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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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June 4, 2008 11:10 PM

No one immune

Posted by Geoff Baker

Liked that manager John McLaren stated the obvious today, that none of his players are immune from criticism for this year's utter collpase. That was before his profanity-laden tirade after yet another defeat, but for me, the pre-game stuff was more important. Sorry I wasn't around earlier today. But I had four hours sleep after last night's game, then flew all day today to Montreal so I could spend tomorrow's off-day with my mother before flying back to Boston. Got an inlking of what was taking place today during breaks between my three different flights. But only now am I catching up with all of it. I was going to post this blog tomorrow morning, having written much of it on my final flight leg. But since all the spit is hitting the proverbial fan tonight, might as well give you something to chew on a little early.

The scary part of what McLaren said is that he was bang-on. Yes, scary. Not scary for me. Nor for the players, really, since they have yet to suffer any serious reprecussions for what's gone on other than losing some refreshments and towels post-game.

No, when I say scary, I'm talking about all of you. You should be very afraid for your team. And not just for this year. We're talking next season as well. I touched on this theme a few weeks back. About how management needed to gauge this club to see what the biggest problem was. A few weeks ago, I was convinced this was just a one-year happening. A convergence of events -- a Perfect Storm if you will -- that had contributed to send this $117 million luxury cruise liner to the bottom of the ocean. Add a few good hitters, I figured, and you could clean the mess up by next season and take another shot at contending.

Now, I'm not so sure. And judging by the actions -- or lack of action other than yelling and screaming -- by the team's ownership and management, I don't think they are too sure either. The Mariners seem to be an organization paralyzed by indecision. I feel for them. Because right now, if it was my finger on the button, I honestly could not say whether it's best to do that "two or three big bats" move or blow the whole thing up.

Those of you poised to make some flippant jokes about that last line, please don't. It's never easy for any organization to "blow it up''. The only folks who find that an easy route are fans looking for an outlet through which to vent anger. I understand that. But it's no way to run a baseball team. Blowing up the Mariners means, at minimum, waiting another three years before contending again. Hoping for something quicker is akin to fooling yourselves. Billy Beane isn't taking over this team tomorrow. Whoever is running the show in 2009 will be hard-pressed to contend before 2012 if he or she "blows it up". Get it straight. Get it right. Do not delude yourselves, please.

But here I am, starting to think that "blowing it up" might be the best idea. Remember when we talked about a "culture of losing" in this team's clubhouse? You're seeing it on the field night after night. Don't give me any more lines about players "working hard" and "trying'' behind the scenes. Not good enough. They are being paid seven figures on average to produce results. They are not doing it. Haven't done so for over a month. The only teams they have beaten since May began are the Texas Rangers, San Diego Padres, Detroit Tigers (once) and a Red Sox team that can't win on the road. Those three other clubs I mentioned are stiffs. All of them. This team has done nothing for over a month.

The Mariners have gotten used to losing. Young and old. Hefty and skinny. Short and tall. They are all used to an environment where losing has become acceptable. How do I know this? Because they've been losing non-stop since May 1 and the only Opening Day player to lose a job was Cha Seung-Baek. And he only lost it because his arm was gassed and the team needed a knuckleballer to pitch every other day in relief of starters not getting the job done.

So, that's how I know this team is getting used to losing. Why wouldn't it? I've been trying for over a month now to point out examples in print of how this team just might be infested with a losing culture. I was afraid this was what I was seeing, going back beyond that May series in Texas. Now, I'm convinced it has taken hold. How do you get rid of it? Well, it's a little like a termite problem. You can cut out a couple of floor boards and hope to rid the rest of the house of any problem.

Or, sometimes you have to blow the house up.


I can guarantee you these thoughts are running through the minds of those people now running this team. They have to be. If not, then Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong should resign.

They had better be interested in figuring out whether this culture of losing can be eradicated.

After all, they helped create it through their own inaction and lack of accountability. They are not alone in this organization, believe me. But it's the guys at the top who set the tone for an organization. In my brief time here, the Seattle Mariners have seemed to operate like an organization that does not feel it has to answer to anybody. We won't get into how they play in a taxpayer subsidized ballpark. That's for another day. But I've never been shy in pointing out that the Mariners, as an organization, love their secrets.

