MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners

There is more than one way to skin a cat, a famous sadist once told me. There is more than one way in which an also-ran ballclub can change its fortunes. Rarely does it happen overnight and if anybody knows a good shortcut, I’m sure 25 or so professional baseball teams would love to hear it.

In order to turn around a middling baseball club, it takes more just cashing a winning lottery ticket during the June amateur draft. Major League Baseball is not the NBA, where smaller rosters and the ability to funnel big moments to the best talent permit one player to remake a franchise overnight.

When the Tampa Bay Rays reversed their fortunes and reached the World Series in 2008, they were derided as a team that simply drafted high in the first round year after year, even though they owed their success to more than just high picks. (Reminder that Tampa Bay squandered a great many of their top picks aside from Evan Longoria.)

The Astros choice to strip their big league club to the wood and gun for the first pick in the draft four years in a row is unique only represents a small part of their total farm rebuild. Depth is the key and the Astros, for all their faults, have a clear plan in place. They will build their club from the inside out.

The Mariners and Rockies aren’t quite as enterprising. The Mariners struggles are well documented, becoming the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games with a $100MM payroll in 2008. After a promising 2009, the M’s promptly lost 100 games once again in 2010. All the while, Chuck Armstrong served as the team’s president, until now. On January 31st, Armstrong retires from his duties with the Mariners.

Now is the time for the Mariners to reshuffle the deck. Perhaps they can take a page from the Colorado Rockies book, as the Rox begin a new development system in which they throw out everything they ever knew about producing big league players.

Both the Mariners and Rockies find themselves in dire straits. The Mariners are at the part of their development cycle where they repeatedly toss stuff against the wall, hoping something sticks. Headlines depicting the M’s as “desperate” in search of free agent market quick fixes surely inspires something south of confidence among King Felix’s loyal subjects.

After focusing their efforts on run prevention for years, the Mariners realized a series of black holes in the batting order was bad for business. So, last winter, Jack Z and his merry band of baseball ops folks set their sights on offense. A flurry of moves (signing Mike Morse, trading for Kendrys Morales, throwing a Hail Mary with Jason Bay) and yet the biggest boost to the offense came from Raul Ibanez, whose 117 wRC+ at the tender age of 41 lead the entire team.

The Mariners seem to be attempting a futile version of the “drafting your core and fill in around them” except with an incredibly underwhelming core. Despite a slew of high draft picks and former blue chip prospects in their midst, the closest thing to an impact player to come from the Mariners farm system recently is Kyle Seager. A solid/above-average third baseman, Seager represents a developmental victory when compared to his peers.

Mariners First Round Draft Picks, 2003-2013

Year Rnd OvPck Pos WAR OPS ERA Type
2013 1 12 D.J. Peterson (minors) 3B 4Yr
2012 1 3 Mike Zunino (minors) C 0.2 .620 4Yr
2011 1 2 Danny Hultzen (minors) LHP 4Yr
2010 1s 43 *Taijuan Walker (minors) RHP 0.1 3.60 HS
2009 1 2 Dustin Ackley (minors) CF 7.6 .669 4Yr
2009 1 27 *Nick Franklin (minors) SS 2.3 .686 HS
2009 1s 33 *Steve Baron (minors) C HS
2008 1 20 Josh Fields (minors) RHP -0.1 4.97 4Yr
2007 1 11 Phillippe Aumont (minors) RHP 0.2 3.97 HS
2007 1s 52 *Matt Mangini (minors) 3B -0.2 .461 4Yr
2006 1 5 Brandon Morrow (minors) RHP 7.5 .000 4.22 4Yr
2005 1 3 Jeff Clement (minors) C -1.2 .648 4Yr
2003 1s 37 *Adam Jones (minors) SS 19.3 .781 HS
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 11/26/2013.

The list of failed or underperforming Mariners prospects grows longer by the year. They of course hit a home run with Felix Hernandez but how long can they hang their hats on Felix’s success?

The Rockies have an equally spotty draft record, with Troy Tulowitzki serving as the shining beacon of light among a sea of busted prospects. The Rockies made headlines in two ways this week. First came the rumors that Colorado will listen to trade offers on their center fielder Dexter Fowler, one of the other only other draft successes when the Rockies plucked him out of high school with a 14th round pick in 2004.

It is never a bad idea to listen on any player and the Rockies have some options should they move Fowler out. But the inability of the Rox to produce consistent big league players is bringing out change in Denver, as the Rockies are completely overhauling the way in which they develop and oversee their minor league systems.

The club eliminated many of the roving instructors that are a staple of player development. Instead, they set up development directors — usually former managers — with each Minor League team up to Triple-A. The plan is to have someone permanently with each team whose job is geared toward developing players for the Majors, rather than the result of a given game.

The Rockies actually put the system into place last season but it is still interesting to see it written (or said) so plainly. Every minor league club exists only to serve the big club, with wins and losses taking a back seat to promotions, rehab stints, and the bigger picture as it relates to the success of the Major League product.

Addressing the specific needs of players seems obvious enough but, in the messy world of minor league ball, isn’t always so easy. For the club to have dedicated baseball people on hand, overseeing the succession plans for their young assets can only help the club improve the rate at which they produce big league talent. In addition to improving players with obvious deficiencies, it might help Colorado focus their efforts on players with more practical projections and big league futures.

This approach by Colorado also seems to run counter to the “revolutionary” approach of the Astros, who went to great pains to establish a winning culture at all levels this season, with Houston placing emphasis on a “winning attitude” and “changing the culture”, a preemptive strike against a big league roster with more than 320 losses over the last three seasons.

Teams like the Rockies and Mariners cannot expect to cut to the front of the line. Again: there is no quick fix. To the Rockies credit, they are attempting to reverse a worrying trend. The Mariners keep trying to land an impact free agent but, for whatever reason, nobody wants to take their money.

The Texas Rangers succeeded in revamping their processes, working to develop pitchers better suited to their unique climate in addition to becoming one of the leading player development systems in the game. Clubs like the Rockies, Mariners, and Blue Jays can only hope they’ll see the same yield as the Rangers or Cardinals, clubs able to convert their prospects at an enviable rate (with the playoff appearances to match.)

Will the Mariners be bold enough to reverse a decade of irrelevance with real innovation, as the Rockies are at least willing to attempt? Depending on how the Astros Grand Experiment works out, the Mariners might not have much in the way of choice. There is no time like the present for the Mariners to shake things up – what do they realistically have to lose?