Ups and Downs

This is not a baseball post. It is a brief philosophical ramble couched in terms of baseball.

Yeah, OK, it’s a baseball post. Deal.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Well, maybe not. Aside from the fact that the line has been used before, things could be both better or worse.

The past week has been a vexing one for Mariners fans. We learned on Friday that in a stunning display of competence, the Mariners have landed Robinson Cano, unquestionably the best free agent available this year and widely considered one of the half-dozen best current players. That the Mariners grabbed him away from the hated Yankees made it all the sweeter.

Not everyone was thrilled with the deal (10 years, $240 million). Many commentators point out that this is Alex Rodriguez territory in terms of time, dollars, and expected career path (10 years, $250 million, declining rapidly in the later years). (The counter-argument here is that the Mariners have the money available, and if they’re overpaying for the last few years of the deal, they’re underpaying for the first few.) Interestingly, I haven’t seen anyone suggest that it could be Barry Zito territory (7 years, $126 million, largely stinking from day one); nothing is certain in baseball, after all.

From the fans’ perspective, there’s nothing not to like about the deal. It gives the Mariners’ fans hope, something that’s been sorely lacking the last few years. The adage “You have to spend money to make money” holds true in baseball* as elsewhere. The Mariners have failed to spend money for years; now we have a reason to hope that they’ll dig deep and pick up a few more needed pieces. Cano can’t rescue the team by himself, but he’ll certainly help (well, as certain as anything is in baseball).

* The As are a weird outlier here. On a consistent basis, they get more performance for fewer dollars than anyone else. Clearly, they’re investing something other than money. Since the Mariners are not the As, however, I’m going to figure that the rule applies.

From ownership’s perspective, it’s a win-win deal too. As noted, the money is available to get the deal done, and just having Cano on the team will give attendance a boost. More butts in seats and more eyes on TV screens equals more money coming in. At this point, even a modest improvement in the team’s performance–especially if they get off to a fast start–should mean big dollars all season.

Parenthetically, there’s an additional sign that the Mariners are willing to overspend this year; $5.8 million for two years of fan favorite Willie Bloomquist* is widely considered an overpay. In itself it may be too much, but in the context of the Cano signing, it does help support the message to free agents that the team is willing to spend what it will take to sign them. And let’s face it: when it comes to signing free agents, money will get you through times of no wins better than wins will get you through times of no money. (Apologies to Gilbert Shelton, of course.)

* Known in our family as “Bloodmouse”, due to a misread of his jersey in his first season. It can be tough to fit a long name across the shoulders of someone as skinny as he was that year. A few folds here and there, and you can see where the confusion arose.

So the weekend started on a high note. Then came Sunday. The Seattle Times ran a story which paints the Mariners upper management as incompetent meddlers who essentially sabotaged their own plan to rebuild the team by second-guessing the managers’ on-field decisions and abandoning the use of worthwhile player rating statistics. That everything the article said seems to confirm what fans have suspected for years only added to its perceive credibility.

Way to harsh our buzz, guys.

The cries of woe arose quickly. “We’ll never be able to hire another free agent again!” “The Cano deal isn’t finalized. He’ll never sign it now!” “WE’RE DOOMED!”

Let’s take a deep breath and step back for a second. Even in the worst case, this isn’t the end of the world. Assume for the moment that everything in the article is absolutely true. That would mean that the Mariners have come close to competing despite the best efforts of the guys in charge to foul things up. OK, maybe not “one good player” or “one good break” away from competing, but a .500 season has been in sight multiple times. Furthermore, you have to figure that agents, who spend much of their time dealing with upper management would have to have some inkling of what’s been going on. And yet the Cano deal came together. Other significant free agent deals over the last few years have come together. Remember what I said about money just a few paragraphs ago. If the dollars are there, deals will get done, regardless of the competence of the suits involved. And even in this doomsday scenario, if enough deals get done, the sheer competence of the players can overcome the incompetence of management.