Want to know why Kenji Johjima was given a three-year contract extension when the team has a No. 1 draft pick at catcher on the verge of being ready for the major leagues? Too bad. Who do you think you are? Trust the Mariners. They know what they're doing.

Feel good about that answer? Me neither. Don't worry though, we're not alone. I sit and talk to people around the game on every road trip and the Johjima question is one of the first I'm asked after the one about when Richie Sexson will be released.

But the Mariners don't really give the appearance of caring whether or not you understand things like the Johjima deal. At least, not beyond the few lines they'll offer up at a press conference. Doesn't matter to them whether or not you think it makes sense.

But why pick on Johjima? What about Rafael Soriano? What was the big hurry in getting rid of him before last season? Armstrong suggested in an AP report last fall that there were issues with Soriano. But he would not elaborate. Why would he? Why go to that kind of trouble when he can just drop some innuendo? After all, who's going to call him on it?

Who are the Mariners, as an organization, really accountable to? I mean, check out what's going on. This is a team that spent $117 million on payroll but finds itself on-pace to lose 104 games. And yet, other than Baek and Brad Wilkerson before him, no one has really paid a price.

Hey, it's their team. I know you're angry. I'm disappointed that a group of players I thought was capable of making the playoffs now has a shot at being the worst club in franchise history. Very disappointed. Both in my pick and the players themselves. A lot of soul searching has gone on behind this laptop the last two months, let me tell you.

I don't like to be this wrong about a pick. Ever.

But you can't simply suck your thumb and hide in a corner because something you predicted didn't happen. You have to look for answers. I've tried to do that here since late-April, when it was obvious something was amiss. For the M's sake, Lincoln and Armstrong had better be doing the same.

To be fair, the Mariners did something back in April. As I mentioned, they held Wilkerson accountable and shipped him off. They shipped off Greg Norton as well, which I don't consider holding anyone accountable since he was one of the few bright spots on the team. But at least, they tried to shake things up. Wladimir Balentien has struggled. Jeff Clement struggled on too grand a scale to be left in the major leagues. He's gotten his bat back to normal in Class AAA again and it's about time he's brought up.

The real accountability starts now and this team can't shirk its responsibilities. This isn't about firing everyone in sight, or shipping players off to appease the Baseball Gods anymore. The appeasement part should have happened two or three weeks ago. Should have happened when Bill Bavasi, rightly so, hammered away at his players for a lack of clubhouse leadership and accountability. Sexson could have been released then and there to make a point. That a culture of losing is unacceptable in Seattle. That someone is going to pay a price if that culture seeps into this team.

But that message was not sent. Empty words. Threats that aren't carried out. Keep on losing and keep on playing. That's become the M's way. And it is accepted. Every fan over the age of 5 has figured that out. Carlos Silva has figured it out. Bill Bavasi knows it. McLaren knows it, despite going out of his way to cover for and protect the players who are going to ultimately cause him to lose his job. If anyone on this team has been accountable, it's been McLaren. If his players covered for him on the field with even half the energy he's used up protecting their reputations off it, the team wouldn't be in this mess.

I actually feel sorry for McLaren, watching him go through his daily routine. He continues to front for players for whom losing has become a way of life. Continues to front for an organzation that provides no teeth to its tiresome bark. Continues to bear the responsibility of the franchise (and the livelihoods of his coaching staff) on his shoulders every single day -- out in public -- while those pulling the real strings are rarely seen or heard from. Until today, anyhow. Today, we got Armstrong and Bavasi in a rare public double-header. Though Armstrong apparently didn't want his yelling at coaches this morning to become public. Why would he? He's on record saying they've done a tremendous job.

McLaren will continue to get ripped to shreds daily for his every decision. Believe me, I know how this game works. Some of it will be justified, some of it not. It doesn't matter any more. We've gone beyond McLaren's in-game moves. I'm getting the sad feeling we'll never get to see the manager McLaren could have become -- at least not in an M's uniform. He's been operating in crisis mode from almost Day One, dating back to Mike Hargrove's sudden resignation last year. Some guys find themselves in such a mode. Others need more normal circumstances before they can thrive.

