Wednesday, March 09, 2005

An M's fan on Woody Woodward 

As promised, M's blogger Jeff Sullivan of Lookout Landing (formerly Leone for Third) has put together an excellent piece sharing his thoughts and comments on Woody Woodward, the misfit former Mariner G.M. that John Hart has added to the Ranger front office, which he has graciously allowed me to post in its entirety...

Jeff Sullivan on Woody Woodard

Woody Woodward isn’t the worst general manager that ever lived.

This is a necessary preface, because Seattle fans hold strong negative opinions about their former GM, and tend to overstate their case.

No, Woodward had his moments. Perhaps more important than anything else, the Mariners won 49% of their games over the 11 years that Woodward ran the team. It doesn’t seem like much, but when compared with the team’s .417 winning percentage over the first 12 years of its existence (immediately prior to Woodward’s hiring), it represented a significant performance leap. The Mariners finished above .500 for the first time in franchise history under Woodward, twice winning the division and once making the ALDS.

People usually point to that magical 1995 season as the high point of Woodward’s career – the team’s incredible late-summer rally to win the division, followed by the historic comeback against the Yankees, are considered to be the defining moments that saved baseball in Seattle.

And yet, 1995 isn’t so much a representation of Woodward’s accomplishments as it is an example of his shortcomings. In typical Woodward fashion, the Mariners entered the season with problem areas that hadn’t been addressed over the offseason – they were missing an outfielder, the rotation had no depth behind Randy Johnson, and the bullpen had problem arms in line to collect too many innings. As a result, Woodward was forced to improve the roster as the season progressed, adding Tim Belcher, Salomon Torres, Norm Charlton, Warren Newson, Andy Benes, and Vince Coleman in six separate transactions during the summer.

In what has become the lasting impression of the Woody Woodward regime, the additions didn’t work out as well as hoped. Charlton was fantastic, and Newson was an effective spare part, but Coleman’s impact was greatly exaggerated, and the Benes/Belcher/Torres trio combined to allow 196 runs in 314.1 innings out of the rotation. The Mariners were able to ride Randy Johnson and a hot core of the lineup into the playoffs, but the inability to surround the key star players with productive low-cost solutions held the team back, and even the valiant efforts by Jay Buhner, Ken Griffey Jr., and Johnson weren’t enough to defeat the Indians in the ALCS.

A common criticism of Woodward is that he could never build a consistent winner despite having Edgar Martinez, Ken Griffey Jr., Jay Buhner, Alex Rodriguez, and Randy Johnson on the roster – even at the same time, for a stretch near the end of his career as GM. And this criticism isn’t without merit, because Woodward had a flawed vision of how to build a championship roster. Never one to understand the notion of “freely available talent” or “replacement level,” Woodward allowed left field to be a revolving door for an entire decade, despite the fact that the corner outfield is one of the easiest positions to adequately fill on the cheap. Such notable attempts at solving the problem include trading Bill Swift, Mike Jackson, and Dave Burba for Kevin Mitchell, and later flipping a then-promising southpaw in Andy van Hekken for Brian Hunter, arguably one of the worst everyday players in the league.

Woody Woodward was a dangerous hybrid of poor scouting ability and over-aggression. He had trouble identifying weak areas of the roster during the winter, preferring to wait until they proved themselves problematic over the course of the season. By the time the season was well underway, he wasn’t too bad at recognizing a roster hole, but he had trouble locating potential improvements on other teams. Once he found a player who he thought could help, he did whatever he could to bring that player to Seattle. If nothing else, this kind of methodology kept Mariners fans on their toes, but it was a significantly flawed plan of attack that led to such moves as dealing Derek Lowe and Jason Varitek for Heathcliff Slocumb, and later giving away Jose Cruz Jr. – the last homegrown Mariner position player to establish himself at the Major League level – in exchange for Mike Timlin and Paul Spoljaric. You can also see this thinking in the 1995 moves – Woodward gave up Ron Villone and Marc Newfield for Benes, no small package at the time, and Roger Salkeld was a hefty price to pay for Belcher.

During his 11 years at the helm of the Seattle Mariners, Woody Woodward transformed a hopeless, abysmal franchise into an occasionally palatable one. He was bold, if not excessively so, and it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the organization’s hiring of the über-conservative Pat Gillick following Woodward’s resignation was a reaction to the previous regime. For, despite Woodward’s aggressiveness on the market, things didn’t really improve. Between 1989-1999, the Mariners’ problems never changed – they always struggled to find a left fielder, the never had too much depth in the rotation, and the bullpen was an annual nightmare. Major deals that aimed to make the team better almost invariably bombed, from the Mitchell failure to Slocumb/Timlin/Spoljaric acquisitions to the awful Tino Martinez trade in 1995. There’s a reason that Mariners fans were so forgiving of Gillick’s conservative nature, and that’s that everyone remembered the alternative.

No, Woody Woodward isn’t the worst GM that ever lived. He’s the worst the Mariners have ever had, though, and that’s bad enough to make all of us cringe upon the mention of his name. That he hasn’t yet joined the Devil Ray organization, which has employed the execrable Cam Bonifay and Syd Thrift as advisors to Chuck Lamar, suggests that his career still has a little steam, but there’s no real benefit to having Woodward hang around a front office, and the Rangers are worse off for hiring him.

You've forgotten the few bright spots that came out of Woodward's time as GM. Specifically, Darren Bragg for Moyer. That probably doesn't make up for Lowe + Veritek for Slocumb, but it's close.
I don't give Woodward a lot of credit for the Woodward deal, because Moyer's subsequent performance was totally unexpected by anyone. It wasn't a case of trading for a guy with some upaide, and seeing the gamble pay off. Moyer was totally out of the blue.

In analyzing trades, you can only credit and debit the participants based on what is reasonably knowable at the time. All of the guys involved in Varitek-Lowe for Slocumb deal performed in line with reasonable expectations.

The reverse of the Moyer-Bragg deal might be would be a case where a guy with no injury history or propensity to injury went on the DL shortly after the trade. I would not fault the GM for making the deal just because they guy has an unforeseen injury.
I don't think any assessment of Woodward with the Mariners is complete without a mention of how he dealt with the Randy Johnson debacle ... His handling of that (and the breakdown of the relationship between Randy and the front office) was, I think, the single biggest reason Johnson didn't want to stay in Seattle.

However, given that Houston only got half a season out RJ, Seattle did pretty well in that trade.
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