In the real world, of course, it’s unlikely that everything in the Times’ story is completely true. Maybe the GM is throwing darts at a dartboard to pick his free agent and trade targets, or maybe he knows what he’s doing. We can’t tell from outside. All we can do is keep telling ourselves that the light at the end of the tunnel might not be a train.

So, with apologies to Charlie:

It was the pretty good times, it was the fairly sucky times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

In short, it was the off-season, just like every other off-season.

Oh, the Drama!

Oh, the drama! Oh, the suspense!

Here we are at the start of the final month of the season. As with the end of July, it’s a time of some significance, but not one that equates well to a holiday.

There are two things that officially happen at the end of August or beginning of September.

  • Postseason eligibility list deadline – I mentioned this in the previous discussion of waivers. Any player traded after this deadline (which was 11:59 pm Eastern time Saturday) cannot play in the post-season. This is the ultimate form of a “rental player”*, given that the team is making the trade for no more than a month’s worth of the player’s skills.
  • Rosters expand – For most of the season, each team has a 25-man roster, known as the “active roster”. These are the players who are with the major league team, playing in the games. There is also the 40-man roster (aka “expanded roster”), which consists of everyone on the active roster and 15 additional players, who are generally in the highest level of the minor leagues. Only players on the 40-man roster can be moved to the 25-man roster, so the additional 15 players are generally the ones the major league team expects to bring up to the majors, either to replace an injured player or because they’re prospects who are close to being ready to hit the big time. That’s a lot of background for one sentence: When rosters expand, any player on the 40-man roster can play in the major league team’s games, even if they’re not on the 25-man roster. Generally in September, teams with big leads in the playoff race will bring people up from the minors to let the regulars get some rest before the playoffs. Teams still fighting for a playoff spot will bring up players who may be able to add that last little “push” to get them into the playoffs. And then there are the unhappy teams who are totally out of contention; they bring up players who seem likely to be big-league ready next year, so that they can get some major league experience and so the manager and coaches can see how they perform against major league quality opponents.

* Typically, players traded after the All-Star break are “rental players”, meaning that they’re in the last year of their contract and will become free agents at the end of the season, free to negotiate a new contract with any team; thus, the team trading for them is seen as “renting” their services for the last few months of the season.

So those are the official happenings at the end of August. Unofficially, this is when teams start admitting that they’re not going to make the playoffs. As of today, two teams have been mathematically eliminated from winning their divisions: Houston and Miami. Several other teams are on the edge of elimination, including Toronto, Chicago (both teams), San Diego, and Philadelphia. They don’t have a realistic shot at their divisions, and even a wild card slot would take a miracle. More teams will join them in the “wait until next year” brigade over the next week or so.

Where does “Our Team”, the Mariners, sit? In all probability, they’ll be joining the ranks of the mathematically-eliminated in the next week or so, doomed by inconsistent play. You may recall that two weeks ago they beat the As, wrapping up a tough road trip with a positive 5-4 record. They came home and got murdered, losing all six games, including three against Texas, who they had just beaten twice. Now they’re back on the road again. They took 3 of 4 from worst-record-in-baseball Houston, but struggled to score in three of the games. They move on to Kansas City today; the Royals still have an outside shot at the playoffs. Most likely, the Mariners will finish someplace south of last year’s 75-87 record. They do only need one more win in their last 26 games to avoid the embarrassment of losing 100 games, so there’s that.

Mike Morse, brought in to provide a “big bat”, mostly didn’t, mostly because of injuries. He was traded to Baltimore for a sack of beans. (I exaggerate slightly. Xavier Avery was a second round pick in 2008, but hasn’t exactly set the world on fire. He’s played 33 games in the majors without doing anything spectacularly good or bad. On the up side, his career .629 OPS in those 33 games compares reasonably well to the .693 Morse has posted this year, his defense almost has to be better, and he’s significantly cheaper. Besides, how can you not like a Xavier? He’s only the sixth Xavier in MLB history.)

Rauuuuuuuul, brought in to provide some senior leadership and mentoring, mostly did. He also brought the excitement of a record chase. He probably won’t break the over-40 home run record, given that much of his playing time over the last month will likely go to those 40-man roster call-ups*, but if he gets hot, the team might give him a shot at it in an attempt to drag fans into the stadium.

