Sunday, March 29, 2009

The folly of inflated expectations for the Mariners domestic draft picks

Hardcore Mariners fans are dooming and glooming over two pieces of news:

One, via Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times:

Big news out of camp. Moments ago, I spoke to Brandon Morrow after he'd thrown a bullpen session and he told me (and Shannon Drayer and Tim Booth of AP) that he plans to be a full-time closer from now on. Not just this month, not just this season. For good.

"I feel good about it," he said. "I feel back home."

Wow. This is a major development. As if to hammer that home, the M's just released relief pitcher Tyler Walker. Walker had been one of the guys vying for the closer's job.

Apparently, Morrow made the decision more than a week ago.

Two, also via Geoff Baker:

We've been hinting at this for a while now and today, it became official. Mariners catcher Jeff Clement will start this season in Class AAA. He has some defensive issues to work on, notably, his throws to second base. But also his all-around game-calling. He'll get that chance playing every day down in Tacoma. Should spur some season-ticket sales there.

The Mariners bloggers are practically howling over this. After months of verbal fellatio for the job new GM Jack Zduriencik has done to recompose the Mariners roster, making astute pickups and the like... now they have angrily dismissed these two decisions as grave mistakes, with the classic (and at times hysterical) despair of diehard Mariners fans.

However, consider the following:

- Despite some impressive flashes as a starting pitcher, including a no hitter he took into the 8th inning of his first major league start, Brandon Morrow has yet to show that he can handle a regular starting pitcher's workload over a full season, let alone pitch effectively over a full season. Even among the starts he made, Morrow peppered his outings with walks and stretches of hard-hit frustration, plus he frequently struggled to go deep into ballgames and tended to fade quickly as he tired.

- Brandon Morrow is a diabetic. MLB does have a few diabetics, but diabetics who have successfully managed careers as regular starting pitchers include Jason Johnson... and... well, that's it. Yes, the Mariners drafted Morrow with the #5 pick in 2006 knowing he was a diabetic, and knowing he hadn't pitched more than once a week as a starter in college with Cal. The jury was out on whether Brandon Morrow could pitch every five days in MLB without being a liability in any significant way, such as only being a 5 inning starter (overtaxing the bullpen), or a season long workload eventually causing him health problems....

- ... or, to a more game-related extent, being able to keep his walks down and mix his pitches enough not to consistently fool MLB batters. As a reliever, he only had to throw hard and hit the strike zone enough times to get 3-4 batters out, but a starter has to be able to withstand an entire lineup at least three times, without telegraphing his next pitch or tiring to the point of becoming too hittable.

- Morrow's value as a starter is a question mark as a result. However, we know his value as a reliever: he is a lights out flamethrower that most times is unhittable, and a perfect candidate to close. Morrow and the team may have made this decision to maximize his potential value. Yes, top SPs get paid more than top closers, but you also have to consider expected value. Morrow's chances of becoming a quality starter are at this stage fairly remote for all the reasons stated. However, his chances of being a star closer are far higher.

As Brandon Morrow, do you take a longshot at a 10 out of 10 payout, or do you take a very high chance at a 6-8 out of 10 payout?

As the Seattle Mariners, do you take a longshot at developing a guy at a position where he is a huge question mark, or do you put him in a key position where you know he helps you win tight ballgames right now and likely for years to come? Let's say the M's consider dealing him down the road: do you take the risk of diminishing his current value and perhaps seeing a dim chance at ever maximizing his potential trade value... or do you take his current high value as a reliever and try to maximize that?

- Blogger and fan anger stems not so much from the prospects themselves, as many top prospects never reach their absolute ceiling, but from the fact that these were the team's top domestic draft picks in 2005 and 2006. Clement was picked 3rd overall in 2005 and Morrow was selected 5th overall in 2006. Compounding Morrow's selection is the fact that the Mariners passed on local UW star Tim Lincecum, who would go out to become arguably the top pitcher in the NL for the San Francisco Giants... and on North Carolina product Andrew Miller, who was arguably the top prospect in the 2006 draft but was passed over due to signability concerns.

Jeff Clement still has a long way to go with his defensive mechanics and game calling as a catcher. He has hit fairly well in AAA, though his hot bat has yet to translate to the big league level, and word on the street is that he has yet to make some necessary adjustments as a hitter that the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League has allowed him to overlook. His demotion to AAA isn't necessarily to work on his hitting (though he can certainly learn a few things), but to work on his defense, which presumably he'll get a chance to do full time for the first time since the low minors (he has shared catching duties with Rob Johnson the last couple season in Tacoma).


Many fans inflated their expectations for these guys and how the team has handled them, because they were top picks and because top picks such as Evan Longoria, Justin Upton, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Braun and Justin Verlander panned out and quickly became top contributors for their teams. There's a bit of fan-related envy of those other top picks, and fans want to see the Mariners top picks materialize into similar stars. Thus, outrage results when personnel moves that otherwise may be for the best indicate that they won't become those stars.

Bill Bavasi and his top assistants made a lot of personnel mistakes. But scouting director Bob Fontaine worked magic in the middle rounds to draft several potentially useful parts, plus international scouting director Bob Engle has brought in hordes of Latin American talent such as Felix Hernandez, Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt (well, before he got lazy) and many other top prospects currently working their way up the system.

The Bavasi era is over, and the healthy thing to do would be to make peace with the fact that some of the team's previous personnel moves and draft picks just aren't going to pan out as hoped. But Mariners fans were bred on misanthropy, with 22 losing seasons in 32 years, and since misanthropy comes most comfortably, the reaction is understandable.

But nothing has been destroyed. Jack Zduriencik has made many smart decisions in rebuilding this team, and the new front office didn't suddenly turn stupid before they made these moves.

Jeff Clement could still become a regular catcher, or a contributor at a different position. He could be traded for contributing talent. Brandon Morrow can be a lights out closer, and even if you say he has no future here, many teams still place significant value in a 98 mph flamethrower that can mow down hitters in the 9th and could offer the Mariners contributing talent. And that belies the point that, once his forearm strain heals, Brandon Morrow can help the Mariners right now. As a starter, there was doubt he could have helped the team in that role at all over the long term.

You may not like these two personnel moves, but they are neither inherently horrible moves given the context, nor have they ruined any serious long term prospects for the team's future. The team is on the same track to rebuilding for the future as they have always been... and as they are currently composed, given the AL West's weakness they could even contend this season with a little good fortune. Relax.

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