Sunday, May 28, 2006
No franchise has so shamefully exposed the heartless, profit-seeking nature of modern baseball more than the Florida Marlins. While many thought that syndicate baseball had been left behind somewhere in the early 20th century, the Marlins have proven that theory wrong. Now the Marlins are in the truly Machiavellian process of blackmailing the state of Florida for more money, threatening to pull up stakes and leave if they don't get it. Rumors that the team has been taken over by Major League owner Rachel Phelps are thus far unsubstantiated.
But the Marlins began, as the Rockies did, with a general sense of optimism. Major league baseball had never come to Florida, although many teams had threatened to for a number of years. The nominal destination for discontented teams was the Tampa-St. Petersburg area, a market that had come within inches of getting both the Giants and White Sox and had gotten serious nibbles from other franchises.
It was thus a bit of a shock when the MLB's first Florida franchise was located in Miami. Not only was the Miami weather much more unpredictable, but the Tampa-St. Pete citizens had been given vague promises of a baseball team for years. What tilted the balance toward Miami was Wayne Huizenga. Huizenga was the owner of the Blockbuster Video company and a part-owner of the NFL Dolphins. What Huizenga had that others did not was money. Huizenga bought a half-share of the Dolphins' Joe Robbie Stadium and began an intense P.R. campaign to bring baseball to south Florida. It didn't hurt that Huizenga offered to pay his $95 million league entry fee in cash. The final blow to the Tampa Bay area fans was the choice to call the new team the Florida Marlins, implying that the team represented the entire Florida market.
There was a bit of a murmur surrounding Huizenga's selection of team executives. Carl Barger was named team president and drew criticism when he continued to hold down his job as president of the Pirates. Even worse was the hiring of Dave Dombrowski as General Manager. To take over the position, Dombrowski left the General Manager's job in Montreal and, in the process, poached almost all of the Montreal front office, bringing them to Florida with him. The raids on Montreal executives didn't stop until NL President Bill White intervened.
Compared to their expansion-mates in Colorado, the Marlins had a very poor showing in the expansion draft. Their first pick (2nd overall) was Nigel Wilson, an outfielder in the Toronto system who turned out to be a major-league bust. Their 2nd pick was a Mets pitching prospect named Jose Martinez. Martinez never pitched a game for Florida, but he was a part of the trade that brought Gary Sheffield to Florida in July of 1993.
Their 3rd pick, Bret Barberie, was a Montreal second baseman who never lived up to the hype. They finally scored a winner with their 4th pick, taking reliever Trevor Hoffman from Cincinnati. But unfortunately, Hoffman only pitched 28 games as a Marlin before going to San Diego as part of the Sheffield deal.
With their 5th pick, they finally took a player who would be at least semi-useful to the team for a good length of time. It was starting pitcher Pat Rapp, taken from the Giants. Rapp spent 4+ years in Florida, usually pitching well and offering strength to what was rarely a respectable starting rotation.
The early draft picks the Marlins made look pretty disastrous in retrospect. They got speedy outfielder Chuck Carr, but quickly found out that speed was the only thing worthwhile about him. It looked like a steal when they nabbed Angels closer Bryan Harvey, but unfortunately Harvey only had one good season left before injuries prematurely ended his career.
It's actually in the middle rounds of the draft that the Marlins got their go-to players. The Marlins and Rockies took 21 other players before Florida finally selected Jeff Conine, an oversight that's tough to fathom even without hindsight, as Conine would become a stable producer for the team for years. The Marlins' 13th pick was a young Yankee hitter named Carl Everett. But after a couple disappointing years in Florida, the Marlins traded him to the Mets for Quilvio Veras.
Other name players taken in the draft include: reliable relief arm David Weathers (Toronto), useful starters Cris Carpenter (St. Louis) and Jack Armstrong (Cleveland). The Marlins took the veteran Danny Jackson (Pittsburgh) very late in the draft, then turned right around and traded him to the Phillies for two no-names. (Jackson would serve an important role as a starter on the 1993 NL Champion Philadelphia team.)
A much more useful trade the Marlins completed was with the Oakland A's, getting Walt Weiss in exchange for Eric Helfand and Scott Baker (?). Weiss would prove one of the more reliable Marlins in their early years, whereas the other two players only managed 54 career games in the majors.
Not really satisfied with their take in the amateur draft (especially compared with the success of the Rockies), the Marlins decided to budget some money for free agents. The most famous of these was 44-year-old Charlie Hough, who was still able to serve as a league-average innings-eater for two years in Florida before retiring. The same day, the Marlins signed corner infielder Dave Magadan. Although he only played 140 games in Florida, Magadan hit while during his stint there and proved one of the few potent bats the team could muster. The Fish also managed to take star catcher Benito Santiago as a free agent. But Santiago's two seasons in Florida were disappointing, and he left the team after the 1994 season.
Some signings were less fruitful. The Fish signed Geronimo Berroa to a 1-year deal, with Berroa hitting a dreadful 118/167/147 in 14 games. He went to the A's as a free agent in 1994 whereupon he blossomed into a quality hitter. The club also managed to nab Orestes Destrade, a slugger who had spent the last 4 seasons in Japan. While Destrade hit fairly well with the Marlins (255/324/406 in '93), it wasn't quite good enough, and he returned to Japan in 1994.
Sporting this admittedly bare roster, it was thus no surprise when the Marlins finished their inaugural season 64-98. The only consolation was that they (with a $19 million payroll) had finished in 6th place in the NL East, 5 games ahead of the New York Mets (with a $39 million payroll).
Time marched on, with the Marlins improving their record slightly each subsequent year. Under manager Rene Lachemann, the 1994 squad went 51-64, but improved their winning percentage from .395 in their 1993 debut season to a more respectable .443. In 1995, the team went 67-76, again raising their winning percentage, to 469. The 1996 team jumped all the way up to 80-82, a 3rd-place finish in the NL East. It was a sign of things to come, because the 1997 Florida Marlins went 92-70 and nabbed the NL Wild Card, finishing just 2 games ahead of the Mets and Dodgers.
How did the Florida Marlins, who started from such humble beginnings, make it to the postseason in just their 5th year of existence? The answer is simple: they spent a lot of money on free agents and made trades for big-time players.
Only three members of the 1997 starting lineup were home-grown Marlins. Only two pitchers in the starting rotations came out of the Florida farm system, and just two of the six core bullpen players. This was a bit unusual at the time, but isn't really that uncommon in the age of free agency. The difference here is that while the home-grown players on the roster were mostly secondary role-players, the key contributors were almost all free agents, and expensive ones at that.
It was simply a case of having the means and the motive to buy a World Series. There were some errors on the way; not all the players the Marlins signed up turned into gold. 3B Terry Pendleton proved to be well past his prime during his short stay in Florida, as did aging outfielder Andre Dawson. The club gave good money to John Burkett in 1995, only to find out that his 22-7 record in 1993 was indeed a fluke. All these moves came before the 1995 season, and could be seen as the failed first attempt to assemble a free-agent winner.
But the real spree began way back in June of 1993, their inaugural season, when the Marlins sent two (basically) useless players and relief prospect Trevor Hoffman to the Padres in exchange for expensive problem child Gary Sheffield and reliever Rich Rodriguez. Sheffield was a man among boys on the 1993 squad, with only Conine, Magadan and Walt Weiss holding their own in the lineup. But help was on its way.
Less than a month after the Sheffield deal, the Marlins sent starter Cris Carpenter (who would never develop into much) to the Rangers in exchange for two relievers; one was Kurt Miller, and was essentially forgettable. The other was Robb Nen. Nen, unlike the other '97 Marlins, wasn't really a high-priced free agent, but a prospect the Marlins had nabbed in time to see him develop into a star closer. With Bryan Harvey's career basically over in 1994, Nen took over as Marlins closer and never lost the job. He stayed through the team through 1997 and was perhaps the league's best closer over that period.
In spite of their other 1995 free agent misadventures, the club did manage to get good value when they signed center fielder Devon White in November. But they really plunked down big money on two free agent pitchers: Al Leiter and Kevin Brown.
Leiter had come up through the Yankee system, but had never really been given a shot to succeed or fail either way. After being traded to Toronto, Leiter excelled as a starter, culminating in an excellent 1995 that saw him post a 3.64 ERA with 153 K in 183 IP. It was his free agent walk year, and the Marlins signed him up.
An even better move was the December inking of Kevin Brown to a big-money deal. Brown had succeeded as a starter in Texas for years, but as he played on forgettable teams, he wasn't much of a star. Then the Rangers traded him to Baltimore for his free agent walk year in 1995, whereupon Brown posted a 3.60 ERA in 172.1 innings of work. The Marlins got him under contract just in time to enjoy his coming-out party.
And 1996 was a coming-out party for the Florida Marlins. It started off quietly in January, when the team signed a Cuban defector named Livan Hernandez as an amateur free agent. The team got off to a slow start (costing Lachemann his job), but replacement John Boles kept the team strong the rest of the year, and while an 80-82, 3rd-place finish isn't much, it represented great news for the Marlins in their quest to build a winner.
There were many star performances on the 1996 team that seemed to indicate better years to come. Right fielder Sheffield had a monster year (314/465/624) that would have merited strong MVP consideration were it not for his surly attitude and prickly relationship with the media (he finished 6th). The club also got strong hitting from stalwart Conine (293/360/484) and young shortstop Edgar Renteria (309/358/399). But several hitters performed well below their usual standards, including CF Devon White and C Charles Johnson. This was good news for a possible rebound for the lineup in 1997.
Kevin Brown was the best pitcher in the National League in 1996. John Smoltz may have won the Cy Young (as the Braves went on to win the pennant), but Brown was just plain better. Here's a comparison:
1996 Cy Young Race:
Kevin Brown: (17-11, 1.89 ERA, 33 BB : 159 K, 233 IP, 8 HR allowed, 214 ERA+)
John Smoltz: (24-8, 2.94 ERA, 55 BB : 276 K, 253.2 IP, 19 HR allowed, 149 ERA+)
Of course, anyone who goes 24-8 is going to win the Cy Young, regardless of the underlying reality. And while Smoltz's huge edge in strikeouts is a legitimate argument in his favor, I simply don't believe it makes up the gulf of difference in ERA. Brown was simply the best pitcher in the NL at preventing runs, which is a pitcher's primary job.
Brown was supported by a strong season from Al Leiter (2.93 ERA, 200 K in 215.1 IP), but the rest of the rotation was a chaotic mess. John Burkett, not the San Francisco savior the team thought he was, posted a decent 4.32 ERA, but only threw 154 innings. The only other starter to top 100 innings was Pat Rapp, whose durability was countered by a 5.10 ERA. At least four other pitchers made at least 4 starts, as the team tried to find some way to support the Brown/Leiter tandem in the rotation. Solving that problem in time for 1997 would be a top priority.
While Nen was brilliant as closer (35 SV with a 1.95 ERA), the rest of the bullpen was rubbish, with the next-best ERA Jay Powell's 4.54 in 71.1 IP. Just as with the bullpen, the Marlins cycled through a number of arms in 1996, looking for a solution. This would be Priority #2 going into 1997.
Dombrowski and the Marlins were energetic re-builders in the 1996-97 offseason. Their first move was to replace ancient third baseman Terry Pendleton with free agent Bobby Bonilla. Then they strengthened the outfield depth by signing John Cangelosi and Jim Eisenreich.
The team finished off its December to Remember with two big-name signings. The first was starting pitcher Alex Fernandez. Fernandez had come up with the Chicago White Sox and was a big part of the dynamic rotation that drove the Pale Hose to the 1993 AL West title. Fernandez was coming off a strong 1996, where he posted a 3.45 ERA (136 ERA+) in 258 IP to go with an impressive 72:200 BB:K ratio.
The other big signing was outfielder Moises Alou. Alou had gained stardom as part of the strong Montreal outfields of the early 90's. But Alou's hitting numbers had dipped in 1995 and 1996, and thus it was a bit of a risk for the Marlins to sign the 30-year-old to such a big-money deal. But if the Marlins had a mantra going into 1997, it was "Money is no object (at least, not yet . . .)"
Under new manager Jim Leyland, the 1997 squad finished 92-70, earning a postseason berth as the NL Wild Card. What was responsible for the team's turnaround? It was, of course, mostly the free agents. 3B Bonilla had a fine year (297/378/468), LF Alou returned to his former glory (292/373/493), and Jim Eisenreich hit fairly well off the bench (280/345/372). The team also made a canny mid-season trade in acquiring veteran catcher Darren Daulton from the Phillies. Daulton hit 262/371/429 down the stretch and helped provide an extra boost to the offense.
On the pitching side of the equation, the team was able to offset slight slumps by Brown and Leiter by putting together a deep, solid rotation. Free agent Fernandez pitched very well (3.59 ERA, 113 ERA+), Pat Rapp bounced back to post a much more respectable 4.47 ERA, and the team got a strong contribution down the stretch from homegrown talent Tony Saunders.
But the biggest story was Cuban emigre Livan Hernandez. Pitching in Miami amongst many other Cuban exiles, the 22-year-old Hernandez became a big star when he joined the stretch drive with a 3.18 ERA in 17 starts, striking out 72 in 96.1 IP.
It must also be noted that the bullpen, behind a less-impressive Robb Nen (3.89 ERA), was much more stable. Workhorse Jay Powell lowered his ERA to 3.28 while still managing 79.2 IP. Unsung free agent Dennis Cook provided a reliable lefty arm, and farm system products such as Felix Heredia and Robby Stanifer contributed as well.
What you had in the 1997 Marlins was a good team that had struggled its way into the postseason. No one really expected them to go far in the postseason, and so it was a great surprise when the Marlins swept the Giants 3-0 in the NLDS. But the Giants had an even worse W-L record (90-72) than the Fish, and with Marlin pitching holding Barry Bonds to a 250/231/417 hitting line, it wasn't such a surprise after all. But surely the Marlins would get theirs in the NLCS against the Braves, fielding what Bill James has called the best starting rotation of all time.
But observers might have taken a hint from the fact that the Marlins won 8 of 12 games against the Braves in the regular season. The Braves posted a 2.60 ERA and outscored the Marlins 21-20, but the Fish hammered both Tom Glavine and John Smoltz and managed to take the NLCS in six, winning the pennant.
The 1997 World Series against Cleveland was . . . well, it was COLD. One of the realities of a third round of playoffs meant that the postseason would last all the way to the end of October. And late October in Cleveland can be devastating (wind chills reached as low as 15 degrees).
The two teams split the first two games at Florida, and then the Marlins won a slugfest for the ages in Game 3. The game was tied 7-7 going into the 9th, and the Marlins exploded for 7 runs to take a 14-7 lead. Despite the fact that Cleveland came back for 4 in the bottom of the inning, the Marlins were able to hold onto a 14-11 victory.
The Indians tied the Series with a Game 4 victory, and then Florida took a 3-2 lead with a Game 5 win, which came despite another late-inning rally by Cleveland that cut the final score from 8-4 to 8-7 before the Marlins sealed the deal. Cleveland won Game 6 behind a fine start from Chad Ogea, and the stage was set for Game 7.
Game 7 was one for the ages. The Indians led 2-1 going into the bottom of the 9th, but closer Jose Mesa blew the save, the and game went into extra innings. It was in the 11th, with Game 3 starter Charles Nagy on the hill, that Edgar Renteria hit an RBI single that won the game and the Series for Florida. South Florida went into a frenzy, but it was a frenzy that was ruthlessly cut short.
The specifics of the Fire Sale of the 1997 Marlins have been dealt with in many sources (as well as my own blog), so I won't go into the full rant. I'll reserve the vitriol and first present a balance sheet of the ins and outs of the 1997 bloodbath, which started a bare two weeks after Game 7 of the World Series:
LOST: Mike Piazza, Gary Sheffield, Kevin Brown, Moises Alou, Bobby Bonilla, Al Leiter, Robb Nen, Edgar Renteria, Todd Zeile, Craig Counsell, Jeff Conine, Livan Hernandez, Devon White, Charles Johnson, Matt Mantei, Felix Heredia, Jim Eisenreich, Jay Powell, Dennis Cook, Manuel Barrios, and others
GAINED: Derrek Lee, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny, Preston Wilson, Braden Looper, Justin Speier, Jesus Sanchez, Ramon Castro, Vladimir Nunez, Abraham Nunez, Nate Bump, Pablo Ozuna, Oscar Henriquez, Kevin Orie, Armando Almanza, Ed Yarnall, Joe Fontenot, Jesus Martinez, Blaine Mull, and other warm bodies
So there you have it, all done in just a year and a half. Not only did the Marlins trade away their entire 1997 Championship team (at least everyone making anything more than the league minimum), but they got almost nothing in return. You'd think that a team trading away two or three potential Hall-of-Famers and a dozen All-Stars would get a gold mine in return. But they just got four good prospects (Lee, Burnett, Penny, Wilson) and a couple of useful guys like Looper, Castro, and Speier. Few events in all of baseball have been so obviously inspired by money matters, and fewer still have damaged the sport's well-cultivated image of community. Bud Selig likes to pretend that there is a sense of community between a baseball team and its city, because that kind of thing makes people happy and makes you look like a good corporate citizen. But it's a lie. The simple truth is that the Marlins spent a sh*tload of money on a lot players in order to win over the course of one year. Then having won, they traded all the players away and let other teams deal with the long-term consequences of the contracts the Marlins signed.
Is it possible that the Marlins simply had to trade away those players to deal with the fiscal realities of baseball? Huizenga claimed the club lost money during its championship year, and he had no choice but to sell. But if history is any guide, every baseball owner who claims poverty is lying. The '97 Marlins drew 2.3 million fans to the newly-dubbed Pro Player Stadium. This was, admittedly, only good enough for 6th among 14 NL teams. But for an expansion franchise in a new major league market in only its 5th year of existence to draw 2.3 million is an unqualified success. Suspicions later rose that Huizenga hid the team's profits by transferring them to stadium profits (he also co-owned the stadium), a move right out of the Enron playbook. So can we really believe that Huizenga was an innocent victim of the perils of capitalism?
I give Wayne Huizenga and his cronies respect as people who know good business. And no good businessman would recklessly spend that much money and then actually be surprised, a year later, at how much money he had spent. Only a fool would have such a complete lack of foresight as to sign all of those contracts without considering the consequences, and I doubt very much that the Marlins were run by fools. On the contrary, I think they were run by cunning, Machivellian businessmen.
My opinions do skew to the cynical, but I think Huizenga approached his team like this: we can spend a lot of money for just one year, reap the consequences of a winning team, and then sell off the team for parts before the costs become prohibitive. It's similar to the big-time Wall Street trader who talks up a company's stock until the price rises to its peak, then sells out before it crashes back to reality. Unfortunately, stocks don't capture the hearts and minds of millions of people. Baseball teams do.
The eviscerated 1998 Marlins went 54-108, the worst-ever drop for a defending World Champion. Leyland, disgusted with his surroundings, left, being replaced by front-office man John Boles. The skinflint Marlins returned with a 64-98 finish in 1999. Attendance was down by a million, to 1.3 million in '99 (15th of 16 NL teams). The only good players really worth seeing on the team were: second baseman Luis Castillo, a top-of-the-order speedster, slap hitter, and perennial .300 threat; Mike Lowell, the steady-fielding third baseman with a very good bat; Preston Wilson, the center fielder who had power, strikeouts, and a .280 average; Alex Fernandez (3.38 ERA), the veteran of the '97 team trying to come back from very serious injuries; and closer Antonio Alfonseca, the pear-shaped and mercurial hurler (21 SV).
In 2000, the Marlins returned to respectability, posting a 79-82 record. It was mainly the decent crew mentioned above, but also the arrival of first base prospect Derrek Lee (281/368/507), the eternally injured Cliff Floyd (300/378/529) and a young hurler out of the farm system named Ryan Dempster, who posted a 3.66 ERA with 209 K in 226.1 IP. The Marlins did have other pitching prospects breaking into the majors, such as Brad Penny and A.J. Burnett, but they didn't fare quite as well.
Any momentum from 2000 failed to translate to 2001, as the Marlins drifted back to a 76-86 finish. The year saw Boles out as manager, replaced by Tony Perez, who also failed to energize a club that apparently saw little reason in bothering at all.
It was after the 2001 season that baseball pulled off its greatest syndication scam in over a century. John Henry, having purchased the franchise from Huizenga in the midst of the post-'97 bloodbath, was looking to get out. Baseball also wanted to extricate art dealer/owner Jeffrey Loria from his spot as owner of the Expos. And so, tossing the free market and the passions of the fanbase to the four winds, Selig arranged a big-time switcheroo: Henry sold the Marlins to Loria and took over the Red Sox, with Loria selling the Expos to Major League Baseball. Not only did Loria take over as owner, but he (like Dombrowski before him) took most of the Montreal front office with him (manager Jeff Torborg, GM Larry Beinfest, president David Samson). See my entry on the Expos for more detail, but in short, the idea that one baseball team could be efficiently run by its 29 competitors was laughable, and it made a mockery of all the legitimacy and integrity that Selig supposedly stands for.
The 2002 Marlins were more of the same, finishing in 4th place with a 79-83 record. But along with the same solid lineup, there were signs that the young pitching prospects (Burnett, Penny, Dempster, and Josh Beckett) were finally starting to come along. But the problem that would plague the team for years was keeping all of them healthy at the same time.
The 2003 Marlins combined a strong amount of talent and an obscene amount of luck to win the World Series. It has been argued that the 2003 Marlins are the worst team to win the World Series. I don't know if I'd go that far, but they're certainly close.
They had a fine lineup. The infield of Lee-Castillo-Gonzalez-Lowell was intact, productive, and defensively sound. The outfield was shaky, with Todd Hollandsworth and Juan Encarnacion getting far too much playing time, but that problem was helped by the mid-season acquisition of Jeff Conine and the late-season callup of prospect Miguel Cabrera. The Marlins also managed a trade with the Rockies that sent off the expensive Preston Wilson and Charles Johnson in exchange for the cheaper (though less productive) Juan Pierre. Replacing Johnson behind the plate was 1-year free agent Ivan Rodriguez (297/369/474) who gave the club a much-needed source of extra offense.
But what really drove the pitching staff was a starting rotation of great strength and depth. The stars were Beckett, who was limited to just 142 IP but still managed 152 K and a 3.04 ERA, and a rookie named Dontrelle Willis. Willis captivated baseball with his big smile and quirky delivery. He also managed a 3.30 ERA in 160.2 IP. The club got surprisingly good production from trade acquisitions Mark Redman and Carl Pavano and got solid work from homegrown prospect Penny.
