Albert Einstein was originally credited with saying the definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
The Seattle Mariners 25-man roster wasn’t good enough in 2015 — like every year prior to that, going back 14 years now — and the club’s new GM and V.P. of baseball operations will have significant work to do if the club is to catch up to the better teams in the American League. The biggest gap the organization needs to narrow, however, may be in their approach to, well, baseball. Here’s what I mean:
There’s more than one way to win a baseball game, and there’s more than one way for a Major League Baseball team to build a successful roster. Perhaps most importantly, however, there’s more than one way to build a front office, too, and more owners are bringing in baseball executives at the presidential level.
Theo Epstein is not the GM of the Chicago Cubs, he’s the president of baseball operations. He hired Jed Hoyer to be the GM. The Arizona Diamondbacks hired Tony LaRussa as their Chief Baseball Officer, a less hands-on role of the version Epstein holds in Chicago, but with a niftier title. The Dodgers hired Andrew Friedman as their president of baseball operations a year ago and the Toronto Blue Jays announced the hiring this week of former Cleveland Indians GM Mark Shapiro as their president of baseball operations.
John Hart in Atlanta, Brian Sabean in San Francisco, Billy Beane in Oakland, Dave Dombrowski in Detroit and now Boston, Ken Williams with the White Sox … they all also fall into this category. Essentially their roles are to oversee and guide the organization, and the general managers residing just below them are more focused on the day-to-day operations. The point is, it’s more smart baseball minds together with the same plan to reach the same goal.
The baseball operations presidents serve as a highly-trustworthy conduit between the baseball people and the business executives. It’s happening all over baseball; clubs are learning that not only is there more than one way to evaluate players and game strategies — traditional scouting, analytics, et al — but having even more well-schooled baseball executives is a good thing, and putting trust in a long-proven executive removes some of the wrinkle between the GM and the owners/business-minded CEOs running the franchise. Why not have one more very good baseball mind in the building, particularly one with a lot of winning on his preposterously long resume? I know, it sounds like preferring $20 to $5, a no-brainer.
The Mariners insist, based on several interviews given by team president Kevin Mather over the past two years, that the GM is their top baseball guy, that Mather himself is not a baseball guy, and that’s just the way it is. And that can work just fine, but it requires a certain type of environment for that setup to succeed.
The Kansas City Royals aren’t employing the extra-leveled front office approach. Dayton Moore holds all of the top titles and they’re well on their way to a division championship after appearing in the World Series last October. The St. Louis Cardinals, perhaps the most consistent, well-run organization in the sport from top to bottom the past 10 years, employ the same traditional alignment in their front office, which is one baseball executive between the people that run the day-to-day — himself and his assistants — and the team’s non-baseball leaders, including ownership.
What the two Missouri clubs have in common, however, is a multi-layered front office that operates under an ownership that not only is present and represented regularly, but appears to steer clear of the baseball operations in the meantime. That’s not something the Mariners boast to any extent, despite Mather claiming the latter in recent radio interviews (clubs called about Hisashi Iwakuma, ultimately were told he was off limits, after then-GM Jack Zduriencik apparently initiated the idea to his bosses, just as was reported in July. But, really, what else is Mather going to say, that the ownership does interfere?). The Mariners seem to be stagnant in this area, too, creating no hope for real change.
Before Mather was hired prior to the 2014 season, LaRussa made it known he was interested in a job with the Mariners as some kind of go-to baseball executive between the GM and the ownership. No official conversations took place by all accounts. Seattle didn’t even talk to him. The club admitted no contact with Dombrowski before Boston hired him, with Mather saying he didn’t have a job to offer him at the time. Don’t get me started on how short-sighted and ridiculous that whole thought is, though it’s not necessarily Mather’s fault things went down the manner in which they did in terms of timing. You know, since the ownership has and does interfere, and since Mather isn’t a baseball guy.
Dombrowski, though, isn’t a general manager, he’s a president with total control over all baseball operations, and the Mariners never would have had a position to offer him. The club’s mistake here isn’t that they didn’t hire LaRussa or Dombrowski. It’s that they don’t appear to even be open to considering such a position in their organization. That, in and of itself, is a product of an ownership that has proven over and over again that they aren’t good at the baseball side of owning a baseball team, which happens to be exactly why they need such a presence in the first place.
That isn’t to suggest they can’t, somehow, hire the right general manager this fall and get something going, but we’re already seeing flaws in their search for such a baseball person, specifically the ‘encourage the new GM to keep Lloyd McClendon’ part and the idea that the task at hand is best suited for an experienced candidate. Last I checked, the experienced GMs out there looking for another gig were forced out of their GM jobs or were fired outright for lack of success. Pat Gillick isn’t walking through the Safeco doors. Beane, Epstein, Sabean … none of them aren’t leaving their current gigs as baseball rulers in their respective cities to come to Seattle to take a demotion and answer to Mather then the ownership, led by Howard Lincoln.
Current GM’s without presidential control such as John Mozeilak? Good luck prying him away the baseball capital of the United States to take on a project like the Mariners in an environment as dysfunctional as the set of Full House.
Candidates do want the job in Seattle, though, and some potential candidates are strong candidates, if the club sees them as candidates at all. But who’s going to make the decision? Non baseball people, that’s who.
The Mariners are missing a lot of things, but this particular layer may very well be the link they need most in order to turn the ship around before Safeco needs to be replaced by Amazon Field or Willie Bloomquist Park.
Seattle needs to add a handful of key players to compete next season, and for the long term need an overhaul of their pro scouting department and player development scheme. Whoever the club hires to replace Zduriencik may do a solid job accomplishing all of the above. But until the organization figures out that constantly running two steps behind the competition will almost always mean finishing two steps behind in the win-loss column, they will greatly limit their chances to find the right baseball people to flip the script.
Flipping the script on the way they run their club should be job No. 1, because the Mariners’ ‘rinse and repeat’ practice unsurprisingly hasn’t worked. And it seems the only folks on the planet that have even an ounce of confidence in such direction is the ownership itself … and its appointed president, of course.
Short of new ownership — which isn’t happening this week or next — the best hope for the Emerald City Nine to get into the winner’s circle is to hire good baseball people, perhaps including one that hires the GM that will theoretically make all the moves to produce championships.
Until then, it’s as close to baseball insanity as it gets. Here’s to wishing upon luck, Mariners fans.
Jason A. Churchill
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