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The Hot Mess At The Top

I am guessing that, by now, if you read this blog you have read Geoff Baker's investigative report into the Mariners front office. It reads somewhere between therapeutic and sobering for Mariners fans. Therapeutic to put words and quotes to many of the common grumblings around the the M's leadership from fans. Sobering because...well...it sure seems like the team is a hot mess with no end in sight, despite Robinson Cano signing (or perhaps confirmed by the 10-year, $240 million contract).

Baker sheds a critical eye toward the Mariners, to say the least. Could the truth be as bad as Baker portrays in his article?


Let's start with Baker himself. The timing of the piece seemed suspicious, given that it came out a day after news about the Cano signing broke. The timing seems like a coincidence to me, particularly given how investigative reports tend to work from my understanding. Geoff Baker began a new role at the Seattle Times on November 3 as an investigative reporter focused on sports. The Mariners leadership piece is his first report in the new role. Investigative reports take time, thanks largely to all the investigating a story takes. Moreover, it is common for an investigative reporter to give a subject of their report fair warning that an article is going to be published. Baker told the Mariners that his report was coming a week before it went public - which in turn means the plan to publish the article was in place days before any serious news connecting Robinson Cano and the Mariners came out.

Bottom line, Geoff Baker would have to have insane sources and/or intuition to make the report come out in tandem with the Cano signing. The timing of the story is a pure coincidence - a potentially crushing coincidence, but still a coincidence.

In fact, Geoff Baker comes out of this piece looking amazing. I'm far from a professional journalist, but it sure seems like he did a remarkable job. The story can be characterized as a smear piece built to amp up drama (and page views), but such a characterization masks the integrity of Baker's reporting. Every point he makes has a person quoted word-for-word, on record. Quotes are also corroborated by other people Baker interviewed. There are no rumors or anonymous sources in the article. Baker whittled down his quotes and stitched the story together, so it's not like he doesn't have an agenda in the piece. However, his description of a dysfunctional organization is justified through bullet-proof journalism.

With that said, Baker merely reported what people said. It's worth taking a look at who the people he quoted are, and why they might have been willing to go on record in such a destructive report. Two men played prominent roles in the article: Eric Wedge and Tony Blengino. It's worth wondering why both men might have gone one record.

Eric Wedge seems rather easy to explain. Baker characterizes Wedge as "reluctant" to talk - the only named source in the articled described as "reluctant," for what it is worth. There is a general modus operandi in baseball (plus most any industry with a rather small, connected network) to keep "dirty laundry" private, which obviously did not happen with Baker's story. The incentive for privacy is rather simple - anyone who wants a future job in an industry has better chances if the people hiring them are confident their new employee won't bad mouth them. Wedge interviewed for the Cubs managing job this offseason, which clearly indicated he is interested in staying a manager. It isn't in Wedge's best interest to talk, at least purely from the standpoint of his managerial career. So why speak?

There is more to Wedge than his job status. He is also a man of fierce convictions and steadfast personal ethics. This is a man that finished his final season managing the Indians after he was fired. This is also a man that walked away from the Mariners on his own volition. Eric Wedge believes in right and wrong. He seems to live in a rather black and white world. The Mariners were wrong in Wedge's book, so wrong that Geoff Baker found a way to coax him to speak on record. I think Wedge spoke the truth as he sees it. The only way I can play devil's advocate is if Wedge took a calculated risk that his future managerial prospects would look better if he pinned his failure on the Mariners leadership. However, that calculated risk only makes sense if Wedge thinks that most of baseball already thinks, or is willing to think, that the Mariners leadership is crap. So, if Wedge is conniving, that still supports a broken front office.

Tony Blengino seems more elusive to explain than Eric Wedge, maybe thanks to his less public role. Eric Wedge had to answer to the media every day during the season as manager. That gives fans and media alike time to get to know him and his personality. We don't get the same luxury with a former assistant general manager like Blengino. He did things, but behind the scenes where fewer microphones and tape recorders venture.

However, Blengino's voice is more prevalent now. He made his first Fangraphs post when the Mariners signed Robinson Cano. He also was a rguest on a recent Fangraphs podcast with Carson Cistulli. The podcast is particularly interesting because Blengino discusses at some length why he chose to go on record with his comments. Blengino is cognizant of the risk he ran, even describing himself as potentially "radioactive" in some organization's eyes.

Simply put, I get the impression that Blengino wouldn't talk if he had a baseball job right now. Blengino mentions in the podcast that he has applied for jobs he is overqualified for (according to himself, though he is probably right given all his experience) and keeps getting refused. Furthermore, he mentions this despite no prompting from Cistulli, and even insinuates that someone still with the Mariners is working to keep him out of the game.

Blengino wants to remain in baseball but I get the sense that he feels he is getting squeezed out. He no longer has a friendship with Zduriencik, or a job in baseball, so he had little to lose by going on record. Kudos to Geoff Baker for identifying a key source with fewer reasons to stay anonymous than many that he likely contacted.

