By Shannon Drayer
Like other members of the media I had an opportunity to sit down with Mariners CEO and chairman Howard Lincoln at Safeco Field for an extended interview Wednesday. It was a somewhat unique situation as I went after most questions had been asked, often multiple times. Nevertheless, there were some additional things I wanted to know, revisit or hear for myself.
Lincoln shared his thoughts and observations on the Eric Wedge situation. He echoed comments by general manager Jack Zduriencik, who said there were never talks to not bring Wedge back as manager and said that he was surprised that Wedge decided to not return. I know there are some who doubt the Mariners were going to bring him back but I know it to be true for reasons beyond anything that Zduriencik or Lincoln have said. So when Lincoln says he was surprised, I believe him.
What I found interesting about the Wedge conversation is how Lincoln made an effort this season to foster that relationship (which was good, but he wanted to make sure it stayed that way), believing that it was of the utmost importance that he, president Chuck Armstrong, Zduriencik and Wedge were all on the same page in what he considered to be a pivotal season. To do this he scheduled bi-monthly meetings with the group to ensure that the relationships were working. I asked him to explain his thinking in determining to set up these meetings.
“I am disappointed, I am surprised, but we have to move on,” Howard Lincoln said of Eric Wedge’s decision to not return. (AP)
“This particular season I looked at a little bit differently,” he said. “Our expectations were high, we’ve had a number of losing seasons. I didn’t have any foreboding or anything like that. I just wanted to make sure that we were all on the same course. For that reason I set up these bi-monthly meetings. I thought they were very productive. We talked about everything under the sun – players, schedule, possible trades. There was nothing that was not on the table. I thought that, observing the interaction between Jack and Eric, that it was very good.
“I didn’t sense that there were any problems and certainly Eric was very strong in his belief that the plan that Jack put in place was the right plan. And that was also the case when Eric came to see me in early September.”
Nothing groundbreaking here but it’s a look at what went on in the offices, something we don’t get very often. It also supports something I said earlier – that Wedge had a seat at the table. This wasn’t a case of, “You manage the baseball team and I will take care of everything upstairs.”
So what happened in the last weeks of September? How did everything go so horribly wrong in a just a few weeks?
“I think that what we are talking about is very simple. Eric felt that he needed to have his contract taken care of before he sat down with Jack,” Lincoln said, referring to a meeting Wedge and Zduriencik were scheduled to have the day after the season ended, “and Jack and Chuck and I didn’t see it that way. I don’t see how you can talk about a contract extension without first sitting down with the GM after the season and talking about a number of issues that he as your boss has on his plate. As I said, I am disappointed, I am surprised, but we have to move on.”
Lincoln reiterated what Zduriencik told “Bob and Groz” on 710 ESPN Seattle Tuesday – that a number of candidates have already contacted the Mariners about the managerial vacancy. He also pointed to the ability to teach as the No. 1 thing they are looking for in the next manager.
“I want to make sure that our team is fully prepared next season and by that not only do I mean that they do various drills in spring training but that they do them throughout the season, just as we have observed other teams doing,” Lincoln said. “Whether it’s bunting, base-stealing, all of the fundamentals. Those kind of things not only have to be done in spring training but throughout the season. Players that make mistakes, it is not enough to just tell them about it. They have to be taken out on the field and drilled into their heads how to execute. That is something that not only has to be done at the minor-league level but has to be done the major-league level, whether it is young players or veterans.”
Without question, lack of fundamentals or too much youth cost this team at times last year. That was just one aspect of the season that Lincoln called disappointing in a number of his interviews. The disappointment was heightened because he and others believed that they made good moves, moves that would help the team move forward in the offseason. I asked what he learned from seeing the moves not work and the season going in a direction he did not anticipate.
“We’ve got to do a better job in the offseason of looking at the free agents we bring in,” he answered. “We have got to do a much better job in spring training in teaching the fundamentals, not only teaching it but making sure that everybody operates with that in mind. From an injury standpoint it is really hard to say because we know that is part of the game. But certainly a more intense spring training is in order and we will go from there.”
One thing that was clear in talking to Lincoln for 40 minutes was that the failures on the field this year were in no shape or form an indictment of “the plan.” He was extremely supportive of Zduriencik and committed to the belief that the best way to turn this organization around was based in player development. The process, however, has taken longer than he thought it would when he first hired Zduriencik five years ago.
