Front Office Shaking Up

Jack Zduriencik is not completely cleaning house, but he is definitely giving it a thorough scrubbing. After his initial interview, I was not sure how long it would take him to assess the state of the franchise and begin making changes. As it turns out, it is taking almost no time at all.

Word officially broke Tuesday that scouting director Bob Fontaine would not be back, and from the sounds of it he did not have much of a chance to stick around. It is unfortunate. Fontaine seems like one of the real nice guys in baseball, and he was good at his job. The M's drafts under him were significantly better than typical M's drafts the last 15 years or so. In particular, Fontaine had a keen eye for pitching. Just in 2006 the M's added Brandon Morrow, Chris Tillman, Tony Butler, and Kam Mickolio to the organization. Of course, thanks to Bill Bavasi, only Morrow remains, but that's not Fontaine's fault. It's not all that fair that Fontaine is getting cut loose, but this is how baseball works. Any organization would be wise to pick him up, and I hope he lands on his feet and succeeds somewhere.

While I am sad and disappointed to see Fontaine go, I am also inclined to trust Zduriencik when it comes to scouting and player development. His track record speaks for itself. Plus, after announcing that Fontaine was leaving, the Mariners also made some more announcements. First, Zduriencik is going to keep Bob Engle and Lee Pelekoudas around. Both are great decisions. Engle is the biggest reason the M's supplement their farm system with so much international talent, and I am very excited that it looks like Zduriencik is not all that interested in messing with the success the M's have had in that department. Meanwhile, Pelekoudas has served in a number of roles for the Mariners over the past 28 years, and his longevity has value. He knows baseball, and he knows where this organization has been, which makes figuring out where the organization is going quite a bit easier.

On top of that, two additions to the front office were announced on Tuesday. The Brewers agreed to let Zduriencik take two people from his Milwaukee staff, and he picked Tony Blengino and Tom McNamara. Blengino was Zduriencik's top assistant in Milwaukee, and is a member of SABR. In many respects, he is the kind of guy that Bavasi never seemed to strongly consider for a job in the organization. McNamara has an extensive background in scouting that even includes a stint with the Mariners front office from 1994-2000. They obviously both worked well with Zduriencik in Milwaukee, and so they should also fit well here.

Lastly, this morning it was announced that long-time Mariner Benny Looper would leave the team. He was offered a position as a scout, but it would have been a major demotion. So, he has left. One one hand it is tough to see long-time Mariners like Benny Looper leave, but on the other it is exciting to see that Jack Zduriencik is taking charge and putting his stamp on this front office, making tough decisions when he deems it necessary.

Publicly, Zduriencik says that he is not very close to finalizing the structure of the front office, but it is certainly coming into focus. Bavasi's model seemed bloated with a bunch of special assistants to the GM, which was a glorified way of hiring his baseball buddies. On top of that, there was no real room for sabermetrics (Bavasi claimed over and over the he valued statistics, but the structure of his front office certainly did not support that).

Under Jack, I expect to see a bit more streamlined front office and more emphasis put on statistical analysis. Looking at the staff right now, my best guess is that Lee Pelekoudas will be the assistant GM, Blengino the director of scouting, McNamara the assistant director of scouting, and Engle remains the head of international scouting. Pelekoudas has the experience with free agency, contract negotiations, and trade negotiations that Zduriencik does not have a ton of yet. Also, in this model, both Blengino and McNamara would receive promotions, and they have the potential to be a devastating combo. Blengino comes from a mostly business-orientated, statistical background (he last played baseball in high school), while McNamara played in the minors and has worked his way up the scouting chain the good, old-fashioned way. The two of them could potentially offer different perspectives that give abnormally complete profiles of prospects. Lastly, Engle stays where he has been awesome for many years.

At this point, the front office is more shaken up than settled, but what's coming together looks pretty good.