The late-season acquisition of closer Ugueth Urbina helped spur the Marlins to the Wild Card, finishing 4 games ahead of the Astros. In the first round, they took on the 100-win Giants and, after a Game 1 shutout at the hands of Jason Schmidt, won the next three games to advance to the NLCS. There they faced the Cubs in what was a star-crossed series for the Chicagoans and a great stroke of luck for Floridians.
The Marlins won a close Game 1 in extra innings, but then the Cubs blew out Brad Penny in Game 2 12-3 to even the Series 1-1. The Cubs won the next two games, taking a (seemingly) commanding 3-1 lead in the Series. The Marlins managed a Game 5 win thanks to a Josh Beckett shutout, but the Cubs still had a 3-2 lead with the series heading back to Wrigley.
In Game 5, the Cubs had a 3-0 lead going into the 8th inning and were 6 outs from the World Series. But a fan reached out and caught a foul ball that LF Moises Alou *might* have otherwise caught, and the Marlins exploded for an 8-run inning. Post-game second-guessers vilified the fan for catching the ball. But unless I'm mistaken, Steve Bartman wasn't the son of a bitch standing on the mound allowing 8 runs to score. Those particular S.O.B.s were Mark Prior, Kyle Farnsworth, and Mike Remlinger.
In Game 7, the Marlins scored 3 runs in the first, but then Kerry Wood homered to give the Cubs a 5-3 lead. They went on to squander it, losing the game 9-6. The Marlins had won their second pennant in just their 11th year of existence.
The Marlins were heavy underdogs going into the World Series against the Yankees. But it was another one of those bizarre series where one team gets outscored and still ends up winning. The Yankees scored 21 runs to the Marlins' 17 and posted a 2.13 ERA, whereas the Marlins team mark was 3.21. But the Marlins won because they scored their runs at the right time. That's partially good situational hitting but mostly luck, and I stand by my theory that the 2003 Marlins were extraordinarily lucky in winning the World Series.
Just to give you some data (apart from my own opinions) to support that: the Marlins' W-L record in 2003 was a mere 91-71. Their Pythagorean W-L record (a better indicator of talent) was 87-75, the worst for any World Champion since the 2000 Yankees. The Marlins finished 8th (of 16) in the NL in runs/game and 7th (of 16) in runs allowed/game, both obviously average marks. I will admit that these measures are for the whole season, and that Marlins in October had players like Urbina and Cabrera, whom they didn't have all year. But I'm standing by what I said.
To follow up their World Championship, the 2004 Marlins went 83-79, finishing 3rd. It was sort of a milestone, anyway; the Marlins had only finished above .500 twice before, and in both those years they won the World Series.
The 2005 team saw management spend a little money to try and goose the team up the standings. Having traded for catcher Paul Lo Duca in mid-2004, the Fish followed it up by signing pitcher Al Leiter and first baseman Carlos Delgado as free agents. The result wasn't quite a success. Delgado was brilliant (301/399/582), one of the ten best players in the NL. But Leiter was not, posting a 6.64 ERA before drawing his release. The team finished once again at 83-79.
Management faced a bit of a crossroads going into 2006. They were dealing with more free agent money commitments and were dealing with growing arbitration salaries for the likes of Josh Beckett, as well as the impending free agency of A.J. Burnett. So what did management do? You all know the words, sing along . . .
Fire Sale, Part 2:
Refusing to call the moves a "fire sale," but rather a "market correction," the team traded away 3/4 of its starting infield, its starting catcher, one of its outfielders, one starting pitcher, and a setup man. They also lost the other infielder, another outfielder, a starting pitcher, and their closer to free agency. They made no moves to replace them from the free agent market.
Here's how the ledger stood for this one:
Paul Lo Duca & Carlos Delgado to the Mets; Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell & Guillermo Mota to the Red Sox; Luis Castillo to the Twins; and Juan Pierre to the Cubs.
In return, the club actually got a much better haul of prospects than in the 1997-99 fire sale, leaving some hope that the team will be competitive sometime in he next, say, 2 or 3 years. Until then, though, the Marlins are being demoted to minor league status.
The reasons for this fire sale were pretty direct. The team, tired of sharing Pro Player Stadium with the Dolphins, wanted a state-funded baseball-only stadium to be built. The state of Florida, however, was more interested at the time in putting money toward Hurricane Katrina relief rather than a new toy/ATM for Jeffrey Loria. The MLB, accustomed to having its way in stadium negotiations, decided to use the team to blackmail the state of Florida. I can picture it thus:
(Interior of a delicatessan. Early morning. The deli owner -- hereafter referred to as FLORIDA -- is sweeping the floor in preparation for a day's business. Enter JEFFREY LORIA and wise-cracking sidekick BUD SELIG.)
LORIA: Mornin' there, Florida.
FLORIDA: Why, Jeffrey Loria! What are you doing here?
LORIA: I was just checkin' on business. Seein' how things was doin'.
FLORIDA: Well, it's been tough lately. We've had a horrible hurricane season, but the state has come together, and I think we'll be able to get through this thing.
SELIG: (with a frumpy scowl) Don't talk about hurricanes, it annoys da Boss.
LORIA: Shaddup, Bud. (slaps him)
SELIG: Sorry, Boss.
LORIA: That's a nice baseball team ya got there, Florida.
FLORIDA: You think so? I used to like them, but then that old owner sold them all off after we won the World Series in '97. Since then, it's just hard to get really invested in them.
LORIA: But you wouldn't want to see them go, would yer?
FLORIDA: Why, no. I still like to go to a game once in a while -- I love that Dontrelle Willis -- and they're great for business.
LORIA: Because accidents happen, you know.
SELIG: Yeah, they do. Accidents happen. They happen.
FLORIDA: Accidents? What do you mean accidents?
LORIA: Supposin' you were to wake up tomorrow morning and that team weren't there no more?
FLORIDA: What do you mean? Why wouldn't it be there?
LORIA: Oh, I could think of a lot of places it could go. San Antonio, Portland . . .
SELIG: Washington, D.C.
LORIA: We already made that visit, Bud. (slaps him)
SELIG: Sorry, Boss.
FLORIDA: But I do like the team.
LORIA: Well, if business don't get better for them, we may have to see them go.
FLORIDA: What do you mean about business getting better?
SELIG: (Speaking as if from a script -- even moreso than usual) The Florida Marlins cannot compete in their current ballpark. Without a publicly financed baseball-only stadium --
FLORIDA: Can't compete in that park? What are you talking about? The Marlins are the only team to win more than one World Series over the past 10 years except for the Yankees! That team was born in 1993 and it's won two more World Championships in 14 years than the Cubs have won in 98!
SELIG: (Pause. Repeats previous line robotically) The Florida Marlins cannot compete in their current ballpark --
LORIA: But ya see, Florida, it's not a problem. I can make sure that team will be there tomorrow and for years to come. All I need is something from you.
FLORIDA: What's that?
SELIG: Specifically, some $400 million in taxpayer money to put towards building a baseball-only stadium, not to mention the usual tax breaks on property taxes, etc.
FLORIDA: You want $400 million from me?
LORIA: Hey, you're pretty smart! Didn't I tell yer he was smart, Bud?
FLORIDA: But you don't understand. We just got hit by the worst hurricane season in recent memory. There's people who don't have food, or - or a place to live.
SELIG: (Moving his fingers) That's me playing the world's smallest violin. (Pause) I can't get enough of that joke.
FLORIDA: Besides, there have been reports by respected economists that taxpayer-funded stadiums don't really put that much money back into the community. There's no way the community will recoup that $400 million. All the profits made by the team go into a vacuum straight to you and your stockholders and don't get reinvested in the community. Why, Andrew Zimbalist says --
LORIA: Do you mean Andrew "The Liar" Zimbalist?
FLORIDA: I've never heard him called that.
LORIA: You did just now.
FLORIDA: And anyways, Forbes magazine says that around 24 of 30 ballclubs are actually making profits. The MLB in 2005 once again broke the record for seasonal attendance. You guys are making more money now than you ever have.
LORIA: Do you believe everything you read?
FLORIDA: Well, if it's a choice between believing Forbes magazine and Bud Selig, I think --
(Loria's phone rings)
LORIA: Shaddup for a minute. (Answers phone) Hello, Barry, what's goin' on? . . . uh huh . . . uh huh . . you don't gotta worry about a thing. (hangs up) I'll have to talk to you later Florida. I gotta go have a talk with two reporters in San Francisco.
FLORIDA: You mean the guys who wrote the Barry Bonds book?
SELIG: . . . book of LIES, you mean! Ha! . . . well, yeah, most of it's true.
LORIA: (Exiting) I'll see you later. Think about what I said. Be smart. You don't wanna end up like Luca Brazi.
FLORIDA: What happened to Luca Brazi?
SELIG: He's sleeping with the Marlins.
It's closer to the truth than you may imagine.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Thursday, May 25, 2006
With admittedly nothing but supposition to back this up, I'll put forth these educated guesses as to why baseball voted to expand the NL to 14 teams in 1993:
- Equilibrium. The AL already had 14 teams, and it would just match. This may seem too simple or straightforward, but it makes sense to me, especially since interleague play was being tossed around as a future possibility, thus an equal number of teams would be advantageous.
- Expanding markets. Despite worries that baseball was expanding faster than it could be pratically supported, the MLB saw the opportunities created by the growing Latin American market. Whether they took the Asia-Pacific market into consideration is unknown, but this would certainly be a source of new talent in the years to come.
- Geographical realignment. The original 16 MLB teams were in the northeast and midwest. Baseball has ever since taken gradual steps toward realigning major league franchises with the shifting population of the country, both through relocation and expansion. The Denver market had been attractive for many years, tempting other teams to relocate there. An added benefit would be that a Denver team wouldn't just appeal to the municipal or statewide market, but could represent the entire Rocky Mountain region (as the NFL Broncos illustrate). The same was true in Florida, a state with a whole lot of people served by no major league teams. There was great disagreement over where in Florida to place a team, but it was clear that the Sunshine State would sport a major league team soon, either through expansion or relocation.
- More money. This one rather explains itself.
Whenever baseball explores expansion (or relocation), a number of groups are formed in suitor cities to lure a franchise. The most recent example would be the relocation of the Expos, which saw baseball wooed not just by Washington, D.C., but by Portland, Charlotte, northern Virginia, and Monterrey, Mexico.
Oilman Marvin Davis had campaigned for a Denver baseball team for years with nothing to show for it. His cause was taken up by the money of Peter Coors and finally managed to get a franchise from the MLB. In Florida, it was Wayne Huizenga, part-owner of the Dolphins and Blockbuster Video mogul, who was able to attract the MLB to the Miami area. The two teams would start play in the 1993 season, bringing the NL to 14 teams, equal to the AL for the first time since 1976. This is what the new alignment would be:
New York Mets
St. Louis Cardinals
Los Angeles Dodgers
San Diego Padres
San Francisco Giants
As I mentioned before, oilman Marvin Davis had attempted to secure a major league franchise in Denver for years, unsuccessfully. In 1992, though, Colorado fans could rejoice when the MLB announced that one of the new NL franchises would be in Colorado (later named the Rockies). The ownership group was an unstable mix of money coming and going, guided only by the steady money of Peter Coors. Coors ended up with controlling interest in the club, supporting club president Jerry McMorris. Already plans were set in motion for a baseball-only stadium to be built in Denver. Until its completion, the Rockies would share Mile High Stadium with the Broncos.