* Abraham Almonte was called up Friday and played right field, then moved to left for Saturday’s game. He went a combined 2 for 9 at the plate with two RBIs, showed impressive speed, and a strong arm. (See how this optimism thing works?)

So what do we do now?  We sit back and watch the September call-ups and get excited about what they could do for the team next year. Get into fist fights over what the team’s biggest needs are in free-agent signings and trades over the winter. (Hint: “everything” is not an acceptable answer.) Watch the playoff races and enjoy playing “spoiler”.

Oh, and the Giants? They’re on the brink of mathematical elimination and they still have Barry Zito for another year–but they have moved him to the bullpen. One way or another, don’t expect him back in a Giants uniform next year.

Say what?

Today I want to point out a few WTF items. None of them really amount to enough to stand by themselves, so I’m following an ancient tradition and throwing them together. Call it the literary equivalent of “leftovers soup”.

  • First up: The OFF Pocket. This is a Kickstarter for a product that you probably didn’t even know you needed. I certainly didn’t know that I needed it. Now that I know about it, I still don’t know that I need it. What is it? It’s a cloth bag that you can put your phone in. When you do, it (supposedly) blocks radio signals to and from the phone. Presto! Nobody can call you and the NSA can’t track you or use your phone to eavesdrop on you. As of this writing, 73 people thought this was a great idea and are backing it to the tune of $6,317.WhyTF would you want this bag? If you block the signal, your phone is going to run its battery down faster than normal as it scans for towers. How about just turning the damn phone off? That not only accomplishes the same privacy ends as the bag, but it also saves your battery. And it only takes a couple of seconds longer to turn it off or on than to dig the bag out of your purse/backpack/pocket and shove the phone into it.
  • Next bit of news: Grumpy Cat is getting her own line of coffee drinks. OK, I love Grumpy Cat as much as the next guy–given my grumpy, snarky persona, how could it be otherwise? I’ll passionately defend the right to merchandise the hell out of anything and anyone. As long as there’s some small connection between the endorser and the endorsee. In the case of a product endorsement, that means the endorser really ought to use product. At least once. Show me the cat who’ll come within ten feet of a cup of coffee and then get her to endorse the brew!Besides, doesn’t this sort of endorsement dilute Grumpy Cat’s image? How does an endorsement from someone who’s unimpressed by everything help drive demand? I’m not even going to get into the atrocity being committed on the English language with “Grumppuccino”.
  • This one’s a bit late, but seemed apropos given yesterday’s conversation. Earlier this year, the Sacramento River Cats gave away Barry Zito bobbleheads. (For those of you who need some background: the River Cats are a minor league baseball team affiliated with the Oakland As. Zito played for the River Cats way back when. He’s still fondly remembered in Sacramento. And bobbleheads have been a common giveaway item at baseball games since 1999.)Take a look at the picture of the bobblehead linked above. Now take a look at this picture of Zito. Or this one. Do you see a resemblance? I mean beyond the fact that they both have one head and two arms? With well over a decade of practice at making bobbleheads, couldn’t they have come up with one that looks sort of like the original? But even leaving that aside, Zito is left-handed, as you can see in the photos: glove on the right hand, ball in the left. So why is the bobblehead right-handed? Sacramento must have been borrowing QA engineers from Caltrans’ Bay Bridge team.

OK, enough negativity.

Here’s something to brighten your mood heading into the weekend. (Background)

Waive Bye-Bye

I promised you all another baseball post “towards the end of the month” and here it is, just in time. Happy July 32nd, everyone!

Jokes aside, I wanted to hold the post until after the so-called “Trading Deadline” so I could try and put the activity in some kind of context.

For the record, I spent a chunk of time writing this post in the context of a holiday, but it just didn’t work. The Trading Deadline isn’t a holiday, it’s just a mile-marker somewhere between Independence Day and Thanksgiving. Chronologically, it’s probably closest to Labor Day, but let’s face it, Labor Day isn’t really much of a holiday these days (though that may change around here depending on what happens with BART and the Bay Bridge; that’s a topic for another day, though).