Press Conference Primer

The Mariners will hold a press conference this Friday at 10 AM to formally introduce Jack Zdurenciek as their new GM. It will be our first glimpse into the direction that this organization will head in under him. He has some interesting decisions to make right away. While it is highly doubtful that he will make any clear statements about particulars, his answers may indirectly give us a sense of what he will do. Here are some key things we may get a few answers to:

Manager: As Milwaukee's director of player personnel, Zduriencik did not have to worry about hiring a manager. Now he does. Jim Riggleman has been guaranteed that he will be interviewed, and I would consider it a safe bet that Ned Yost would get a look as well. Surely, Zduriencik will not give specific names, but is he looking for a proven commodity (like Buck Schowalter), or fresh blood, or is there some other factor that Zduriencik is looking for? Personally, I am hoping that he looks for a guy that knows how to work with younger players and instill a winning, team-oriented mentality.

Starting Rotation: By my count, the Mariners have six starters - Felix Hernandez, Erik Bedard, Jarrod Washburn, Carlos Silva, Brandon Morrow, and Ryan Rowland-Smith. Who is the odd man out? Given Zduriencik's player development background, and the performances of all those pitchers last year, it could be Silva or Washburn. If either of those men are on the outside looking in, a trade may be in order. Does Zdruiencik already have an idea of what he wants to see, and will he tip his hand at all at the press conference? Hopefully, Zduriencik checks and sees if the Yankees are still interested in Washburn.

First Base: M's ownership is already on the record saying that the team will not make any major free agent signings this offseason. Presumably, that means they will not even attempt to go after Mark Teixeira. So, what does Jack Zduriencik have in mind at first base? Is the answer Lopez at first, with Tug Hulett at second? Perhaps Jeff Clement is the answer, or re-signing Raul Ibanez and putting him at first. Under Zduriencik, Ryan Braun was drafted as a shortstop, but moved to third and eventually the outfield. More notably, Matt LaPorta was drafted as a first baseman and moved to the outfield. Zduriencik is not afraid to move players to new positions, and showed more creative as a player personnel director than anyone in the M's previous front office ever demonstrated.

Josh Fields: What does Zduriencik think of the M's first-round pick? If Jack does not sign him, he gets another draft pick to play with. Surely, Zduriencik scouted Fields while in Milwaukee, so he should know Fields fairly well. I know I would like to see what Zduriencik could do with another high draft pick, so I am hoping he lets Josh Fields go.

Like I said, Zduriencik is extremely unlikely to unveil any specifics. But, he should shed some light on his philosophies. On top of that, perhaps the media will ask questions that he tries to evade or avoid. Between what he says and what he does not say, he should shed some light on what the next few months are going to look like.

Zduriencik Era Begins

Jack ZduriencikToday, the Mariners made what will be their most significant move of the off-season. With Jack Zduriencik (pronounced zur-EN-sik), the Mariners now have a permanent replacement for Bill Bavasi. After nearly five months under interim leadership, the organization officially has direction once again.

There are many reasons to be excited about Zduriencik. The first has little to do with him, but with the men who hired him. Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong have been under fire in recent years, and justifiably so, especially after the 2008 collapse we just witnessed. Armstrong in particular has been the team president for many years, and by all accounts is a fantastic person to work under. However, I wondered if the game had passed by him. He hired Pat Gillick and Bill Bavasi under his watch, both GMs with significant previous experience running teams. On top of that, the managers and players the team pursued (with the exception of Bob Melvin) under those two GMs all tended to have significant experience. Rich Aurilia has experience. Scott Spiezio has been there before. Jeff Cirillo has a long track record of success. Jarrod Washburn has established himself as a major-league starter. Do these lines sound familiar?

Experience and track records are worth something, but not as much as this organization has valued it over the past five years. This became most apparent last off-season, when Carlos Silva was signed. The Mariners were stretching Brandon Morrow and Ryan Rowland-Smith out to be starters in winter ball, and both were having success. However, instead of trusting their own youth, they preferred the experience and proven track record of Carlos Silva, even though it came with a stiff price tag. Of course, it is easy to pick on the Silva signing after the poor season he had. But, the real point I am trying to make is that Ryan Rowland-Smith proved he can be a good starter, and Brandon Morrow flashed signs of dominance. Why didn't the organization see that last off-season?