The club named Bob Gebhard GM and Don Baylor manager heading into the expansion draft. Before the draft even began, ownership decided to make a splash by signing free agent first baseman Andres Galarraga. Galarraga would provide a steady power presence that would become emblematic of the entire team. They also signed a young amateur named Neifi Perez out of the Dominican. Neifi's defensive brilliance was overshadowed by his inability to hit his weight even in the most hitter-friendly environment this side of the moon. Another shrewd move involved trading the disappointing Kevin Reimer to Milwaukee in exchange for Dante Bichette, who would join Galarraga in the hitting heroics to come.
In the first pick of the amateur draft, the Rockies took prized Atlanta pitching prospect David Nied, a hopeful sign that the organization was looking toward the future. Their second choice was third baseman Charlie Hayes (N.Y. Yankees), a valuable hand and one of the better players ever left unprotected in an expansion draft. Their third pick was relief pitcher Darren Holmes (Milwaukee), who would help form what was, for a short while, a surprisingly good bullpen in Denver.
The rest of the draft was unspectacular, but indeed productive. There were no All-Stars, but it's amazing how many useful and productive players the Rockies took, including 2B Eric Young, C Joe Girardi, starting pitchers Willie Blair and Armando Reynoso, relief pitcher Lance Painter, and a young third baseman out of the Atlanta system named Vinny Castilla. With Castilla, Bichette, and Galarraga, the Rockies already had the heart of what would be a powerhouse offense.
Mile High Stadium's footbal dimensions helped the Rockies set a new major league attendance record in their inaugural 1993, when 4,483,350 tickets were sold, an astonishing 55,350 per game. As mentioned before, the Rockies had assembled a potent offense, but weren't able to get quality starts from anyone but Reynoso. (Nied spent parts of 4 seasons in Colorado before his rising star finally snuffed out). In fact, while the Rockies were among the league leaders in runs scored, they were dead last in runs allowed. Not only dead last, but dead last by a mile. Viz:
1993 NL Runs Allowed/Game
1. Atlanta (3.45)
2. Houston (3.89)
12. Cincinnati (4.85)
13. Pittsburgh (4.98)
14. Colorado (5.97)
Not only were the Rockies last, they were off-the-charts last. It was like someone had put a Triple-A pitching staff in the major leagues. The numbers were so awful they couldn't be real. And, of course, they weren't . . .
Every major league park favors, to a certain degree, either hitters or pitchers. Rarely is a park perfectly neutral, even for just one year. There is a statistic used to indicate how friendly a park is to hitters (or pitchers). It's called Park Factor. A Park Factor of 100 indicates a neutral park. A park factor over 100 indicates a park that favors offense; a park factor under 100 favors pitching/defense. A baseball field's Park Factor varies slightly from year to year (for a variety of reasons), but rarely moves sharply in one direction without a reason (a team bringing the fences in or out, for example).
Park Factor is measured by determining how many runs are scored at that park compared to other parks in the league. Specifically, you would take the stats of Rockies hitters and their opponents at Coors Field and then compare them to their performance at other parks. It's important to take into account both home and visiting teams. Because if you just measure the home team, then you're not measuring the park; you're measuring the team. People have said that the Great American Ballpark is a great hitter's park because so many home runs are hit there. That's true to some extent. But a lot of homers are hit at the G.A.B. because the Reds have a great offense and a terrible pitching staff. They both hit and give up a lot of homers. What we really want to know is how the Reds (and their opponents) hit at the G.A.B. compared to the rest of the league.
So that's a Park Factor. Most Park Factors from season to season fall between 105-95, within 5% of normal. Every once in a while a park will come along that consistently plays as a hitter's park (or pitcher's park), going even 5% above or below average. Here are some examples from the history of Dodger Stadium, a great pitcher's park:
Dodger Stadium Park Factors:
1963 -- 93
1967 -- 92
1975 -- 95
1986 -- 93
1992 -- 98
1995 -- 91
2005 -- 95
So we see that while the degree changes from year to year, Dodger Stadium is a pitcher's park, sometimes an extreme pitcher's park (more than 5% below average). Let's look at a famous hitter's park: Fenway Park.
Fenway Park Park Factors:
1945 -- 102
1955 -- 109
1965 -- 107
1975 -- 108
1985 -- 103
1995 -- 102
2005 -- 101
Again, the degree changes from year to year, but Fenway Park is a true hitter's park, sometimes to a great degree. It should be said that for a park like Fenway or Dodger Stadium to post factors this significant for such a long period of time makes them stand out; most parks really are fairly close to neutral, and many of the more extreme parks (Philadelphia's Baker Bowl) usually don't last very long. Either that or the team takes steps to correct the disparity.
All of this has been to give you an idea of context in which to place the Ballpark Factor stat. As one last setup, let's take a look at all of the ballparks in, say, the 1985 National League (random choice).
1985 NL Park Factors:
111 -- Wrigley Field (Chicago)
107 -- Atlanta Fulton County Stadium
105 -- Riverfront Stadium (Cincinnati)
103 -- Veterans Stadium (Philadelphia)
100 -- Three Rivers Stadium (Pittsburgh)
99 -- Busch Stadium (St. Louis)
99 -- Jack Murphy Stadium (San Diego)
97 -- Shea Stadium (New York)
97 -- Dodger Stadium (Los Angeles)
97 -- AstroDome (Houston)
96 -- Candlestick Park (San Francisco)
94 -- Olympic Stadium (Montreal)
All of this is fairly normal. Wrigley Field has been, at times, an extreme hitter's park (anything 10% in either direction is very uncommon). But its Park Factor has fluctuated throughout history for a variety of reasons too numerous to mention here. Everything else basically holds true. They didn't call Fulton County Stadium "The Launching Pad" for nothing. Riverfront was generally hitter-friendly. And Dodger Stadium, Shea Stadium, and the AstroDome were all generally pitcher-friendly.
Now that I've gone this far just as a set up, let me reveal to you the park factors for the Colorado Rockies in their first years of existence:
Colorado Rockies Park Factors:
1993 -- 121
1994 -- 117
1995 -- 128
1996 -- 129
1997 -- 123
1998 -- 120
1999 -- 128
2000 -- 130
2001 -- 121
2002 -- 120
2003 -- 112
2004 -- 118
2005 -- 112
This is what we call "eye-popping." Mile High Stadium (and later Coors Field) were the Barry Bonds of ballparks. At their peak, they increased offense by 30% -- 30%! That means that a weak-hitting team that scored 3.5 runs per game would now be a fine-hitting team scoring 4.55 runs per game. An offense would get an additional run per game based 0n the ballpark alone. ACCH!
We often talk about statistics being placed in context. Nowhere is that more true than at Coors Field. You just can't take anything at Coors Field at face value. For the rest of this entry, always remember the factors listed above whenever I quote the gaudy offensive stats that the Rockies piled up over the years.
What's really even more amazing is how even today people are fooled by Coors Field. Everyone knows that Coors Field increases offense, but it still doesn't stop some harebrained commentator from thinking that Vinny Castilla is going through a hitting "renaissance" in 2004 -- a renaissance that just happens to coincide with his return to the Rockies.
It's simply the thin air at the high altitudes of the Rocky Mountains that enables balls to soar and offers less air resistance to make those breaking balls break. It was no baseball secret -- the Dodgers' farm system at Colorado Springs had forever produced great-looking hitters who became surprisingly normal at lower elevation (Greg Brock, anyone?).
If you take nothing else away from this entry, it is to distrust any hitting stats compiled at Coors Field -- and by the same token, give those poor pitchers a break.
With the realignment of the NL into 3 divisions in 1994, the sophomore Rockies were lucky to end up in the 4-team NL West. They improved to a respectable 53-64 record (3rd place), but it was mostly irrelevant with the strike ending the season.
Then the 1995 Rockies shocked everyone by taking the first-ever NL Wild Card in 1995. In the strike-shortened season, The Rockies' 77-67 record may not have been great, but it was just good enough to edge Houston by 1 game and make the playoffs. The Rockies were the quickest expansion team to make the playoffs by far -- doing it in just their 3rd season of existence.
How did the Rockies make it? Everyone pointed to their powerhouse offense. But you, of course, have learned to be skeptical of Colorado offense. The 1995 Rockies scored an absurd 6.74 runs per game at home -- that's not absurd, that's just sick. On the road, though, the Rockies scored 4.17 runs per game -- tied for 11th in the league (of 14 teams). Now every team performs better at home than on the road, so we can give the Rockies a bit of a break. But the home/road splits go to show you just how much of the '95 Rockies' offense was an illusion.
The other side of the coin? Colorado pitchers (and defenders) allowed 6.81 runs per game at home, which is somewhat akin to having me and my friends as your pitching staff. On the road, though, Colorado pitchers allowed a bare 4.07 runs per game -- second only to Atlanta in the entire NL. So welcome to Bizarro World: everyone sees a team driven by a great offense and hampered by a bad pitching staff. The reality is a very strong pitching staff and a decent offense. The rest is just context -- statistical "noise," as it were.
On its face, though, the '95 Colorado offense was impressive. GM Gebhard had taken fine players in the expansion draft (Galarraga, Joe Girardi, and Vinny Castilla) and managed to trade for Dante Bichette. He found the last piece of the puzzle in free agent right fielder Larry Walker. Walker was a great hitter in Montreal, so when he moved to Colorado he became a monster. Bichette led the team with 40 HR, Walker swatted 36 and both Castilla and Galarraga topped 30. Although he didn't play the whole season, outfielder Ellis Burks still managed to hit 14 HR and would add another piece to the powerhouse lineup in the future. Don't misunderstand me; I'm not saying that this was a bad lineup that just looked great. It was a decent and sometimes genuinely good lineup, but none of the players were as good as their Colorado stats indicated.
But who were these good pitchers laboring in obscurity to put the Rockies into October? The staff ace was Kevin Ritz, obtained in the expansion draft. Ritz posted a 4.21 ERA, excellent in Denver, with 120 K in 173,1 IP. After Ritz, the Rockies had a terrible time getting a group of 5 starters together. Either because they couldn't pitch or because their ERAs made it look like they couldn't pitch, no one stayed in the rotation for long. Only Ritz and veteran Bill Swift (4.94 ERA in 105.2 IP) threw more than 100 IP on the whole team. So if that was the starting rotation, who was out there keeping this team in contention.
Say hello to the brilliant Colorado bullpen, the unsung heroes of 1995. Closer Darren Holmes (expansion draft, remember) notched just 14 saves but managed a brilliant 3.24 ERA in 66.2 IP. Setup man Curt Leskanic managed a 3.40 ERA and fought his way through 76 games and 98 IP, a necessity considering the starting rotation. The best of them all may have been Steve Reed, who posted a 2.14 ERA at Coors Field (?!) in 84 innings of work. Add in Bruce Ruffin (2.12 ERA), and you've got the perfect corps of firemen and ace closers to keep a rickety rotation stabilized.
All in all, GM Gebhard had done a wonderful job of building a good team quickly. It's hard to imagine given the subsequent downfall of the franchise, but the Rockies did almost everything right in building their 1995 team. They got a great haul of regulars and role players in the expansion draft and made some key trades to fill some holes. This meant that they didn't have to go often to the free agent market and when they did, they could afford an elite talent like Walker as well as some valuable parts such as Burks and Ruffin.
It was the high point for the franchise, without question. They went into the NLDS against the Braves and lost in 4 games. Unfortunately, it was a sign of things to come.
The team fell back only slightly in 1996 and 1997, finishing both years a respectable 83-79. 3rd place in the 4-team NL West. But in 1998, the team finished 4th in what was now a 5-team division (ahead of only the expansion Diamondbacks), a finish that cost Don Baylor his job. In 1999, even the Diamondbacks passed them, and the Rockies finished last, with a 72-90 record. Veteran Jim Leyland had left Florida to take over the 1999 squad, and it became clear that managing a losing team with a pretty hopeless future wasn't high on his list of priorities. He was gone after just one season.
So what happened to the 1995 team? The simple answer is that management failed to see through the illusion of Coors Field. They thought the hitters who put up great stats really were great. They failed to see through the high ERAs to find the quality pitchers they had and ended up cycling through pitchers like crazy, looking for a solution.
To be fair, Coors Field offered a challenge to a baseball organization like no other ballpark. What sort of pitchers would perform best in a homer-happy ballpark that takes the edge off of your breaking balls? What pitcher wouldn't completely lose confidence after a couple 8-run outings in Denver? So it's certainly understandable that Rockies management has faced unique challenges. But it becomes less and less of an excuse as time goes on; they've had 13 years now to try and figure out something, and you get the sense that they're no closer to "solving" Coors Field than they were when they first moved in.
Hitters like Galarraga, Burks, Bichette, and Castilla stayed and racked up mind-blowing numbers. But as our home/road comparison showed us, their contribution was not nearly as big as their raw numbers would indicate. Without a solid pitching staff (like the one they had in 1995), they couldn't contend. Which is of course, exactly what happened.
Not that they didn't try. We must be fair to the Rockies' upper management, becuase they did get pitchers -- good pitchers -- to come to Denver. But when the likes of Darryl Kile and Pedro Astacio, both formerly strong pitchers, got tagged with a 5.00+ ERA, it became more and more difficult to get free agent pitchers to come to Denver and risk their livelihood.
After Baylor's firing in 1998, GM Gebhard got the axe following a disappointing last-place 1999. Despite a promising start in 1993, Gebhard went to the panic button too soon and too often, making regrettable deals such as one for the non-productive Mike Lansing. And despite the signing of free agent Kile, the '99 team allowed an ungodly total of 1028 runs. The last team to allow so many runs were the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies, a terrible team in the other lively-ball era. Incidentally, the Phillies at that time were playing in the Baker Bowl, one of the few permanent major league stadiums to rival Coors Field in terms of offense. The 1930 Bowl's Park Factor was 109, although it usually stayed above 110.
The only good news to come out of Colorado in the late 90's was first baseman Todd Helton. Despite the fact that his arrival meant the departure of fan favorite Galarraga, Helton soon became a franchise player, and is the undisputed best Rockie ever. Helton debuted in 1997 and won the everyday first baseman's job in 1998. Since then, he's posted a career hitting line of 337/433/607 with 271 career HR and 3 Gold Gloves. While that may make him look like the second coming of Willie McCovey, the truth is much more modest. However, even judging by park-adjusted metrics such as Win Shares, Helton has put together one heck of a career that may merit Cooperstown induction, Coors Field or not.
In 2000, managerial reins were handed over to Buddy Bell. The team finished 82-80 and bounced back to respectability. Manager Bell was in favor of a trade that would have sent Helton to Detroit in exchange for Tigers 1B Tony Clark, one of Bell's favorites from his days as Detroit skipper. The trade never happened, which is a shame, because I'm sure Rob Neyer could use the material for another book of blunders.
The 2000 season was an improvement, yes, but not a significant one. Along with the offense, Bell got good starting pitching from the likes of Astacio and Brian Bohanon and was served by yet another surprisingly good bullpen, anchored by Jose Jimenez, Mike Myers, Mike DeJean and Gabe White.
But the Colorado management made a classic mistake. Fans and sportswriters were optimistic about the finish and convinced themselves that the Rockies could be contenders in 2001. The mistake management made was to believe it, too, thinking they were much closer to contending than they actually were. You may not have heard of most of the people mentioned in the last paragraph, because their major league success was temporary. The 2000 Rockies' success was temporary, too, but the front office had neither the insight to see it nor the willpower to believe it.
So the Rockies went on an orgy of spending in 2001, deciding that they could buy the pitchers to get them to October. They started with Mike Hampton. Hampton had achieved stardom with the Houston Astros, and then in one memorable season with the Mets. As a free agent, Hampton's services were in high demand. Hampton succeeded despite a rather low strikeout total and a high number of walks allowed. This would be a red flag for any GM about to sign him to a blockbuster deal, but especially for someone about to throw down as much money as new GM Dan O'Dowd was.
O'Dowd signed Hampton to an 8-year contract for $121 million dollars with many perks and deferred payments and that would keep Hampton on the payroll for many years to come. The deal was looked down upon; it looked like the Rockies were willing to pay any exorbitant amount to entice a pitcher to Denver, and it looked like Hampton would go anywhere for the right price. Hampton didn't help matters when he claimed that he chose the Rockies because he liked the Denver school system for his children.
But O'Dowd didn't stop there. Having apparently invested in a grove of money trees, O'Dowd pursued free agent Denny Neagle. Neagle took home about $8 million per year over his 4 seasons in Colorado. His best year was a 5.26 ERA in 164.1 IP in 2002. His worst year was 2004 -- when he made $9 million and never threw a pitch in the majors. And whereas Hampton was still fairly young (28) at the time of his deal, Neagle was already 32 and well past his prime years when the Rockies locked him up. The money tied down to these two would severely hamper every move the Rockies made for years to come. But the move that tied up the most money was made in 2003, when the team signed Helton to a lucrative long-term extension. The idea was that they would keep the franchise player in Colorado for all of his productive years. But the reality was that although Helton played well, he is now eating up %25 of the team's payroll all by himself. In hindsight, the team would rather spend that Helton money elsewhere. But you can't un-sign a contract (the Players' Union gets pretty uptight about that).
The first year under Neagle and Hampton resulted in a last-place finish in the NL West at 73-89. The club posted the same record in 2002, but managed to finish 4th thanks to the strugglging Padres. Apart from Helton and the aging Walker, there was very little reason to get excited about the Rockies. The crowds of 80,000 at Mile High Stadium soon have become a distant memory as Coors Field continues to grow emptier and emptier.
Ever since then, the story of the Rockies has been an attempt to get out from under the contracts of Hampton, Neagle, Helton and other ill-fated signings such as Preston Wilson. Although Helton's still there, they were able to trade away Hampton and Wilson's contracts. The Rockies had a stroke of luck (so to speal) when Denny Neagle's arrest for solicitation gave them an excuse to void his contract.
The Rockies of today are committed to building from within with a strong group of young players. While they do have a lot of young players, it must (unfortunately) be pointed out that none of them are great and only a few of them are good. There's still a chance that promising young pitcher Jeff Francis will figure out Coors Field, although 2002 Rookie of the Year winner Jason Jennings still hasn't. Left fielder Matt Holliday appears to be a fine hitter at Coors and away, although the same can't be said for infielders Clint Barmes and Garret Atkins.
The Rockies have more help on the way, and at least they aren't tossing away money on free agents anymore. They should be able to field an adequate team of rookies in the future; they might even make it to .500 for the first time since 2000. But if the Rockies actually want to win, they're going to have to get good pitching and good hitting (away-from-Coors good hitting). And to do that, they'll have to figure out exactly what it takes to win at Coors Field. And, not to sound too pessimistic, but I don't think they're much closer to figuring that out than they were in 1993.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Sunday, May 21, 2006
The Seattle Mariners started as a joke -- even among expansion teams -- but soon developed into a franchise that fielded some of the greatest names of the 1990's. But the team that put together this much talent -- and even managed to win a record 116 games in 2001 -- never won a World Series or even got the recognition of a dynasty. This downfall is perhaps emblematic of a team that has always been on the fringes of major league baseball, a trend that continues into the 21st century.
The Marienrs were born as part of the 1977 expansion of the AL into 14 teams. Seattle was chosen because of promises given to Washington voters and lawmakers after the death of the Pilots in 1969. It was the same vague promise given to Kansas City when the A's left, that of a new team in the "near future." The ownership group was led by a businessman named Lester Smith and entertainer Danny Kaye. Lou Gorman was tabbed to run baseball operations, with Darrell Johnson to serve as the team's first manager.
While Toronto managed to at least form the base of a future in its expansion draft, Seattle fell short of that goal. There were some useful players obtained, for sure: #1 pick Ruppert Jones (Kansas City) was one of the franchise's first stars, although the Mariners couldn't afford to keep him around for long. On the unsuccessful side of the ledger was their second pick, Gary Wheelock, who pitched 91.1 innings with Seattle over two seasons and never saw the majors again.
The Mariners were able to get some useful regulars such as Dan Meyer and Bill Stein, but largely failed to get either impact players or quality prospects. The only impact player Seattle got was Angels slugger Leroy Stanton. Stanton was the franchise player during the debut year of 1977, hitting 27 HR with a 275/341/511 hitting line. But that was Stanton's last good season, and he was out of the majors a year later. The only quality pitcher obtained in the draft was Glenn Abbott (Oakland) who wasn't actually very good, but was able to eat up innings during his 5+ years with the Mariners.
In terms of prospects, the Mariners did acquire young speedster Dave Collins from the Angels in the draft. But after a disappointing year, they traded him to Cincinnati for Shane Rawley. Rawley served as a decent reliever in Seattle while Collins went on to a 16-year major league career. Apart from him, the only notable name on the draft roster was second baseman Julio Cruz, a fine-fielding second baseman and a truly dreadful hitter who nonetheless spent more than 6 seasons as a "star" in Seattle. The best draft pick Seattle made in 1977 was in the amateur draft, when they took future star Dave Henderson with their 1st-round pick.
Apart from Jones, Stanton and closer Enrique Romo (signed out of Mexico), there was little to cheer about as the inagural 1977 Mariners went 64-98, good enough for 6th place in the AL West (1/2 game ahead of Oakland). Despite the mediocrity, over 1.3 million fans came to the KingDome that year, 8th-best in the 14-team AL.
But it wasn't too much of a surprise when the team fell completely to the bottom. The team didn't have the means to compete in the new free agent market nor the savvy to build a competitive team (or productive farm system) on a budget. The team lost 104 games in 1978, rebounded for 95 losses and a 6th-place finish in 1979, then fell back to the cellar with a 59-103 1980. There was little reason to think things were changing; while the team had a number of semi-stars (Bruce Bochte, Leon Roberts, Tom Paciorek, Glenn Abbott) and fading stars (Willie Horton), there wasn't anything to suggest that the Mariners were headed to anything but more of the same in the near future.
The exception to this would be in a pitching staff that fielded some quality arms. Ace Floyd Bannister was an unsung pitcher of the 80's who was never great, but was actually pretty good for a number of years, particularly in his 1979-1982 Seattle stint. Young pitcher Rick Honeycutt was acquired in a shrewd trade with Pittsburgh in 1977. Closer Shane Rawley was also useful, as mentioned above. The problem was that each of these players spent a very short time in Seattle, traded away or lost to free agency before they could form any sort of cohesive unit.
1980 also saw the ownership group of Smith and Kaye announce its intention to sell. Seattle voters were upset that such an incompetent and (apparently) undercapitalized group was approved by the league. Those old enough to remember the Pilots weren't surprised, and some even wondered if the Mariners weren't just a ploy to settle lawsuits from the Pilots era before being moved somewhere else.
