Rebuilding: There's a right way, and a wrong way
Teams offer examples for the Mariners' rebuilding effort — both good and bad.
Seattle Times staff reporter
As the Mariners try to bring themselves back to viability, there are numerous models for them to heed — both good and bad.
The Pirates, who have the longest streak of consecutive losing seasons in professional sports history — 19 years and counting — could give a dissertation on the pitfalls of rebuilding through player development. The CliffsNotes version: It doesn't work when players don't develop.
The Orioles, with a streak of 14 straight losing seasons, tried initially to ride free agency to success, with spectacularly futile results. Now they're relying primarily on their farm system, but it has been more fallow than fertile; the sub-.500 seasons keep mounting.
The road to contention can be a slippery slope. The A's rode Billy Beane's "Moneyball" ingenuity to an amazing stretch of small-market success (eight straight winning seasons from 1999 through 2006, with five playoff appearances and an average 94 wins a season). But amid a so-far futile effort to land a new stadium, the talent pool in Oakland finally dried up (or, more accurately, departed to richer teams). Now the A's have gone five straight years without a winning record, and tore down again after last season.
The Kansas City Royals, with just one winning season since 1995, have been widely lauded for building a bountifully talented farm system under general manager Dayton Moore. Many analysts believe the Royals, after averaging 97 losses the past eight year, finally are on the verge of making big noise in the AL Central. Moore, however, is cautious.
"We won 71 games last year," he said in Surprise, Ariz., during spring training. "Our scouting judgment tells us we have some very talented players on the field. But the game is the ultimate evaluator, and these young players have yet to prove they can produce at the major-league level over the course of an entire baseball season."
Moore cut his teeth in player development with the Atlanta Braves, who had a remarkable run of 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005. It was an organization that churned out prospects to surround the superb pitching core of Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and Greg Maddux — a model for teams everywhere.
Scouting and player development, Moore says, "is my marinade in the game, so it's just kind of how we've tried to do things here."
The Royals had Baseball America's No. 1 ranked farm system last year, but Moore realizes that as a team perennially in the lower echelons of payroll, they have a very small margin for error.
"It takes a long time to build something, and a very short period of time for things to unravel," Moore said.
The current industry standard for maximizing their resources is the Tampa Bay Rays, who despite a payroll less than half of division rivals Yankees and Red Sox have made the playoffs in three of the past four years. (The Yankees, who have missed only one postseason since 1995, and the Red Sox, with two World Series titles since 2004, could also be regarded as industry standards. But their undeniable team-building acumen is aided considerably by their nearly unlimited ability to spend).
The Rays have done it by locking up many of their young stars to longterm contracts, and having star-level replacements ready on the farm for the ones that leave — far easier said than done.
"At just about any payroll level, you can create a window and win," Texas general manager Jon Daniels said. "I think the challenge is to sustain it over time and stay there. That's what makes Tampa Bay so impressive. They've held on, made some tough choices and arguably gotten better."
For an apt role model, the Mariners need look no further than Daniels' Rangers in their own division, winners of the past two American League pennants. Their epiphany came in 2007, Daniels said, when the Rangers were in a stretch of six losing seasons in seven years.
"We realized we weren't close to where we needed to be," he said. "We won 89 games (in 2004) and weren't able to sustain it. We wanted to do something you could sustain over time."
So the Rangers embarked on a rebuilding plan that clicked in every aspect — great drafts, shrewd trades and astute signings, both domestically and internationally. The results weren't immediate — the Rangers had two more losing seasons before winning 87 games in 2009 — but ownership was on board, Daniels said.
"They allowed us to take a step back and not worry about tomorrow's results," he said. "Which we did. From there, we really turned it over to our people — our scouts, our development folks — and challenged them to be creative and find talent anywhere they could, and then develop it.
"Then you get to a point — one stage is the accumulation of talent, the next stage is putting the club together, and finding how they fit together in a championship club ... We determined in July of 2010, it's time to supplement. We're going to use our farm system to supplement."
The Rangers' key midseason acquisition, of course, was Cliff Lee, helping pitch Texas into its first World Series after coming over from the Mariners.
While the Rangers now have an upper-level payroll, it was largely a case of the budget expanding as the result of success, not the other way around. The Rangers' payroll hovered right around $65 million until last season, when it jumped to $92 million (squarely in the middle of the pack in MLB). It figures to be in the $120 million range in 2012 as the Rangers try again for the World Series title that so agonizingly eluded them last year.
"We're operating above our means until the TV deal kicks in," Daniels said, referring to the 20-year package with Fox Sports Southwest for a reported $1.5 billion, starting in 2015. "But they (ownership) recognize we're in a window right now where we have a chance, and they want to win."
It sounds foolproof, and when done correctly, it is. But as the Mariners well know, doing it right, and continuing to do it right, is the toughest job in baseball.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry