I’m amazed at the variety and ferocity of the opinions expressed about the Russell Branyan trade. Some people (myself included) are happy about it, some people think it’s the sign that Jack Zduriencik is overmatched in his job and is working on borrowed time.
I shared my thoughts in an earlier post, so I won’t go into a lot of detail again. People are certainly entitled to their opinions, but the railing against the trade sounds to me like a lot of frustration from a losing season, and possibly frustration that this move didn’t happen sooner. I certainly understand that. I do think that teams and players place a lot more weight in wins in a lost season than fans do, however. When you start reeling off 90-loss seasons too often, it’s easy to lose respectability as a franchise. Younger players in those situations often seem to develop into much less than what was expected of them. I can’t think of a way to study if that’s true, but I think anyone who’s played sports even somewhat competitively will agree that learning to win is a real process, and any chance to to start on that or keep it going is important, at least in my mind. The Mariners made a nice break in a losing culture last year. Finding respectability again this year could be important.
All that isn’t really the reason for this post, however. Looking at this trade, I started thinking about Zduriencik’s vision as he builds the Mariners. Any employee of a MLB team will say their goal every year is to win the World Series, but that’s frankly not true, and even when it is, there are usually some caveats and outlying factors. Zduriencik is on record as saying that the World Series is the goal every year. I think the quote I’ve heard most often is, “Unless you just won the World Series, you’re rebuilding.” And I believe him. But he’s also on record as saying that it’s very important to develop players and have a successful minor league system and all that it brings. I find the way that he’s reconciling those issues fascinating.
From my vantage point, I think Zduriencik’s goal is a team that can challenge for the title every year. To accomplish this, he believes that he must have young talent constantly developing. This isn’t an original viewpoint. All successful organizations build this way. Even the Yankees and their monster payroll are at their best when they have homegrown talent.
I think Zduriencik’s goal for the Mariners can be defined further. In one fairly long sentence, I would say it is this: Make the Mariners better, in any way possible and at any time, without detracting from the goal of being a yearly World Series contender. There is a constant weighing of “what will help now” vs. “what does it do to the future”. Any move that helps now without jeopardizing sustained future success is a move he will make.
Zduriencik also often says that they are looking to bring talent into the organization at all levels. This means bringing better talent into the farm system. We saw it in the draft last month, we’ll likely see it in the next week with signings of internation free agents, and we’ll probably see it in the next month when he trades Cliff Lee. Young talent is important for a myriad of reasons, namely that it’s cheaper. Having young players to build around frees the rest of the budget for signing a free agent to fill a hole, or paying those young players as they get more expensive.
Adding talent to the organization also means doing things like trading for Russell Branyan. I believe Zduriencik and the Mariners feel it is their responsibility to put a competitive team on the field at all times, for reasons ranging from the aforementioned winning culture to keeping fans and players happy. In my mind, that’s important. Others disagree.
Everything then comes down to talent evaluation and development. Would Zduriencik have traded for Branyan if it cost him Michael Saunders and Franklin Gutierrez? Of course not. I doubt he would have made it if it cost Matt Tuiasosopo and Alex Liddi. But it cost Ezequiel Carrera and Juan Diaz, two guys who are likely to produce at a level that is easily replaced. Hoarding young talent is only worth it if that talent makes good on its potential. If the Mariners could trade Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda and Carlos Triunfel for Hanley Ramirez this minute, would they do it? Hard to say. It all depends on if and when those three prospects can reach their potential, offset against the value of the best shortstop in baseball, who is a sometimes headcase and will be much more expensive in the future. It’s a tough science where no clear answers emerge until years down the road.
Luckily, Jack Z. has a reputation as one of the top talent evaluators in the league, and it is on that reputation that he will succeed or fail. If he and his team are right on their evaluations of which prospects come and go, this team will get better. It’ll take a few years as he restocks the system with talent, but eventually impact players will accumulate and translate into wins. As that happens, they’ll be able to stop gambling on players like Casey Kotchman, because they won’t need to as much. They’ll have players who are surer things to produce. In the meantime, I think we’ll be surprised by more moves that don’t necessarily make sense, but that work out better than we expect. Since Branyan started playing, the Mariners are 2-1 against the Yankees and have scored 16 runs. That may not continue, but Jack’s comments about taking pressure off his struggling hitters suddenly hold some credence, and if Branyan’s health holds up, the Mariners might have a middle of the order hitter for 2011. Seems like a pretty good return for two mediocre prospects. Win now, win later.