Fears were quieted when real estate mogul George Argyros bought the team. More notable (and infamous) was the on-field decision to replace original manager Johnson with former Dodger star Maury Wills. Wills' tenure as manager (1980-1981) can be described thusly: In Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders, Rob devotes a chapter to a short list of the worst managers to get a job in the majors. Wills, however, is the only one of them all that merits an entire chapter unto himself.
It's not just that Wills was a bad manager; he put the players through numerous drills, many of them apparently designed to turn the entire team into a group of slap-hitting base-stealers like Wills himself. In his defense, Wills had never managed before -- not even in the minors. His biggest qualification was the fact that he wrote a book -- his second of three autobiographies -- that was basically an argument for a big league managerial job. That combined with his reputation as a scrappy sort of player was apparently enough for the Seattle executives, who should have looked a little closer at the former stolen base king.
Wills was, by his own admission (in his third autobiography) in the midst of a dispute with one of his wives/girlfriends and also, by the way, abusing drugs. Few managers have proven an absolute embarassment to their teams on the field, but Wills managed. Neyer (among other sources) lists a number of Wills' drug-induced gaffes, among which would be calling for pinch-hitters long since traded from the team, leaving the dugout in the middle of a game to go get on a plane out of town, and a confrontational attitude with players, particularly star prospect Dave Henderson. It was on May 6 that management ended the pain by replacing Wills with Rene Lachemann. Disliked as he was, Wills' misadventures were well-chronicled in the Seattle media, giving a complete look at perhaps the worst manager in baseball history.
The strike year of 1981 was spent trying to stop the bleeding (44-65, 6th/5th place). In 1982, however, the M's surprised everyone by posting a 76-86 record for a respectable 4th-place finish. Part of the reason was an improved offense, mainly from the ascencion of Henderson (253/327/441) but also from Bochte and trade acquisitions Al Cowens and Richie Zisk. The rotation was anchored by Bannister and a young Jim Beattie, along with a nearly-retired but still-potent Gaylord Perry (Perry would win his 300th game as a member of the M's). More notable was a bullpen of good quality and depth, starting with ace closer Bill Caudill and including others such as Ed Vande Berg.
But the 1982 finish was only an illusion, the sign of many factors coming together at once, but fleetingly. The club went on to two more last-place finishes over the next 5 years, reclaiming its place at the bottom of the league. The reason behind the fall was the same as with many other tight-fisted teams: the good players either left as free agents (Bochte, Bannister), got traded away (Julio Cruz, Caudill) or simply got old (Cowens, Zisk, Perry). Of the 1982 stars, only Henderson, Vande Berg, and Beattie stayed with the team for any significant amount of time, and only Henderson could be called a star. The Mariners faced the further indignity of wearing some of the most oddly unattractive uniforms in an era that saw plenty of eyesores. Mauve, purple, and yellow isn't really a good color scheme under any circumstances, and the Poseidon/Neptune-ish "trident" luckily didn't make it to the 1990s.
The mid-80's saw a franchise in mass disarray, on the field and off. Managers came and went (nine in as many seasons), catchers got into fights with pitching coaches (Bob Kearney and Frank Funk, respectively), and owner Argyros caught the Seattle Sickness of threatened bankruptcy and relocation. What Argyros eventually got was more money out of the KingDome and an escape clause that allowed him to terminate the KingDome lease if ticket sales fell below a certain point. The optimistic view was that it was a chance for Seattle to prove itself as a major league town; the pessimistic view was that the city had been blackmailed by an owner right out of Major League.
Was there good news on the field? The best news was that, after a long dry post-Henderson spell, the Seattle farm system had finally produced two gems: first baseman Alvin Davis and pitcher Mark Langston. Davis (the 1984 Rookie of the Year) was a legitimate star, and while his career didn't last very long (1984/1992), he soon became the very-popular face of the team, known even today as "Mr. Mariner."
Langston was Davis' pitching counterpart. Also arriving in 1984, Langston tamed the AL with a 3.40 ERA and 204 K (along with 118 BB). Langston spent five and a half season in Seattle as the team's ace, a strikeout master (topping 200+ K each of his first 5 full ML seasons) with ERAs well above-average. Langston left the team in a cost-cutting trade in 1989, but the trade did bring in a top pitching prospect, a very tall felow we'll get to in a minute.
The club tried a different tactic in 1986 by hiring the hard-nosed veteran Dick Williams to manage the club. After coming under criticism for holding down prospects in the past, the Mariners under Williams let the young players play, with good results in 1987, as the team rose to a 78-84 record, a franchise-best good enough for 4th place in the AL West. But like all the other good years in the team's past, this one proved to be only temporary. Part of the reason was the trade of slugger Henderson and shortstop Spike Owen to Boston for prospect Rey Quinones. Quinones never mastered the use of a baseball bat, whereas Henderson and Owen were instrumental in Boston's 1986 pennant run (with Henderson providing more than one dramatic home run along the way). Another bone-headed trade saw young slugger Danny Tartabull sent off to Kansas City in return for pitcher Scott Bankhead, a head-scratcher even at the time.
The 1988 team went 68-93 and finished last, costing Williams his job. The Mariners were a mediocre organization simply spinning its wheels. A sidebar in Total Ballclubs notes that in 1987, the Mariners fired hitting coach Bobby Tolan because of a lack of communication with the team's hitters. The next year, hitting coach Frank Howard was fired for talking to the hitters too much.
The 1989 Mariners went 73-89 and finished 6th, a small victory for a fanbase that was accustomed to them. But it was the start of something new, at least on the field. The aforementioned Langston trade, made because of the star's impending free agency, brought in a top pitching prospect from the Montreal system: a tall left-hander named Randy Johnson. Johnson soon provided the club with an ace it had never really had; the team had fielded several pretty-good pitchers at the front of the rotation over the years, such as Bannister, Beattie, and Mike Moore, but never anyone nearly as good or as dominant as Johnson.
Joining Johnson as part of the Seattle youth movement was Ken Griffey, Jr. The benefit of finishing in last place every year is having high picks in the amateur draft. Seattle had usually failed to capitalize on them, but they landed a gold mine when the picked 17-year-old Ken Griffey, Jr. in the 1987 draft. Griffey was a major-league ready 5-tool threat with a big-league pedigree. As the late 80's became the early 90's, the Mariners began to find more good young players to surround Griffey and Johnson and began their long, slow climb out of awfuldom.
As a note: The Mariners had the worst record in all of baseball for the decade of the 1980s. Their 673-894 record (.429 winning percentage) was significantly worse than more famous 80's losers such as Cleveland (.455), Atlanta (.457) and Texas (.462). It's a testament not just to how awful the Mariners were, but how forgettably awful they were; no one really noticed or cared, even though they -- like the Braves, Indians, and Rangers -- would all rebound significantly in the 1990s.
The Argyros soap opera also ended in 1989, when he announced the sale of the team to Indianapolis-based Emmis Broadcasting Company. One of the deal's provisos was that the team would not be relocated. But the curse of Seattle ownership struck again, as just one year later the head of Emmis Broadcasting began publicly bemoaning his money woes and putting out feelers for a possible move, eventually admitting to having contact with St. Petersburg about a potential relocation.
It seemed like crisis was averted when the Seattle-based Nintendo Corporation came forward with an offer to buy the team. Nintendo was a staple of Seattle, and certainly not short of cash in the early 90's. But baseball, led by Commissioner Fay Vincent, objected strongly to Nintendo's acquisition of the Mariners because baseball was apparently opposed to "foreign" ownership.
It must be said that this occurred in the early 1990's, an odd period when the success of the Japanese economy and subsequent Japanese ventures into American markets led to an amazingly vociferous, racist and hypocritical anti-Japanese sentiment in the U.S. Organized Baseball, representing not only several major commercial interests but continuing its traditionally conservative political mindset, jumped on the bandwagon and waved the American flag as much as anyone. It should be said that the Seattle voters and Washington politicians (presumably more at ease with Japanese people) were in favor of the sale, as it would keep the team in Seattle in the hands of wealthy owners. Old Pilot fans even suggested that baseball's real objection to the Nintendo bid was that it would prevent the move to St. Petersburg, a charge that is certainly believable and reasonable considering MLB's awful treatment of the city and desire to move to Florida.
The matter was finally settled when Nintendo compromised with 49% of the team's stock, with a large chunk of the rest paid for by Chris Larson, an executive with Microsoft. Dewey & Acocella say it best: "Although he ended up with less than one percent of the team, local businessman John Ellis was named as chief executive officer, thereby keeping the team in white hands."
(As noted in the previous entry, the later acquisition of the Blue Jays by Belgian brewers merited no such anti-foreign rhetoric, a truly sad example of the state of baseball -- and America -- even today).
The impossible happened in 1991 -- the Mariners finished above .500. They posted an 83-79 record that was only good enough for 5th place in the AL West, but still represented a milestone. It took Seattle 15 years before they finally reached .500. By comparison, it took the Mets and Astros 8 seasons, the Rangers 9, the Padres and Brewers 10, the Expos 11, the Royals just 3, the Angels just 2, and their expansion-mates Toronto just 7 seasons. The Mariners got off to the worst start (over the long run) of any expansion franchise in history (although they could be threatened by the Devil Rays; Tampa Bay is entering its 9th season still looking for its first .500 season -- their "best" season thus far being a 70-91, .435 record in 2004).
Obviously no one can compare to the Mets' 1962-1968 frustrations, but then they broke out and won the World Series in 1969, just their 8th season of existence.
After their 83-79 finish in 1991, the M's fell back to last place in 1992 at 64-98. Pessimistic Seattle fans thought "Here we go again," and there was nothing over the short run to disprove them, as the M's next two years showed. A solid 82-80, 3rd-place performance in 1993 was dashed aside in the strike-shortened 1994. The Mariners moved into the 4-team AL West, making their chances for the postseason greater than ever -- but in 1994 they went 49-63 and finished 3rd.
However . . .
This time, at long last, the Mariners actually were building a very good team. It was based on a very strong offense, an offense generated mainly from an unexpected source -- their own farm system. It wasn't just Griffey that came out of the minors to form a dynamite offense. In 1982, the Mariners signed a young third baseman named Edgar Martinez as an amateur free agent. The greatest tragedy of Edgar's career was that the Mariners were convinced that he was a third baseman -- despite his performance to the contrary. Even when Edgar started to hit -- and hit very well -- in the majors, his playing time was still limited, because Seattle forced him to share time with incumbent third baseman Jim Presley -- who, incidentally, wasn't 1/100th the hitter Edgar was. Edgar performed very well in parts of three seasons from 1987-1989. Then, from 1990-1992, Edgar broke out as one of the best right-handed hitters in the game, winning a batting title in 1992 and twice finishing in the top 5 in OBP. But he was still spending most of his time at third base, a situation which not only left him more liable to injury (thus limiting the number of days his great bat was in the lineup) but was also a crime against defense. The question, "Why didn't the Mariners just stick him at DH?" is a very good one, especially since the position was "manned" by Pete O'Brien during Martinez's excellent 1993. There is no good answer, but in the Mariners' defense, few players ever get put in the DH slot that early in their career, and people who can hit as well as Martinez just seem more like "everyday" players (viz. on-the-field players). But the irony is that starting at DH in 1991 would have limited Edgar's injuries by keeping him off the KingDome AstroTurf, it would have automatically have improved the Mariner defense, and it would have enabled him to play literally everyday, as he did later in his career when he averaged about 150 games/year. And while Martinez is now seen as a marginal Hall-of-Famer, better handling by Seattle could have settled the issue in his favor.