Apparently, Chuck Armstrong and Howard Lincoln were asking similar questions. When I saw the list of the four finalists earlier this week, I could tell that they had done some soul-searching, and legitimately had changed what they were looking for. None of them had ever been a GM before. Only two of the four (Kim Ng and Tony LaCava) even had experience as an assistant GM. Experience did not matter with this search as it has in the past.

What struck me the most though was that all of the finalists, except for Ng, had extensive backgrounds in scouting and player development. While the Mariners have never frowned on player development, they hardly have pumped out a bunch of stars the past decade. Truthfully, Pat Gillick was horrible in this regard, and Bavasi had done some good. However, he still neglected position players fairly badly, and also got a major boost from international scouting, which Bob Engle has quite a bit more to do with anyway. The renewed (or perhaps fresh) emphasis on player development from Lincoln and Armstrong also helps to explain why the organization went on record and said, even before hiring a new GM, that they would not sign a big-money free agent.

Even before today's announcement, I was feeling good about the organization's direction. The overemphasis on experience appeared to be over with. The farm system appeared to be a bigger priority than ever. Both of these are very big steps forward. Look no further than both World Series teams, the Phillies and Rays. The core of each team was built through their farm systems. The Red Sox did not rise to prominence until they developed guys like Kevin Youkilis, Jonathan Papelbon, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, and Anibal Sanchez (remember, Ramirez and Sanchez were key parts in the trade that netted Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell). Think back to the late '90s Yankees. Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera were all products of their farm system. Tino Martinez, another important piece, was acquired by parting ways with Russ Davis and Sterling Hitchcock - both prospects they developed. An organization with a strong farm system will field a strong team, no matter their payroll. Moreover, when teams with farm systems have money to spend, their is the potential for a dynasty.

So, getting back to Zduriencik after a long tangent, one reason I like him is because he is a guy I do not think Lincoln and Armstrong would have considered very seriously even a year ago. His hiring is a tangible sign that this organization assessed where it was at, and has actually moved in a new direction.

Ultimately, what really gets me excited about Zduriencik though is his unparalleled track record when it comes to player development. Brewers GM Doug Melvin got a contract extension largely thanks to Zduriencik, who was Milwaukee's equivalent to Bob Fontaine. Look at the team the Brewers fielded this past year. Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Bill Hall, Ryan Braun, and Corey Hart are all players that Milwaukee developed in their farm system. Sure, Doug Melvin can be given some credit for shoring up the pitching staff with CC Sabathia, but who did he use to acquire the burly southpaw? That's right, prospects, namely blue-chip slugger Matt LaPorta. Of course, one reason the Brewers could make such a gutsy move is because they have other prospects like Mat Gamel, Alcides Escobar, and Cole Gillespie working their way through the system right now. There is a reason Zduriencik is the only non-GM ever to recieve the Baseball America Executive of the Year award.

It is not like all of these guys were sure-fire stars on draft day either. Many teams were concerned about Prince Fielder's weight, but not Milwaukee. Others thought they took LaPorta much too high, and nobody thought he would ever be a capable outfielder (except for Zduriencik and the Brewers, of course). In his time as a director of player development, he has shown creativity, vision, and confidence in himself, even when he goes against popular thinking. I do not know who Zduriencik plans to retain from the current Mariners staff, but I think that him at GM, Fontaine at scouting director, and Bob Engle staying VP of International Operations would make an incredible trio. Zduriencik particularly seems to have an eye for hitters, Fontaine an eye for pitchers, and Engle continues to more than supplement the system with young international talent. Just imagine a team that had drafted sluggers like Fielder and Braun, yet also drafted pitchers like Brandon Morrow and Chris Tillman, and then signed guys like Felix Hernandez and Carlos Triunfel.

Still, I have my concerns with Zduriencik. He has extremely limited experience in other important GM duties, namely trades and contract negotiations. He has to hire a manager. He has to evaluate aging players on this roster, not just up-and-coming youngsters. These are all things that he did not have to do much of (if any) in his role with the Brewers. I know that assistant GMs do get a taste for all those parts of the job, which is why I probably would have picked Tony LaCava. He comes from a strong player development background himself, and he also is an assistant GM right now. However, it is not as if Zduriencik has proven he cannot handle all the duties of GM. He has never had a chance to show what he can do it at all.

