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Geoff Baker covers the Mariners for The Seattle Times. He provides daily coverage of the team throughout spring training, and during the season.

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April 26, 2008 3:04 PM

Criticism and analysis

Posted by Geoff Baker

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A look above at Richie Sexson, Brad Wilkerson, Miguel Cairo and Jamie Burke taking some early batting practice this afternoon. Reading through your comments and private emails today after another long night for the Mariners. One thing that is becoming clear to me is that there is a disconnect between the expectations of criticism and analysis some of you have and what can reasonably exist.

A handful of you keep writing in, wondering "what has happened?'' in this space between this year and last. The simple answer is, absolutely nothing. One of the hallmarks of reputable criticism and analysis, as opposed to knee-jerk commentary, is flexibility. My two-second analysis of writing here in Seattle is that the quickest way to gain 100 percent support from the blogosphere is to rip Mariners management and managers at every turn. It's OK. Not much different from other markets that way. Problem is, not everyone is wrong at all times.

In this case, in the spirit of open-mindedness and flexibility, I approach each season looking at what a team's goals are. Not what my personal goals were for a team, but what that team is trying to do and whether it has a reasonable expectation of pulling it off. Going into last year, I didn't see the Mariners having much hope of pulling any of its expectations off because too much had to go right. A lot of it did go right and the result was an 88-win team. But I also did see some elements that surprised me. I saw a team that, until that fatal August losing streak, was able to win games when it had to and avoid being knocked out of the playoff race entirely. I saw some talented bullpen arms that -- while they withered under August intensity -- held promise for the future.

I still wasn't all that optimistic heading into the off-season and let it be known I wasn't all that confident GM Bill Bavasi could undo the starting pitching hole he'd dug for himself by allowing arms to walk away the previous years at a time the market for pitching was blowing sky high. Never did I imagine Bavasi could parlay some of his prospects into a trade for Erik Bedard, or land a top free-agent pitcher like Carlos Silva. But guess what? Bavasi surprised me.

And when things change, when they surprise you, the parameters of that criticism change.

Going into this season, I understood the team's plans and objectives -- building a team around strong starting pitching, a relatively strong bullpen (even without George Sherrill) and adequate offense. Hey, it worked for the Oakland A's during their Moneyball heyday. I did not believe the defense was going to make-or-break this club and I'm still not convinced it will. The problems this team has had are all hitting and injury-related. Yes, the bullpen has struggled, but again, I believe it's more a function of previous injuries than anything else.

Am I wrong? Quite possibly. But it's too early to tell. It's possible the defense will ultimately sink this club. I don't see it but anything can happen.

But what I can't do, what nobody offering objective criticism can afford to do, is judge a team based on their own ideas of how to win. There are more than one. Reputable analysis isn't as easy as saying a team should hold on to prospects, build from within and wait a few years to see that plan all come together. Frankly, that's pretty easy analysis. It will take years to know whether the decision was right or wrong and by the time the answer is known, most people will forget who predicted what in the first place.

I'm sure every team would love to say, hey, we're building from within, let's hold off a few years and take our time. In today's real world, most teams don't have that option. And you have to keep that in mind when tailoring the analysis and criticism you're about to deliver.

Some of you think the long-term strategy was the way to go for the M's. They disagreed. But the worst thing any analyst can do after that is color all criticism based on that viewpoint. Just because you may have thought it was the right way to go doesn't make it so. And therefore, at the first signs of trouble, you can't simply go "Ah-hah! I was right!'' and base all subsequent criticism off of that. We're all guilty of doing that, to degrees, from time to time.

For nine seasons, I picked the Toronto Blue Jays to finish third (actually, my first pick was for the mto win the wild-card, but I learned after that error). Not because they weren't building the way I thought a winning team should build. But because I listened to their goals and objectives and honestly questioned just how realistic they were. Turns out, they weren't all that realistic. They sounded good on paper at times, but the other elements, the human ones, weren't always working.

