Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Curse of David Bell and why the Mariners Shouldn't Trade for Justin Upton

In 2001 the Mariners tied the major league record most wins in a season with  with 116. There hasn't been much written  about the 2001 team except to point fingers at a group of players who probably over-achieved through out the year and choked when they got to the playoffs.

Naaaahhhh.  It was a great team with players who had great years.  How great?  The hitting was certainly great.  Here are a few examples:
Brett Boone:  .331/372/578  OPS + 153  Best year of any player I ever saw. He delivered the mail.
Edgar Martinez .306/423/543 OPS +160 Edgar's last year of brilliance.  He should be in the Hall of Fame
John Olerud  .302/401/472  OPS +136  Reliable at bat and in the field.  He was clutch. Slow too, but clutch.
Ichiro Suzuki  .350/387/451 OPS + 126 Transformed the Mariners.  The first year of his unique career.

Those are just a few examples of the Mariners who had standout careers.  This list omits Mike Cameron, Mark McLemore and other solid hitters.

And then there was pitching.  Freddie Garcia, Jamie Moyer, and Aaron Selie all had good years in a dependable rotation.  Kaz Sasaki and Arthur Rhodes were nearly unhittable. I forgot  Norm Charlton pitched some quality innings for this team.  Rhodes had an ERA + of 243.

So why didn't they make it to the World Series?  Were they really just bums masquerading as champions?  This team struggled against the Indians in the Division Series and were beaten 4-1 by the Yankees in ALCS.

I don't think they were bums.  I think they were human. I believe that 9/11 showed them to be mortal, a group of men on the road when disaster struck New York City.  The week off gave them lots to think about while they sat in Anaheim trying to get home to their families. Baseball somehow seemed less important than their roles as husbands, parents, and sons.  Call it pop psychology, but this story has not been written.  It should be. Though they went 12-6 after baseball resumed its schedule on September 18th, ten of those wins were against bad Angels and Rangers teams.  Against 102 win Oakland, the Mariners were 2-4.  They weren't ready for a team like the Yankees, World Series veterans who were galvanized by the the World Trade Center bombing.  After scraping by Cleveland, they were done.

When a team ties the season wins record that stood for nearly a century but fail epicly in the post-season, there has to be a reason.  In Seattle there was an immediate search for scapegoats, and the big winner was David Bell. Bell was the Mariners third baseman in that record-tying season.  He hit a pretty pedestrian .260, played a solid hot corner and even smacked 15 homers.  Not bad for a right hander in Safeco field.

But it wasn't good enough. Bell played four seasons for the M's, none outstanding, but none that was embarrassing.   Lou Piniella wanted Jeff Cirillo who played a terriffic third base for the Rockies, and a trade was made for him.  Promising young pitchers Denny Stark and Brian Fuentes were shipped to Coors Field and Cirillo headed west. Bell was not re-signed.
David Bell played a solid if unspectacular 3rd base 1998-2001
Cirillo was a splendid player.  His previous four years with the Rockies and Brewers he hit over .300, with an OPS over .850.  His WAR for 1996-2000 was at least 4.0, and he was an All-Star in 1997 and 2000.  Cirillo was also known for his sparkling defense.
Jeff Cirillo looking for his swing.

The Mariners and their new third baseman arrived in camp with high expectations in 2002.  Both disappointed.  The M's failed to make the playoffs despite their 93 wins.  And Cirillo was a bust.  .247/.307/.328 don't earn many cheers from management or the fans.  Cirillo, a perennial winner, became an object of scorn.  A slow start in 2003, didn't bode well for his fragile self-confidence and midway through the season he was dealt to San Diego for catcher of the future Ben Davis and several bums to be named later. Bell, meanwhile, remained a productive player with the Giants and Phillies for several years.  Cirillo's career as a productive starter were over.

This was the first of many deals the Mariners made in the decade since the miraculous 2001 year. And what has it gotten them?  Crap.  The Mariners have finished over .500 four year in that time, including 2002 and 2003, before the last of the heroes of 2001 departed, their careers officially expired. The M's finished dead last last five times, with two disastrous hundred loss seasons in the last three years.

Lots is written about what the M's need to do to get back to winning and competing for the weak AL West crown.  They've aggressively traded for players and signed free agents for big dollars, and almost always the moves turned out badly.  Cirillo replaced Bell, and it was simply the first of many disasters.  Ben Davis was awful, and he was traded for Miguel Olivo, an even worse catcher.

