When I began covering the Mariners for The Herald in 1999, I never thought I’d see one managerial change much less the six that have taken place since then.
It seemed like Lou Piniella would last forever with the Seattle Mariners.
But the longer you’re around this game the more you realize that there’s no forever. Even for legends.
Piniella leaves. Bob Melvin gets fired. Mike Hargrove drives off in his red pickup. John McLaren gets canned. Jim Riggleman isn’t asked to return.
Last Monday, Don Wakamatsu and three of his coaches were dismissed in the middle of a season like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It wouldn’t shock me if we’re writing in a few months about the brief Daren Brown era, no matter how serene the rest of the season becomes.
General manager Jack Zduriencik fielded a few questions last week about whether the Wakamatsu firing disrupts the continuity that the organization had established since their regime took over before the 2009 season.
— Weren’t Wakamatsu and his staff brought here as part of a plan to improve the Mariners over the longterm and establish a unified philosophy from the low minor leagues to the big leagues?
— Aren’t 11/2 years too brief a period to measure the work of Wakamatsu and his staff? Especially so soon after 2008 when the Mariners lost 101 games and the minor league system was decimated of true big-league prospects?
— Doesn’t the firing of Wakamatsu, bench coach Ty VanBurkeo and pitching coach Rick Adair, whose work and vision encompassed not only this season but the longterm health of the organization, mess with the continuity of what the Mariners had started less than two years ago?
All are valid questions.
As unfair as it might seem that Wakamatsu took the fall for a faulty roster and the poor season that ensued, this isn’t college football where a coaching change can mean years of painful rebuilding.
The next manager who walks in here — whether it’s Joey Cora, Bobby Valentine or Ricky Bobby — likely will be as successful as the big-league roster allows him to be. That could be good or bad, and where the Mariners as an organization stand now, I’m not getting my hopes too high for next year.
The guts of this organization appear headed in the right direction, especially in the player development and scouting levels, and Zduriencik seems happy with that. At least he indicated that last week when he noted that the winning percentage of the minor league system was among the best in baseball.
Winning in the minors is great — the Mariners’ .551 minor league winning percentage was the best in baseball entering this weekend — but there’s more to it than winning games.
Developing young talent into major leaguers is Priority One. And it’s not only about prepping kids to become big leaguers and hoping they pan out; it’s about making them impact players in the majors.
When I would ask Wakamatsu about certain minor leaguers who, to me, seemed like players who could help in the big leagues, he’d often respond with this: “He’s a nice player. But what we have to ask is whether he is going to be a championship-caliber player at his position. That’s how we have to evaluate players if we want to take this to that level.”
The Zduriencik regime has re-stocked the minor leagues well in the two years they’ve been here and there are a lot of interesting prospects in the system.
Second baseman Dustin Ackley and first baseman Justin Smoak easily could be in the Mariners’ opening-day lineup next year. The 2011 bullpen may include a hard-throwing guy like Dan Cortes, who has been a different pitcher after being converted to a reliever at Class AA West Tennessee. He’s thrown a 102 mph fastball that has overwhelmed hitters.
At the Class AA level, third baseman Alex Liddi, shortstop Carlos Triunfel and left-handed pitcher Mauricio Robles give the Mariners down-the-road hope. So do a few players at the A-ball level like shortstop Nick Franklin, corner infielder Nate Tenbrink and second baseman Kyle Seager.
However, with so much of the Mariners’ young talent at the Class AA level or lower, it could be a while before we learn just how good they are.
So, getting back to the continuity argument as it relates to firing Wakamatsu, I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of difference. Unless the Mariners’ next manager is a Lou Piniella-type who demands offensive help now, the longterm strength of the franchise and the health of the minor leagues will rightfully remain a priority.
At the pace I’ve been covering manager changes in my time on the beat, whoever becomes the next skipper — Joey Cora or Bobby Valentine or Ricky Bobby — probably won’t be around when these prospects are ready to succeed in the big leagues.
Read more from Kirby Arnold about the Mariners on his blog at www.heraldnet.com/marinersblog and via Twitter at @kirbyarnold.