But I digress. Wherever Edgar played, he hit, and he hit well enough to act as a juggernaut in the Seattle order. He finished 18 major league seasons (all in Seattle) with a daunting 312/418/515 career hitting line, which is amazing even in context.
The infield was boosted by first baseman Tino Martinez, who blossomed into a fine hitter in Seattle before being traded to the Yankees (for peanuts), where he became an even better hitter. Shortstop Omar Vizquel came up in Seattle, and although Omar's defensive brilliance has been grossly exaggerated, he played well and hit decently with the M's. But then he, too, was sent off in a horrible trade, going to Cleveland for Felix Fermin and Reggie Jefferson. This starts another, more unfortunate theme, of the period; that for all the great players the Mariners had in the 1990's, they had surprisingly little to show for it, as the trades of Martinez and Vizquel illustrate.
The one trade that did go in Seattle's favor was a very lopsided one, later made famous by George Costanza in a Seinfeld episode. The Mariners traded Ken Phelps -- an over-the-hill DH with a little pop still left in his bat -- to the Yankees for a young outfielder named Jay Buhner. Of course, that went about how you'd expect: Phelps was already washed-up, whereas Buhner blossomed into a star slugger and fine right fielder in Seattle. Yankee fans were able to vent their frustration over this (and every other Yankee trade that gave up good prospects for worthless veterans) in the persona of Jason Alexander, who took Steinbrenner to task for the Buhner/Phelps swap on the show.
What kept the Mariners of the early 90's from truly contending with this lineup was the lack of any kind of pitching staff, after Randy Johnson. While Johnson came into his own as an ace and later as a Hall-of-Famer, the Mariners were notoriously unable to find anybody to back him up in the rotation or support him in the bullpen. There were short-term solutions such as Erik Hanson, Tim Leary, Chris Bosio, and Dave Fleming, but there was never enough to make the Mariners competitive. They were the kind of team that -- to paraphrase Casey Stengel -- scored 7 runs and gave up 8. (Present-day Reds and Yankees fans can relate.)
The pitching problems were compounded by management's increasingly desperate moves to solve them. Of course, they also shot themselves in the foot more often than not. In 1992, GM Woody Woodward traded away pitchers Mike Jackson, Bill Swift, and Dave Burba to the Giants to get slugger Kevin Mitchell. While Mitchell had a meltdown compounded by injuries and attitude, the three pitchers -- none of them aces, but just the kind of group to form the meat of a solid pitching staff -- helped the Giants win 103 games in 1993.
But the tide started to turn when GM Woodward signed manager Lou Pineilla to manage the team. After winning the 1990 World Series with Cincinnati, Pineilla was let go for failing to reproduce the success in 1991. It was Pineilla's inaugural season in 1993 that saw the club's second above-.500 finish, although he wasn't able to prevent the fall to 3rd place in 1994. It wasn't just the player's strike that afflicted the team that year; falling tiles at the Kingdome necessitated a schedule change that saw the team play an exhausting 20 straight games on the road.
In 1995, though, it all came together. Despite injuries that limited franchise player Griffey to 72 games, the Mariners put together a very strong lineup, thanks to Jay Buhner and the Martinez duo. Randy Johnson ascended to the next level with a Cy Young season that saw him post a 2.48 ERA while striking out 294 batters -- the most since Nolan Ryan topped 300 in 1989. Pitching depth was still a problem, but the club was able to get tolerable performances from starters Chris Bosio and Tim Belcher. They looked to solve the problem by acquiring Andy Benes at the trading deadline, but Benes posted a 5.86 ERA in his 12 starts with the club. The bullpen was a problem, as evidenced by the struggles of closer Bobby Ayala (4.44 ERA), but the difference was in the depth behind Ayala, in the form of Norm Charlton (1.51), Jeff Nelson (2.17) and Bill Risley (3.13).
1995 also saw the debut of a phenom to rival Ken Griffey, Jr. The Mariners had the #1 overall pick in the 1993 draft and used it to select young Alex Rodriguez. A-Rod had superstar written all over him, reaching the majors at the age of 20 in 1995 and giving the team a future shortstop that was a big upgrade over Luis Sojo.
But it looked like it still just wasn't enough. The injuries to Griffey and the pitching woes kept the Mariners a safe distance behind the AL West leaders, the California Angels. The Angels built up a huge, double-digit lead in the West and then -- in dramatic and historic fashion -- they blew it.
Trades were made to strengthen the team, Griffey returned early from injury, and all of a sudden the M's were back in it. They gained ground on the Angels and eventually sped past them into 1st place in the division. It was one of the great comebacks/swoons in baseball history. But then the Mariners faltered, and they finished the regular season tied with California for the AL West lead. A one-game playoff was in order, with the winner going to the postseason and the loser going home. The Mariners started Randy Johnson, and that's about all you need to know. Johnson dominated the Angel hitters, and the offense notched 9 runs. The Mariners took the game and the AL West and were going to the postseason for the first time in franchise history.
If the playoff game was a dramatic affair, the ALDS against the Yankees was even moreso. It was the first season of the new playoff format (the 1994 playoffs being cancelled), and the first year of the ALDS. Competing were two teams experiencing a rebirth. For the Yankees it was their first trip to the postseason since 1981. Having degenerated into a team dominated by old players and poor free agent signings, the Yanks had finally reversed things under the eye of GM Gene Michael and manager Buck Showalter. The team had turned things around thanks to a good mix of veterans and homegrown players, playing well enough to win the first-ever AL Wild Card. For the Mariners, it wasn't so much a rebirth as just a "birth," as they were playoff novices playing against the most storied franchise in professional sports.
Critics of the new playoff system were stymied when the two teams put on an excellent show. The Yankees took Games 1 and 2 in New York, both high-scoring affairs. It looked like a cake-walk for the Yankees, as the Mariner pitching was as unreliable as advertised. But Randy Johnson was available to start Game 3 in Seattle, and pitched well enough to propel the team to victory. The M's survived an 11-8 slugfest to win Game 4, forcing a deciding Game 5.
It was David Cone for the Yankees against trade acquisition Andy Benes. Neither starter was dominant, and a 4-4 tie meant extra innings. But extra innings meant dipping into Seattle's bullpen, a move that manager Piniella didn't relish. So Pineilla went to starter Johnson -- on two days rest -- and Johnson shut down the Yankees in relief. But even the Big Unit was mortal, allowing a run in the 11th that gave New York a 5-4 lead. The KingDome was rocking in the Bottom of the 11th when the Yankees sent disappointing starter Jack McDowell back out to the hill. After singles by Joey Cora and Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez stepped up. Martinez laced a double into the corner. Cora raced home to score the tying run and Griffey -- still hurting a bit due to injuries -- was right behind him. Griffey was safe at the plate with the winning run, and the Mariners had won their first-ever playoff series and earned a berth in the ALCS against the Indians. The dramatic ending is cited by many Seattle fans even today as the greatest moment in team history.
The ALCS against the equally fearsome Indians didn't end so happily. The Mariners took an early 2-1 lead in the Series thanks to the pitching of Bob Wolcott (?) and Randy Johnson, but dropped the next 3 games, with Johnson taking a tough 4-0 loss in the decisive Game 6.
The team returned, energized for the 1996 season, and finished with a decent 85-76 record, but that was 4.5 games behind the division-winning Rangers. This despite the amazing play of the 21-year-old A-Rod, who finished 2nd in the MVP voting and maybe should have finished first.
The M's returned in 1997, though, when their 90-72 record was good enough for 1st place in a dismal AL West, thanks mainly to a record-breaking team total of 264 home runs. It was most of the same faces returning again, but this time with more support for the still-dominant Johnson in the rotation, provided by Jeff Fassero (3.61 ERA) and Jamie Moyer (3.86 ERA). The bullpen was a quagmire, as was becoming Seattle tradition, and GM Woodward made a desperate move to fix it. Taking the "any old port" mantra to heart, Woodward traded for Boston "closer" Heathcliff Slocumb, a useful pitcher but not a difference-maker. The real tragedy was in the prospects given up: pitcher Derek Lowe and catcher Jason Varitek. Not surprisingly, Heathcliff wasn't the answer to the team's postseason ills, as they lost the ALDS 3-1 to the Orioles.
The 1998 club was a similar story; a powerhouse offense just looking for some help. Despite the fact that the building of a new stadium would give the franchise more cash, it was apparent going into the season that the club would be unable to re-sign free agent Randy Johnson. Whether this contributed to Johnson's malaise is unclear, but as the team limped to a 3rd-place finish, Johnson posted a 4.33 ERA. But the idea that Johnson was slumping isn't exactly legitimate -- Johnson also struck out an ungodly 213 batters in 160 IP with Seattle, a sign that it might not have been a slump after all. This was confirmed after Johnson was traded to Houston (for Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen, and John Halama), whereupon Johnson became a pitching god, going 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and a 26:116 BB:K ratio in just 84.1 IP with Houston, catapulting the Astros into the postseason. The good news was that the Mariners had -- this time -- received good value in their trade.
The belief that the club couldn't contend without Johnson was reinforced in 1999, when the club again went 79-83 and again finished 3rd. The team scored a respectable 859 runs -- but allowed 905, 2nd-worst in the AL.
So it was with great surprise that the 2000 Mariners won the Wild Card behind a 91-71 performance. The great surprise came because the club had traded away franchise player Ken Griffey, Jr. to Cincinnati in the off-season. They received Mike Cameron and Brett Tomko in exchange in what looked like a cold-hearted salary dump (although it wasn't such an awful trade considering what happened to Griffey in Cincinnati). But even without Junior, the new-look Mariners could win. They had a new ballpark, the beautiful Safeco Field, financed by the growth of Seattle as a modern, high-tech city with a much more lucrative market. They had a new GM in Pat Gillick, architect of the championship Toronto teams of 1992-1993. Gillick went to the free agent market to get a valuable first baseman in John Olerud, Cameron was able to at least partially replace Griffey (with a 267/365/438 hitting line and great defense), and of course, Buhner, A-Rod, and Edgar Martinez were still there. The team's problem was, to no one's surprise, pitching. Young Freddy Garcia showed a good deal of promise, but mainstay Jamie Moyer struggled, and free agent Aaron Sele turned out to be a very poor investment. The starting pitching troubles were offset somewhat by an improved bullpen, anchored by Japanese import (and Rookie of the Year) closer Kazuhiro Sasaki. The team was good enough for an upset ALDS sweep of the Chicago White Sox, but once again couldn't get past the ALCS, losing to the Yankees in 6 games.
After losing Johnson in 1998 and Griffey in 2000, the crowning blow was struck in the 2000 offseason when free agent Alex Rodriguez signed a historic free agent deal with the Texas Rangers, paying him more than $25 million a year for 10 years and making him the richest man in baseball by an absurd margin. Seattle fans, out of spite and frustrated with the realities of free agency, demonized A-Rod as a heartless profit-seeker. And with Johnson, Griffey, and A-Rod gone, what chance would the 2001 Mariners have?
As it turned out, a pretty good one.
The 2001 Mariners went 116-46. This is such a historic (and unprecedented) achievement that it deserves some discussion.
In 1998, the Yankees went 114-48, setting a new record for regular-season wins and becoming (in the eyes of many) the best team in baseball history. So it was considered a humongous shock that the record should be broken so quickly -- and by the Seattle Mariners?! Not only that, but a Mariner team that had lost three sure-fire Hall-of-Famers in 3 years.
