subsequently trading for an accused rapist Josh Lueke made Zduriencik appear shady and amoral.

Whether it’s a fair assessment or not is irrelevant. If the on-field product had been better, these issues could be glossed over, but the on-field product has been awful and no one wants to hear about a rebuilt farm system. The Mariners have finished in last place in the AL West in each of the past three seasons and are desperately flinging things at the wall—Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay, Upton, flirting with Josh Hamilton, bringing in the fences at Safeco Field—and hoping to regain some attention from a fan base that’s stopped coming to the park.

Forgetting the on-field issues, here’s the bottom line: when Pat Gillick and Lou Piniella were running the place, the Mariners were first in attendance in baseball in 2001-2002. The last year when Bill Bavasi was GM in 2008 they lost 100 games and were sixth in attendance. In 2009, when they won those 85 games, they were seventh. In 2010, the year they acquired Lee to couple with Felix Hernandez and the Mariners were a trendy pick to make the playoffs, they were seventh. They were eighth in 2010 and 2011 and eleventh in 2012. It gets worse from there unless major names are acquired. They tried that with Upton and he said no.

With Ichiro Suzuki no longer there as a nominal drawing card, what possible reason other than King Felix is there to go see the games as long as the fans don’t think there’s any chance for them to win in a division with the Rangers, Angels and A’s?

The Upton trade was desperation, pure and simple, because Zduriencik’s job is on the line and if the season goes poorly without legitimate improvement, he’s getting fired. In fact, he might get fired during the season before the beginning of summer.

Was it worth it to the Diamondbacks and Mariners?

It was only worth it if they had convinced Upton to accept the trade before it leaked to the media. They didn’t. Now matters are worse for both. In the end, it was a huge gaffe that will define the organizations until the situations are settled and that settlement may not end as either Towers or Zduriencik envisioned unless they accounted for a worst case scenario that is looking more and more likely with each passing day.

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