McLaren will never get that here. Not when Hargrove resigned, nor last August, when this same group of players stopped winning, and not now, when they never started winning. This isn't meant to excuse McLaren. By any measurement, he has not gotten the job done here. But I don't know that anyone could have under these circumstances. Bobby Valentine, Joe Torre, John McGraw, Casey Stengel. Are you kidding me? How good were they at bringing the runner home from third with less than two out?

Those of you who want McLaren's head, don't worry, you're bound to get it at some point. No manager can withstand having a team that underperforms like this.

But if any of you think Valentine is going to waltz into Seattle and turn this group into a 90-win squad overnight, I can't believe you've been watching the same games. When a team gets to a stage like this, where its management is forced to treat them like children post-game to get them to act like big-leaguers, the problems run beyond any one man.

Some of you keep asking for names. I've given you pages full of them these past few weeks. You can more or less take anybody on that roster save for Brandon Morrow and R.A. Dickey and make a case for how they've contributed to this team's losing. Yes, even some of your favorite players. Frankly, I don't see anybody on this roster who isn't expendable. Yes, I did just write that. Obviously, they can't all go. But some will have to.

Just how many will be up to ownership and management to figure out. How far gone is this culture of losing? Can the patient be saved? As I said, I'm not convinced it can be.

I've listened to people say that "going younger" and employing more statistical analysis is the key to this team's future. I agree and disagree with both statements. Certainly, the Mariners must do more to look at statistical projections -- especially on the defensive side. We all suspected this wasn't a great defensive team. I didn't think the defense would sink this season but by no means did I think it was all that good. None of the the more modern defensive metrics come out in Seattle's favor. And yet, the team keeps insisting it has a very good defense. It doesn't. Sorry. We've already voted. The eyes have it.

As far as "going younger" this team is already going to be pretty young next season. Out of the eight position players who aren't pitchers, half of them -- Yuniesky Betancourt, Jose Lopez, Balentien and Clement -- will be in their mid-20s. That's young. Three of those four are not hitting the ball. Lopez is, but has some defensive issues, as does Betancourt.

Yes, I know there are a bunch of over-30 guys not producing. That includes Sexson, Jose Vidro, Kenji Johjima and lately, Raul Ibanez. Adrian Beltre has been a big disappointment for me. Some of you think he's having an all-star year because he's popped some home runs. In my book, nobody who hits .150 from the middle of the order with runners in scoring position can be viewed a success. And remember, he's under-30. This is not strictly an "old guy" thing. Erik Bedard is under 30 and he's been a disappointment -- to me, at least, as i wrote last night and in last week's newspaper feature on what's gone wrong this year. Same with under-30 Silva. Felix Hernandez is "young talent" but has not progressed beyond last year.

The problems on this team stretch across the spectrum. As McLaren said, nobody is immune. Many of the older problems will be shed by next year. But the younger players on this team have to shown how to play this game the right way. They have to be taught that a culture of losing is not acceptable in major league baseball. It's not their job to teach. But it is their job to learn.

And I'm not sure whether adding more "young talent" to a roster that's got its share of young guys playing losing baseball already is the easy answer.

Want an easy answer? Bring in some established talent that can win when the pressure's on. That can teach younger players to play the game right and conduct themselves appropriately as major leaguers off the field and in the clubhouse. That can add production to this team, not just a name on a sweater. That can get the existing "young talent" on this club to fire on all cylinders like a Brandon Morrow. And that will have the courage to breathe fire like Jose Guillen while managing to stay respected at the same time.

That's the easy answer. If I was earning a seven-figure salary to run this team, I might even try to put some of it into practice. But that's not my job. I just call things the way I see them and let the folks earning the big bucks try to clean up their own mess.

They'd best get started now at figuring out what comes next. Because 2009 isn't too far off. If this team waits any longer before taking some real action, next season might soon be just as cooked as 2008.


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