“I saw this plan or program accelerating at a much quicker rate then it in fact has done,” Lincoln admitted. “Without question, these losing seasons are an indication that that kind of plan takes longer than expected. But you look at the alternatives and they don’t really look that great. We’ve tried different approaches in the past. Our team has gotten older, we signed some free agents that haven’t worked out. At some point in time you have to stop and ask, what is the problem here? Well, the problem here is that our minor-league system, our talent was simply not there. We needed to restock that talent. We needed to do a much better job of drafting at the amateur and international levels. And we have done all those things. We have done what we wanted Jack to do. And that is, Jack has restocked the farm system with a lot of good talent.”
Young talent alone will not get it done and Zduriencik should have a good amount of payroll dollars available for free-agent signings. With Felix Hernandez and Hisashi Iwakuma the only non-controllable players under contract, Zduriencik should have the most payroll flexibility he has had in five years with the club. It does not appear that the team will be looking to slash payroll this year. I asked if there was any reason to believe that the majority of the money from the contracts that are coming off the books would not be available for free-agent signings.
“No, there’s no reason to assume that,” he answered. “It is too early to tell where we are going to end up. We are not going to set the major-league player payroll budget until mid-November. We really need to see not only what is out there and what Jack perceives our needs to be but what direction he wants to go.”
“I saw this plan or program accelerating at a much quicker rate then it in fact has done,” Howard Lincoln (right) said about the rebuilding effort under Jack Zduriencik (left). (AP)
As for the decision making process, Lincoln insists that personnel moves are up to Zduriencik.
“Jack has the authority to operate the baseball department,” he said. “He’s the guy in charge. He makes the day-to-day decisions and when we have decisions that involve great deals of money, clearly Jack is going to come to me and to Chuck, and that’s typical in any Major League organization.
“But I don’t have any claim to expertise in the baseball side of this business. I think I have a pretty good feel for the other aspects of our business because they are fairy typical of any business, but when it comes to baseball, Jack’s our guy.”
Lincoln did note that late owner Hiroshi Yamauchi did once suggested the team sign Iwakuma if it could do so reasonably, but to be clear I asked Lincoln if there was any instance while Zduriencik was general manager that he or Armstrong dictated a player must be signed.
“No, that’s not the case,” Lincoln answered.
As for a player that shouldn’t be signed or needed to be let go, Lincoln said that in those cases everyone was on the same page.
“I don’t recall any situation where the three of us had a disagreement about a player who should go or a guy that we shouldn’t sign,” he said. “We always have followed Jack’s recommendations.”
Lincoln admitted that Zduriencik has not always made the best decisions regarding free agents but defended him by pointing out that this is his first job as a general manager and as such he has been learning on the job. Zduriencik’s talent evaluation is the skill that Lincoln appears to value most.
“He has revitalized our scouting, both international and amateur scouting,” Lincoln said. “He has re-organized and re-energized our player-development system. All of those are critical because the point of Jack’s plan was not to just bring up a lot of young kids and see how they did but it was to do that on a sustaining year-in and year-out basis, and I think that we are a lot closer to that than people might think. But don’t think there is any question that we can’t tolerate continuing losing seasons and that we have to see some dramatic progress going forward.”
And if we don’t see dramatic progress? That brings up the question of accountability.
“I think we’re all accountable,” he said. “Let me put it this way: I worked for Mr. Yamauchi for over 40 years and I can assure you that Mr. Yamauchi wouldn’t hesitate for a second to can me or any other executive at Nintendo or the Mariners if he didn’t have confidence in me or the other people. I think that is also the case with (Nintendo of America, the majority owner of the club), it’s the case with our ownership group. I certainly am accountable and I accept the fact that we have had these losing seasons. If our ownership group didn’t think I was the right person for this job, I would not be here.”
Lincoln is well aware that the ownership group may have a completely different idea about this than the fans. He believes that is not to be unexpected.
“In baseball, when you have losing seasons somebody has to be the target. That is perfectly understandable,” he said. “And Chuck and I and Jack and Eric are clearly the targets. And that is just part of this business. But we all are doing everything we possibly can 24/7 to get the thing turned around. I realize the fans are upset.”
Nowhere is the fans’ displeasure more evident than at the turnstiles. To see the Mariners’ attendance cut in half in a decade brings that message back loud and clear.
“Obviously we have to have a winning product on the field,” he said. “That will turn it around. Nothing else will. It is no more complicated that that. People like to go see winning baseball.”
There are no shortcuts. The plan is taking longer than anticipated. Last week when it appeared that Wedge had quit before most likely being fired, I wrote that I didn’t like the wishy-washyness of the stick-with-the-GM-and-fire-the-manager approach to the situation the team found itself in. Either start over and fix it or dig in with the plan that you have. Wedge had other ideas but it is clear that Lincoln is digging in.