An example: I finally picked Toronto to finish second this season. On paper, their pitching looks great. But as of now, I'm questioning my pick because I forgot the other important thing I'd learned about that club from being around it almost a decade. The Jays play down to the level of their opponents. Always did and still do. That team is in trouble right now. It may very well rally and turn things around. But chances are, it may not be in time to save the job of manager John Gibbons. That's another thing to remember when it comes to criticism. Your timeframe for success may not be the same as a team's timeframe. Bill Bavasi does not have three years to build a playoff team here. You can criticize him, if you want, for trying to speed things along, but that's human nature. I don't know many GMs anywhere who will sacrifice their own jobs intentionally so their successors will have an easy time of it.

Anyway, that's a job for ownership to do. If they wanted Bavasi to go long-term with another three-year plan, they could fire him for going the Erik Bedard route. But now, the way Bavasi's job has been laid out, it's his job to win sooner rather than later. You can't criticize him for that -- not as absolutely as some of you.

Criticizing a manager in-game is like a referee calling holding penalties in football. There will always be something, everywhere you look, to single out if you so choose. You can debate each and every in-game decision, which is the beauty of baseball. And every opinion given by one baseball "expert'' can differ from that of another. Rarely though, will one bad decision, or even a handful that don't work out well, be grounds to fire a manager. Ron Washington makes terrible decisions in Texas from time to time. He still has a job, last time I checked. It's the body of work you examine over time.

Some of John McLaren's decisions don't look good. We've called him on them from time to time. But half a season last year and four weeks this year are not enough time to make a call on him. I'm sorry. If the M's rebound and win the division, he'll be an automatic manager of the year candidate. That's the reality. And then, all of the impulse-driven commentators will truly be "eating crow'' if he's worked out in the long term.

It's not that we're afraid to criticize. As I've said, we do it daily. We call the team out and the players. We deal with them every day. They read the stuff. McLaren does and he's got a pretty thick skin. He knows I didn't like his roster when the season opened. He knows what I thought of keeping Cha Seung Baek over R.A. Dickey because he reads it and I ask him about it -- face to face.

McLaren may think I know nothing about the game. He may think a lot of you know nothing. I happen to think that what some of you write is so far-removed from real world thinking that it blows my mind. But I try to listen to all of it. Try to explain to you where I'm coming from.

Some of you don't think clubhouse chemistry exists. We wasted days debating this late last season. And yet, when I spoke to Frank Thomas yesterday, one of the first things he mentioned was not wanting to cause a clubhouse problem by coming here and bumping Jose Vidro from his job. Yes, it exists. Yes, it may exist more here than in other cities, but that's still a real world issue that has to be dealt with.

Bottom line, since I have to get going: I think some of you have an expectation of criticism and analysis for this team that won't be found in any city, or any newspaper or media outlet. True criticism and analysis isn't about describing the ideal formula for a team to succeed. Every team in baseball knows you need good pitching and defense and to score runs to win. No team has all three of those elements perfected because of the laws of supply and demand.

There will always be something to rip a team for if you look hard enough. Always some idea that will run contrary to yours. It's the beauty of the game. But when I criticize something, I want you, as a reader, to know where it is coming from. To know it's legitimate. Not to say "Oh, there's Baker going off half-cocked because the team lost three in a row'' or "he just hates management and will do anything he can to bury them.''

My goal is to be flexible, to listen to arguments I don't agree with, and, most importantly, to judge whether a team has a realistic shot at achieving its goals. Based on what I've seen from the 2008 Mariners, warts and all exposed already, I still believe they have a realistic hope of succeeding if they make the adjustments that will be needed going forward. And on April 26, I'm not about to reverse course and decide it was all a pipe dream. Not enough evidence, at least in my eyes, to support that yet. When it's there, you'll hear about it. And better yet, you'll be able to trust what is written.



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