By JORDAN IKEDA
Rafu Sports Editor
The hits keep coming for the Japanese/Japanese American MLB community—only they aren’t the ones needed to win ballgames.
Monday, Seattle Mariners manager Don Wakamatsu along with bench coach Ty Van Burkleo and pitching coach Rick Adair, were given the boot as the scapegoats for a season lost to unrealistic expectations, injuries, and the curious inability to score any runs.
After helping to turn around a franchise-worst 61 wins into an 85-win campaign in his first year, Wakamatsu leaves the Mariners at the same low point he joined them, dead last in the American League West with a 42-70 record—or, more specifically, on pace to win 61 games.
“I have concluded that these changes needed to be made now and that they are in the best interest of the Mariners as we move forward,” general manager Jack Zduriencik said Monday.
“Don, Ty and Rick are all good baseball men and they have done their very best. But we are where we are. I no longer have confidence [they]are the right long-term fit for our organization. New leadership is needed and it is needed now.”
Ironic the choice of words Zduriencik used. “We are what we are.”
The Mariners were terrible offensively last year. They scored 640 runs, the worst mark in the AL, matched by their AL-worst OPS, and their bottom four finishes in batting average, RBI, and homeruns. While fantastic defensively thanks to solid glovework and a pitching staff that posted the league’s best ERA and WHIP, the Mariners’ 85 wins was extremely fluky seeing as how they were outscored by 52 runs over the course of the season.
That’s what the Mariners were and continue to be. A team rooted in defense and pitching that has absolutely no punch in the middle of the lineup.
The Mariners are currently dead last in the entire MLB in runs per game with a paltry 3.25, more than .25 runs less than the next worst team, as well as dead last in homeruns. The two highest batting averages on the roster are the two players at the top of the order. Ichiro Suzuki leads the team in average, while Figgins comes in second with at .254. Yes, .254.
What’s even more incredible is that Ichiro’s .753 OPS leads the team! That means the Mariners best power threat is its leadoff hitter. As a squad, the Mariners are hitting a whopping .236 with 67 total longballs and have no one, outside of Russell Branyan (signed a few weeks ago), that has ever hit 20 homeruns in more than one season. Branyan, the cleanup hitter, is hitting .200 with four home runs, and the No. 3 hitter, Casey Kotchman, is hitting just .215 with seven home runs.
This is the squad that Zduriencik put together.
Of course, coming into spring training, everything was supposed to be different. A lot of pundits had the Mariners pegged as the odds-on-favorite to win the AL West (this writer included) what with the Angels getting weaker and none of the other teams making any big moves. Zduriencik pushed his chips all in, trading away promising pitcher Brandon Morrow for hard-throwing reliever Brandon League, trading for 2008 Cy Young-award winner Cliff Lee, and signing speedster Chone Figgins, talented headcase Milton Bradley and defensive whiz Kotchman.
While those were upgrades at certain positions, the bottom line remains that he failed to address the squad’s most glaring need—power.
Everything went south as soon as spring training ended, as Lee missed the first month and a half due to an abdominal injury, Figgins struggled to adjust to life in the two hole, and Bradley was forced to spend time away from the team due to personal problems.
Then “NapGate” happened.
One of the reasons, cited by Wakamatsu himself, that the team was so successful last year was the leadership that first ballot Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Junior added to the clubhouse. This year, for whatever reason, old age, lack of motivation, discontentment, Junior couldn’t cut it. When it was released in the news that he had missed a possible pinch-hit situation because he was sleeping in the clubhouse, rumors of his dissatisfaction with Wakamatsu ran rampant. This despite Wakamatsu’s best efforts to get him in the lineup, every which way possible. Griffey hit .184 with a .454 OPS and ended up retiring quietly.
To make matters worse, two weeks ago, Figgins got into a physical confrontation with Wakamatsu over being benched, and veteran Mike Sweeney (who was ironically brought in to help stabilize the fractured clubhouse and is now with the Phillies) vocalized his displeasure and purposefully neglected to defend his manager.
To add to the futility, Ichiro had the worst month of his career, hitting .246 with a .548 OPS, a problem Wakamatsu speculated (in my mind, rightfully so) was rooted in the fact that teams were not afraid to walk him.
“I think if you have a real productive lineup,” Wakamatsu said last week, “or somebody that they’re worried about, all of a sudden it’s a two-run home run or a three-run home run, I think that’s as much of a factor. But if you walk in that situation, where you’re not intimidated maybe by the meat of the order then I think that’s the case, yeah, where they’re going to pitch him a little bit tougher.’’
The Mariners just wrapped up tying the worst month-ever in franchise history with a 6-22 mark. During that span, they hit .219 while the opposition hit .285. The pitching staff held a 4.54 ERA, but the offense only managed 2.7 runs per game. The team could’ve been pitching with a 3.00 ERA and still lost most of its games.
So, here’s the Mariners reasoning behind canning Wakamatsu in a nutshell: managed the league’s worst offensive team; compiled the league’s second worst record; on pace to tie franchise worst season; just tied worst month in franchise history; had physical confrontation with big offseason acquisition; mishandled swan-song season of most beloved player in franchise history; and lost the clubhouse to outspoken, misguided veterans.
Looked at that way, sure, Wakamatsu had to go.
Of course, looked at a bit differently: the fact that last year should have been Griffey’s swansong; that the manager doesn’t trade players or bring in highly opinionated veterans; that the offense actually lost power hitters from last season when it had one of the least productive lineups in the league; the fact that the star pitcher was injured for the first part of the season; and the fact that instead of adding a power bat when the team struggled early, the team instead fired then hitting coach Alan Cockrell, setting up what is turning into a habit of blame-shifting even at that early juncture in the season.
Add all that up, and it sure does appear that the Mariners former coaching staff was used as the scapegoats for mismanagement at the “general” level.
Solid future planning was uprooted after the excitement last season generated and impatience filled every aspect of what should have continued to be a rebuilding process.
In the end, Wakamatsu took the fall, despite helping to lead the M’s out of the cold wastelands of last place. Going forward, it will be interesting to see how the winds of change continue to dictate the feelings of the Mariners’ faithful.
Regardless, Wakamatsu by all accounts is a solid manager. His laidback approach and attention to defense and pitching are sure to land him another MLB gig in the future. Whether that’s sooner or later is yet to be determined.
After two years at the Big League level, seeing both the highs and lows of the business and how quickly praise can be turned into condemnation, regardless, on the morrow, Wakamatsu will be a “sadder” yet certainly “wiser man.”