In the end, it is hard to argue that Zduriencik was not the right pick. I am excited to see what he does. I certainly am more excited about him than I ever was about Bill Bavasi. A youth movement is going to begin in earnest, and it should be real exciting once Zduriencik gets some draft picks to play with. I am certainly looking forward to the changes that he will make.

2008 World Series Preview

Navarro and PriceOctober is a crazy time of the year, and it has been much too long since I have written a new post. It is not as if their is a shortage of attention to playoff baseball in the media though. Now it is time for me to weigh in on the World Series. I doubt many had the Rays and Phillies back in April, but that is where we stand now. It is a fresh match-up, so on some level it does not feel like it has gone through the sports media meat-grinder of over-analysis quite yet (though I am sure it will have by Wednesday).

Instead of inundating with analysis, I prefer to provide some numbers to shed some light on what the series may look like. Using a version of the formula I use to project the standings throughout the year, I can project the percentage chance of all the series outcomes. Also, using my player rating formulas, I can rate each team's hitting and pitching. So here it is, the 2008 World Series by the numbers:

RATINGS

Hitting
Philadelphia - 77
Tampa Bay - 77
The stats don't notice...that Rays center fielder B.J. Upton had a bum shoulder most of the year, and is obviously feeling much better. With two home runs in the World Series, he will have hit as many home runs in the playoffs as he did the entire regular season. The Rays offense is better right now than it appears to be on paper.

Starting Pitching
Philadelphia - 76
Tampa Bay - 78
The stats don't notice...that pitching rotations shorten in the playoffs. This probably does not impact the Rays rating all that much, but it does make a difference for the Phillies. Cole Hamels is clearly their best pitcher by far, and he is what gives the Phillies a slightly above average staff. Philly's playoff rotation is probably a little closer to the Rays one than the numbers suggest.

Relief Pitching
Philadelphia - 76
Tampa Bay - 80
The stats don't notice...that Troy Percival is not in the Rays bullpen, and the highly inexperienced David Price is. The Rays trumpet the praises of what Percival's veteran presence brought, but to be honest his contribution on the field is replacable. Price has electric stuff, and unbelievably it was him that closed out game 7 of the ALCS. Price is a wild card; he could make the Rays bullpen significantly better than the already lofty ranking indicates, or he could be a liability. It is hard to tell because he has pitched so little.
SERIES PERCENTAGES

Phillies win in four - 6%
Rays win in four - 7%

Phillies win in five - 12%
Rays win in five - 14%

Phillies win in six - 15%
Rays win in six - 16%

Phillies win in seven - 15%
Rays win in seven - 16%

Phillies win the World Series - 47%
Rays win the World Series - 53%

This should be a close series. It is debatable how big of a deal playoff experience is, but it does not really matter in this series because neither team has much of it. Popular belief may be that the Rays and Phillies are built very differently on offense, but honestly they are not. While many experts will likely point to Tampa Bay's speed and how it contrasts with Philadelphia's power, both teams are patient and hit more than their share of home runs. The Rays have emphatically shown their power in the postseason, and they also hit 180 home runs in the regular season.

Pitching is what will decide this series. The Rays have young guys with incredible stuff, and they have stepped up big time (Matt Garza's line in game 7 is sick if you haven't checked it). Cole Hamels is the best pitcher on either staff, but overall the Rays still have an edge. The bullpens in particular will play a pivotal role. We have a good idea what we will get from the Phillies, but what about the Rays? Their bullpen looks completely different with David Price than it did at any point in the regular season.

The key players to watch in this series are Jamie Moyer for the Phillies and David Price for the Rays. Moyer has for the most part had a bad postseason. He is going to need to be the Jamie Moyer that showed up in the regular season, and if he is, the Phillies odds of winning this series go up significantly. Otherwise, the series could potentially be over quick. As for Price, as I said earlier, he is a total wild card. He has incredible stuff, but virtually no experience. In that regard, he is similar to Francisco Rodriguez when he first came up for the Angels.

I believe in David Price, and I believe in the numbers. I also believe we are due for a good World Series. I'll pick the Rays in seven games.