In 2005, new GM Bill Bavasi signed high priced free agents Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson to long term contracts.  Beltre never lived up to his contract, playing a fabulous third base but the high average with power never materialized.  Sexson was brought in to hit home runs and for the first two years of his contract he did just that, but he was awful in the last two years of his deal and was finally released.  Bavasi signed players that never performed-Rich Aurilia, Scott Spezio, Brad Wilkerson are just a few memorable names in the Mariners scrapyard.  He made some boneheaded trades that netted virtually nothing for players who became valuable starters-Carlos Guillen to the Tigers, Shin Soo-Choo and Asdrubal Cabrera to Cleveland for role players that never performed at Safeco Field.
Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre, the Mariner saviors who never where.
The crowning debacle, however, was the 2008 season which began with the trade of promising outfield prospect Adam Jones, useful lefty reliever George Sherrill and three other prospects for Eric Bedard, a Baltimore lefty to join Felix Hernandez in the Mariner rotation.  Bedard, unfortunately, was broken, and he never became an effective starter for the M's.   The 2008 season remains one of the most disgusting in Mariners history as clubhouse chemistry was radioactive.

Erik Bedard's damaged left arm prevented him from providing the left handed bookend to Felix Hernandez.  The trade to bring him to Seattle cost the Mariners far more than what they got in return.

After making some moves in 2009 that seemed like genius, new GM Jack Zdurencik made moves for the 2010 season that looked great on paper, but in practice more disaster.  Chone Figgins, a perennial pest during his days as a lead off pest for the Angels, underperformed his new contract and undermined manager Don Wakamatsu's authority.  Milton Bradley's contract for Carlos Silva's (plus his buffet) seemed like a fair swap at the time, but no, Milton was invisible on and off the field. Casey Kotchman, Eric Byrnes, Jack Wilson, all bad, all the time.

It seemed that by the end of 2010 Jack Z had learned his lesson and would rebuild the good old fashioned way, with prospects the Mariners worked hard to acquire and develop.  It meant 2011 would be stinky, but at least the M's would know what they had. Justin Smoak at first base, Dustin Ackley at second, and Miguel Pineda penciled into the starting rotation seemed a likely occurrence in 2011, with hoped for improvement by young Michael Saunders and catcher Adam Moore.  The philosophy seemed to be patience with a smattering of free agent signings to add help where it seemed to be needed-in the rotation and bullpen, at DH, a fill-in second baseman and shortstop.  No more David Bell swaps, no more long term unaffordable contracts, at least not until we got to see how the kids performed.
Hard throwing phenom Michael Pineda is penciled into the Mariners rotation for 2010
All agree Dustin Ackley is the real thing at the plate.  He's electrified crowds in the Arizona Fall League.
Justin Smoak's adjustments paid off in his fall audition with the Mariners.  The first baseman could be the power hitter the Mariners lack.
This week the rumor the Mariners were interested in the Justin Upton sweepstakes floated on the internet like a stinky fart.  The price would be two or three of the M's top prospects.  Upton a young, rising star in the Diamondbacks' outfield could move to left and provide power, speed and defense.  He would immediately become the most dangerous hitter in the Mariners' lineup at age 23.  I've heard this before, when we welcomed Jeff Cirillo to Seattle in 2002.  Two years after we waved good bye to Jeff, we welcomed Adrian and Big Richie and we saw two more National League hitter founder on the reef that is Safeco's left field wall. Jose Vidro and Jack Wilson brought their experienced National League bats to Seattle and left simply shavings and splinters.  This rumored deal has the stink of Erik Bedard all over it.
Justin Upton: a future star, or merely a good National League player.
I cannot see giving up any of the three players that are on the brink, clearly fit into the M's immediate plans for another player who has never played in the American League, a right handed power hitter to be demoralized by the spacious dimensions and heavy air of Safeco Field. Recognizing that while Upton is a good player, and may become a great player, he is unproven in this league, and is not worth blowing holes in the team that will take the field in 2011.  The foolish decision to seek a quick fix in 2002 still haunts this team.  The quick fix was tried dozens of times since then, and not a single decision has paid off.  Only by developing our own before turning to trades and free agency will the Mariners ever prosper again.  Jack Z. needs to learn from the curse of David Bell before it takes his job too.

1 comment:

Dave S. said...

Some nice thoughts on the state of the M's and how they got where they are.

I am gun-shy about trades for the "Next Great Player", especially given the M's record in this area. But the M's Front Office is going to have to do something to get and maintain fan interest.

Last season was a disaster on the field, but unless the Front Office does something, that will translate into a disater in the box office.

That said, I'm hoping they just try to put together a solid team.