But they were for real. The 2001 Mariners scored 5.72 runs/game, the best mark in the league. They did not lead the league in doubles or home runs, although they did finish 2nd in walks and struck out less often than all but 2 AL teams. Their .288 batting average and .360 batting average led the league -- both by 10 points -- and their .445 slugging percentage was fourth in the league, still quite amazing when you consider that Safeco Field that year was a strong pitchers' park; it had a 93 Park Factor for hitters, a 7% advantage for pitchers that made it the second-toughest hitter's park in the league.
Pitching-wise, the Mariners led the league with a 3.54 team ERA. Only two teams allowed fewer walks, while the team's 1051 strikeouts ranked 5th in the league. Defensively, the Mariners made a league-low 83 errors for a league-best .986 fielding percentage. More importantly, they posted the league's best Defensive Efficiency Ratio. DER is a simple measure of what percentage of balls in play (excluding HR, BB, K, HBP, etc.) a team turned into outs. DER can be subject to various effects and must be put into context, but it's a great rough, simple measure of how well a defense is doing its job -- turning balls in play into outs. Seattle's DER in 2001 was .727. The next-best was Anaheim's .700, with a league average in the high .680s. In other words, their defense was off-the-charts good. Combining pitching and defense, Seattle allowed only 3.87 runs/game in 2001, the best in the league.
It's rare when a team leads the league in most runs scored and fewest runs allowed. It's usually done by historically great teams -- teams that are dominant both in scoring runs and preventing them. The last team before the Mariners to lead the league in both categories was, of course, the 1998 Yankees. Other recent teams to accomplish the feat include:
'95 Cleveland Indians (100-44); '88 N.Y. Mets (100-60); '84 Detroit Tigers (104-58); '78 L.A. Dodgers (95-67); '74 L.A. Dodgers (102-60); '71 Baltimore Orioles (101-57); and others. Add to the list '01 Seattle Mariners (116-46); '04 St. Louis Cardinals (105-57)
So what happened to make the '01 Mariners historic? And should they be regarded as one of the greatest teams of all time?
What happened was, with all due respect to the players, due more to chance than talent. Certainly it takes a lot of talent to win 116 games under any circumstances, but it's simply hard to argue that the '01 Mariners should go on the same list as the '98 Yankees or the '27 Yankees.
To give you an idea of what I mean, here's a rundown of the '01 Mariners' key players, compared to the '98 Yankees:
* - represents future Hall-of-Famer
** -- represents borderline Hall-of-Famer or true franchise player
2001 Mariners Lineup
Manager: Lou Pineilla** -- won Manager of the Year
1B -- John Olerud** (302/401/472)
2B -- Bret Boone (331/372/578)
SS -- Carlos Guillen (259/333/355)
3B -- David Bell (260/303/415)
LF -- Al Martin (240/330/382)
CF -- Mike Cameron (267/353/480)
RF -- Ichiro Suzuki** (350/381/457), Gold Glove, Rookie Of Yr., MVP
C -- Dan Wilson (265/305/403)
DH -- Edgar Martinez** (306/423/543)
Mark McLemore, Stan Javier, Tom Lampkin, Jay Buhner
1998 New York Yankees Lineup
Manager: Joe Torre** -- won Manager of the Year
1B -- Tino Martinez (281/355/505)
2B -- Chuck Knoblauch (265/361/405)
SS -- Derek Jeter* (324/384/481)
3B -- Scott Brosius (300/371/472)
LF -- Chad Curtis (243/355/360)
CF -- Bernie Williams** (339/422/575), Gold Glove
RF -- Paul O'Neill (317/372/510)
C -- Jorge Posada** (268/350/475)
DH -- Darryl Strawberry (247/354/542)
Tim Raines**, Joe Girardi, Chili Davis, Luis Sojo
2001 Seattle Mariners Pitching Staff
Freddy Garcia: 3.05 ERA, 138 ERA+, 69 BB : 163 K
Jamie Moyer**: 3.43 ERA, 123 ERA+, 44 BB : 119 K
Aaron Sele: 3.60 ERA, 117 ERA+, 51 BB : 114 K
Paul Abbott: 4.25 ERA, 99 ERA+, 87 BB : 118 K
John Halama: 4.73 ERA, 89 ERA+, 26 BB : 50 K
Kazuhiro Sasaki: 3.24 ERA, 45 SV, 11 BB : 62 K
Arthur Rhodes, Jeff Nelson, Jose Paniagua, Norm Charlton
1998 New York Yankees Pitching Staff
Andy Pettitte**: 4.24 ERA, 105 ERA+, 87 BB : 146 K
David Cone**: 3.55 ERA, 126 ERA+, 59 BB : 209 K
David Wells**: 349 ERA, 128 ERA+29 BB : 163 K
Hideki Irabu: 4.06 ERA, 110 ERA+, 76 BB : 126 K
Orlando Hernandez: 3.13 ERA, 143 ERA+, 52 BB : 131 K
Mariano Rivera*: 1.91 ERA, 234 ERA+, 36 SV, 17 BB : 36 K
Mike Stanton, Graeme Lloyd, Jeff Nelson
There's really not any comparison. While the '98 Yanks may have a weak spot here and there (Chad Curtis, Hideki Irabu), every great team does. But the Mariners' pitching staff is a weak spot, in terms of historical performance, and even in terms of their season. They rode two good starting pitchers and a strong bullpen to the postseason, which is good but not historic.
And while their lineup performed well that year, it's a huge stretch to call it historic. The '98 Yankees have 1 sure-fire HOFer in their lineup (Jeter), three possibles (Williams, Posada, Raines) and many others who will get some Hall of Fame support (Tino Martinez, Knoblauch, O'Neill, Strawberry, basically the rest of the lineup).
If the 2001 Mariners produce a Hall of Famer, I will be surprised. And how can you be a really great team if you don't have even one Hall-of-Famer? The only possibility is Ichiro, and that's a stretch. The M's do have some guys who will get nibbles from voters (Olerud, Boone, Cameron, Edgar, Moyer), but they just can't compare to the Yanks.
This is held up, I think, by the postseason performance of the M's. They beat the Indians in the ALDS, but it took them the full 5 games (dominant?). Then, they fell to the Yankees (as fate would have it) in the ALCS in 6 games. Postseason success isn't always indicative of true quality, but this is the final nail in the coffin for the case of the "Great" Mariners.
So what's my ultimate conclusion about the 2001 M's? They were a very talented team and deserve to be remembered as one of the best teams of their time. But they had so much good fortune in compiling their record, especially considering their personnel (Al Martin? Paul Abbott??) that they cannot be seriously considered one of the all-time "greats," along with the '27, '39, or '98 Yankees, the '75 Reds, or any of the Boys of Summer teams, John McGraw's Giant teams, or Connie Mack's A's.
So what's happened since 2001? In both 2002 and 2003, the Mariners won 93 games and came just this close to making the postseason. While the regulars like Edgar, Olerud, Ichiro, Cameron, Boone, and Moyer stayed around, they were all on the wrong side of 30, and the M's weren't replacing them from the farm system, nor were they making canny moves on the free agent market.
This truth came crashing down in 2004, when the M's went 63-99 and finished last. It was under a new manager, Bob Melvin (Pineilla having been "traded" to Tampa Bay for outfielder Randy Winn) and a new GM, Bill Bavasi. Of all the young pitchers who were supposed to be the future (Meche, Franklin, Pineiro), all collapsed save Freddy Garcia, whose impending free agency got him traded to the White Sox for little outside of decent CF prospect Jeremy Reed. The free agents and trade acquisitions who were supposed to make the team better were either only modestly succesful (Raul Ibanez, Eddie Guardado) or abject failures (Rich Aurilia, Scott Spiezio). Off-the-field, the team, no longer drawing historic crowds, was still raking in the money mainly due to merchandising and Japanese marketing of the team due to Ichiro's continued stardom. Ichiro gave Mariner fans a reason to cheer when he set a new single-season record for hits, with 262. Left unsaid was that Ichiro's 704 at-bats were 2nd-most all-time, a dent in the armor of a record that baseball tried hard to push as significant. This despite the fact that the record was previosuly unknown to nearly every casual fan, as was its previous holder, Hall-of-Famer George Sisler.
2005 was more of the same; the M's did nothing to improve their woeful pitching staff, while spending all of their money on two big free agents: Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre. The question going into the 2004-2005 off-season was about Adrian Beltre. Beltre was coming off a 2004 where he was nearly the league MVP and played like one of the elite. The problem was that Beltre had never played anywhere near as good before; he was just 25 in 2004, so it could have been a break-out season or it could have just been a career year. So which General Manager was going to blink first and pay Beltre MVP money?
It was Mariners GM Bill Bavasi who ponied up for Beltre. And the early returns from 2005 and the first two months of 2006 are telling: Beltre is good, but not as good as he was in 2004 and not nearly worth the contract he signed. Bavasi took a big risk and is now paying for it. Sexson, although also overpaid, at least killed the ball at the plate (263/369/541) to justify his money.
The future for the Mariners is bleak. Still making money, they feel compelled to spend it on free agents, but the amount of money spent simply doesn't merit the small returns those free agents bring. The M's signed Jarrod Washburn as a free agent for the 2006 season; Washburn is a good pitcher and will improve the pitching staff, but he's not as good as the Mariners think he is and isn't worth the money they're paying him. Hope from the farm system is bare; prospect Reed has taken over center field with defensive elan, but it doesn't look like he can hit. The same could be said for the middle-infield combination of Jose Lopez and Yuniesky Betancourt. Betancourt looks like a great young defensive shortstop, but he doesn't hit well even for a shortstop. The Mariners' future is the same as many other middle-market clubs; when they stopped overspending on marginal free agents and invest in their farm system, they will succeed. It will mean some time spent out of contention, but then the present plan hasn't shot the M's into contention either. The difference is admitting to your stockholders and your fanbase that you won't contend for another 5 years. It may be the truth and the best move in the long term, but no one wants to hear it. They'll fool themselves into believing some yahoo with a harebrained scheme to make the team competitive next year. After the failure, they'll find another yahoo and repeat ad infinitum. The M's have a chance to break the slide with new ownership (Nintendo finally bought a majority share), a new manager (Mike Hargrove), and a new General Manager . . . at least, as soon as they fire Bill Bavasi.
The Mariners' long-term legacy may be as the team that accomplished so little with so much. That title previously rested with the Miwaukee Braves. The Braves took the best years of three legends -- Hank Aaron, Warren Spahn, and Eddie Mathews -- along with franchise players such as Johnny Sain, Lew Burdette, and Joe Adcock -- and translated it into 2 pennants (3 if you count 1948) and 1 World Series.
The Mariners have them beat. They had better players than the Braves -- the best years of Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey, Jr., Randy Johnson and Edgar Martinez, as well as Jay Buhner, Bret Boone, Tino Martinez, Omar Vizquel, Jamie Moyer, John Olerud, and Ichiro Suzuki -- and translated it into 0 pennants and 0 World Series. The Mariners from 1995-2003 won 3 division titles and 1 Wild Card -- that's it. They reached the ALCS on 3 separate occasions and losts every time in 6 games -- once to Cleveland and twice to New York. Unfortunately for Mariner fans, the greatest years in Seattle might become more famous for what might have been than for what actually was.
Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders by Rob Neyer
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.