Larry Stone: studies in how not to build a winning team

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SEATTLE — Two teams, one in each league, are in particular disarray right now.

One is the Miami Marlins, who “won” the winter with a wild spending spree fueled by anticipated revenue from a new ballpark. In the words of team president David Samson to the media last week, “We paraded around Dallas (during the winter meetings). We signed those guys. We opened a new ballpark. We said, ‘We’re all in.’ ”

And now they’re all out. After spending $190 million on free agents Jose Reyes, Heath Bell and Mark Buehrle, after nearly doubling their payroll from $56.9 million to $112.1 million (eighth-highest in baseball, according to the compilation by The Associated Press), after hiring charismatic manager Ozzie Guillen to lead them, the Marlins have fallen apart.

And have been torn apart. The Marlins dealt six players in four trades last month, including third baseman Hanley Ramirez, one of their supposed cornerstones, for prospects. Also heading out the door were second baseman Omar Infante, starter Anibal Sanchez, relievers Randy Choate and Edward Mujica, and first baseman Gaby Sanchez.

They sat 13 games under .500 after Wednesday, in last place in the NL East, 20 games out of first.

And now Samson, in a rare mea culpa with reporters last week, is admitting that jobs are on the line — his own, and the rest of the baseball people. Of owner Jeffrey Loria, Samson said in The Palm Beach Post, “He’s angry, and he should be. … Jeffrey is going to look at everything from me to Larry (Beinfest, president of baseball operations) to Mike (Hill, general manager) to Ozzie (Guillen) to (equipment manager) John Silverman.”

The other free-falling team is the Cleveland Indians, who have made their attempt at contention in a different manner — through a slow, meticulous rebuild with sabermetric smarts. They’ve also tried to identify the key young pieces and lock them up long term (a strategy used so brilliantly by the Indians during their domination from the mid-1990s into the early 2000s).

It worked for a while this year (just like it did last year, when the Indians were in first as late as July 18, only to finish 15 games out).

On July 26 of this year, the Indians were only 31/2 games out of first in the AL Central. But then they hit a disastrous stretch of 11 straight losses in which they were outscored 95-35 and put up a 10.44 earned-run average from their starting pitchers. Suddenly, the Indians find themselves hopelessly out of contention and, like the Marlins, struggling to figure out what went wrong.

Cleveland CEO Paul Dolan told The Cleveland Plain Dealer last week, “I have never seen a season unravel like that in such a short stretch. Our pitching just collapsed. It was so painful.”

The Indians rank last in the majors in average attendance, and the financial outlook is bleak. The Indians have promised to spend “when the time is right” (sound familiar?), but it’s doubtful that time will be next year, according to Plain Dealer columnist Terry Pluto.

The lesson — and it’s a familiar one — is that there is no surefire way to build a winning baseball team, except one: Smart decisions, whether those decisions be on draft choices, on trades, or on free-agent signings.

Yes, spending money certainly helps, but the Marlins are Case Study No. 428 that spending alone does not ensure success. It was a lesson the Mariners learned in 2008, with their infamous 100-loss, $100 million payroll combination, and one that countless teams have been hit in the head with in the past.

And the Indians are Case Study No. 823 that pure rebuilding is fraught with peril, and a method that leaves no margin for error. When you trade two Cy Young pitchers like Cliff Lee and CC Sabathia and have hardly anything to show for all the prospects received, and when key players like Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner are wiped out by injury, well, trouble is inevitable.

The optimal way to build, of course, is with money AND smarts. Let’s call that the Yankees way — because for all the stereotyping about the Yankees buying pennants, they have also had a fruitful farm system, along with a commitment to keeping their youngsters that solidified in the latter years of George Steinbrenner, when he ceased to be a meddling presence. The Yankees have also embraced sabermetric principles of team-building, with the essential advantage of being able to absorb occasional mistakes. The result: 16 playoff berths in the last 17 years, with another one coming this season.

Right now, according to the AP payroll list, three teams in the top 10 of spending would make the playoffs if the season had ended on Friday (the No. 1 Yankees, No. 5 Tigers and No. 6 Rangers). Five teams in the middle 10 would make it (No. 11 White Sox, No. 16 Braves, No. 17 Reds, No. 19 Nationals and No. 20 Orioles). One team from the bottom 10 would make it (No. 26 Pirates). Plus, the No. 7 Giants and No. 12 Dodgers are even for the NL West lead. Still hanging within three games of a playoff berth are the No. 4 Angels, No. 25 Rays and No. 30 A’s.

It’s a mixed bag of spending and building philosophies, all united by one factor: They made good decisions on personnel (although in some cases, most notably the Pirates, their acuity came only after numerous years of making very bad decisions).

I believe the time has come for the Mariners to augment their building plan with some established veterans (because it’s becoming apparent that they can’t do it just with the hitters they have in the system).

But it won’t be the mere act of spending that will lead them out of the wilderness. It will take vision, acumen and, finally, luck. As Samson said of the Marlins, “What we did was exactly right, but it was wrong.”

It’s an occupational hazard.

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