So what is the Trading Deadline, anyway? From the name, you might think that it’s the last chance for teams to trade players. You would be wrong. Oddly enough though, this isn’t one of those “religious weirdities” like the timing of the All-Star Break. It’s actually a symptom of peoples’ inherent laziness. July 31 is really the “Non-Waiver Trading Deadline”. Up until 4:30 Eastern time yesterday, if teams wanted to trade players, they could just work out the details of a deal and do it. From now until the end of the season, though, the players have to clear waivers.

Um, what?

Waivers basically means that every team in baseball gets to meddle in the dealmaking. This gets ugly to talk about in the abstract, so let’s use an example to make it concrete.

The Mariners desperately need a pitcher. In a fit of insanity, they call up the Giants and say they’re interested in Barry Zito*. The Giants, no fools they, agree that sounds pretty good. They’d love to get rid of him and get something in return, but since it’s July 32, they can’t just cut a deal. Instead, they put Barry on waivers. Now every team in the major leagues (including the Mariners) can say “Sure, we’ll take him.” In this case, since the Mariners and Giants are in different leagues, all 14 National League teams and five American League teams would have a chance to speak up before it got to the Mariners. The Mariners are probably out of luck; even if nobody in the National League wanted him, somebody would probably claim him just to prevent the Giants from getting something good in trade. The Rockies are division rivals with the Giants, and they’re thinking that if the Giants get rid of Zito and possibly pick up a decent hitter, they’re going to be serious trouble. So the Rockies make a claim on him.

Now the Rockies have two days to arrange a trade. They’re not really interested in Zito, and they’re certainly not interested in picking up the rest of his contract (around $7,000,000 for the rest of this year and $18,000,000 for next year, or $7,000,000 to make him go away). So they don’t offer much, and the Giants say “screw it.” They can either pull him back off waivers, or they can wash their hands of him. If they wash their hands, the Rockies pay the Giants a nominal fee ($20,000) and they’re stuck with Zito. If they pull him back, they can always put him on waivers again–but if they do, they can’t pull him back a second time: they have to either work out a trade with the claiming team or just give him up.

* In reality, the Giants would be more likely to just put Zito on waivers to see if there’s any interest, rather than waiting for someone to come to them with a deal. But it’s funnier this way. And “it makes a better story is why.

As I said, that’s a mess. You can see why people just call July 31 the trade deadline and let it go at that. Surprisingly enough, trades do happen after the non-waiver deadline, but they’re not as common as before. Incidentally, there’s another trade deadline as well: any player traded after August 31 cannot play in the playoffs. Naturally, trades are even rarer in September than in August.

So what did all of this mean for Our Team (the Mariners)? Absolutely nothing. The Mariners are apparently following Polonius’ advice (“Neither a borrower nor a lender be…to thine own self be true”). They neither traded away Rauuuuuuuul (or anyone else) for prospects nor sacrificed prospects for a player who might help them now.  Well, OK, they traded Robert Andino to the Pirates for the famous “Player To Be Named Later” or cash.  But that hardly counts as Andino has been in the minors since late May and most people had forgotten he was even with the Mariners.

That discussion of hope from a couple of weeks ago still applies. Where are we with that? Well, they came up a little short on continuing the hot streak after the All-Star Break; rather than being no worse than four games under .500 at the end of July, they’re actually seven under and will need to go 31 and 24 the rest of the way to reach respectability. Not impossible, but not likely either. So what do we hope for now?

Well, we can watch Rauuuuuuuul go after that over-40 home run record (though it should be noted that he hasn’t hit one since the All-Star Break). We can continue to enjoy the development of their infield; their hot bats may have cooled off a little, and they’re having a few off days here and there, but still a big step up from recent memory. We continue to keep our fingers crossed for the young pitchers developing in the minors. We start thinking about possible trades next winter. And we keep waiting for a miracle.