I have some reservations about Blengino's polarizing claims though, particularly that Zduriencik doesn't understand "one iota" about statistical analysis. An interview of sorts posted at Lookout Landing seems to dispute this. Furthermore, Jack Zduriencik is a featured speaker at the upcoming Society of American Baseball Researchers (the fabled SABR) analytics conference. I can see ample room to suggest that the Mariners lean on statistics less and in different ways now that Blengino is gone, but the analytics are still there. Zduriencik says as much in his rebuttal of the Baker article.

Speaking of Z's rebuttal, the deafening silence in most of his comments seems telling. He simply says that the Mariners "prefer to take the high road," and maybe that's his justification for glossing over all claims but the one about extra drills in September.

Part of me also feels bad for Zduriencik though. It is hard to know exactly what the truth is, but I see Zduriencik as a victim in this whole scenario too. It's getting harder and harder to blame anybody but Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong.

Entertain a thought experiment with me: what if Zduriencik takes the high road with former employees like he said in his prepared rebuttal of Baker's report? What if he was also telling the truth (to some degree at least) when he told Carmen Fusco and others that it wasn't his decision to let them go?

Zduriencik's background is in player development. He seems much less likely to have a quick-trigger, instant-win itch than Lincoln and Armstrong, who both have endured the M's losing ways for much longer. Z should preach patience; his life in baseball was built on the backs of prep and college players figuring out how to reach their potential over years of blood, sweat and tears.

Maybe Zduriencik sincerely wanted to meld traditional scouting and statistics, with Blengino being his key. Blengino was the numbers guy, but he also carried weight with traditional baseball scouts thanks to his background in scouting. He and Zduriencik would make a great team on paper, and that's how they operated through a successful 2009 campaign. Then came 2010, when the M's continued their high-wire act featuring a woeful offense, undervalued defenders, and pitchers whose warts were neutralized by Safeco Field.

The only problem is that the worst case scenario dialed out in 2010. That team had to have a lot of things go right to be really good. They traded a more certain mediocrity for a chance at being good. The trade-off was also a bigger chance to be bad. The bad scenario played out.

My thinking is that Chuck and Howard went ballistic. They did not see beyond 2010's losses. They demanded changes, and heads rolled after such a disaster. Chief among them would logically be Tony Blengino, likely the man who suggested that the market inefficiencies were in defense and that a marginal contender could be built around a pitching staff tailored to Safeco with an insane defense backing them up. The timeline Blengino shared suggests that his role changed in 2011, after the 2010 meltdown. Ted Simmons was added in that offseason too.

I'm not convinced that Zduriencik is the man out to destroy Blengino either. Eric Wedge complained more about Zduriencik's inability to insulate him from Armstrong and Lincoln's "meddling." Wedge also made it clear that Lincoln and Armstrong were much more critical of the young talent than Zduriencik. In general, the fire and brimstone comes from Chuck and Howard much more than Jack.

Howard Lincoln has mentioned that replacing Chuck Armstrong's ties in baseball will be difficult as he searches for a new COO. It seems that Armstrong might have the right kind of ties and respect within baseball, along with the kind of fire and disdain for people who he feels contributed to Mariners losses, to make life after the M's difficult for someone like Tony Blengino. I have no smoking gun; just doing my best to read between the lines. I wonder if the friction Blengino felt between Zduriencik and him actually had its roots in Howard and Chuck, and Zduriencik simply went with their vision, despite whatever fall-out ensued.

The thing that haunts me most about Baker's report is how much I felt like I read about the demise of Bill Bavasi. He seemed to wall himself off in an ivory tower too. His win-now move was the Bedard trade. Rash decisions to jettison youngsters (at the time) like Asdrubal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo were based on the idea that they couldn't contribute immediately at the time. Bavasi got blasted for those moves...but similar lines of thinking can be seen in Geoff Baker's article about Z and company. The parallels aren't exact, but eerily similar for my taste.

I am also reminded of Ken Griffey Jr. night, when Griffey gave a surprisingly long speech before the game. He meandered onto the topic of Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong, where he said with conviction that they sincerely want to win. Nobody had the gall to boo, but the applause was tepid.

Griffey is absolutely right. Maybe the biggest issue is that both Lincoln and Armstrong want to win. Armstrong's lone regret is that he couldn't win a championship in Seattle. Lincoln vows to get the ship turned around before he thinks about leaving too. Niether Armstrong nor Lincoln are getting any younger, and they have both endured tons of losing. I wonder if both of them got too short-sighted. Recent reports, even beyond Baker's, support this idea. The Mariners needed to have a particular record on a road trip from time to time. They were supposed to be good this past year, at least according to Lincoln, because they hit dingers in the spring. They needed to turn a profit every year, no matter the circumstances. Short term goals, short term analysis, short term everything.

The Mariners don't seem to have enough vision, either into the future or into the past, to imagine a different tomorrow or avoid the same yesterday.

It was unfair for Geoff Baker to say the Mariners leadership is dysfunctional. They seem to get along with itself and seem even better at casting away pieces that don't fit in with them. What's scares me is that the Mariners leadership seems to operate in such predictable ways that trend towards failure more often than success. When they figure that out is anyone's guess. They are too busy looking at today to notice such patterns.