There's reason to believe in Wakamatsu
Mariners' staff deserves credit for 24-game improvement
The Major League team that made the greatest improvement in 2009 did not reach postseason play.
The manager of the team has not won any of the awards that have been given out at this point to salute the top manager.
None of this is a concern to the Seattle Mariners or to manager Don Wakamatsu.
The Mariners and Wakamatsu know the road they have traveled, and they know there is a distance to go because the goal is to be in postseason play.
Even so, you have to salute the Seattle organization as the Mariners went from a record of 61-101 to 85-77. That's an improvement of 24 games, and one of the seven biggest improvements in the last decade.
It's not just that the Mariners improved, it was how they went about the process of improving. They established a textbook by hiring the right general manager, Jack Zduriencik, who, in turn, was given the authority to hire the right manager in Wakamatsu.
The other part of the process was that Wakamatsu was given the ability to hire his own coaching staff.
If you haven't heard a lot about Zduriencik and Wakamatsu you may know even less about the group of coaches -- bench coach Ty Van Burkleo, pitching coach Rick Adair, hitting coach Alan Cockrell, first base coach Lee Tinsley, bullpen coach John Wetteland and performance coach Steve Hecht.
The Mariners wasted no time in making an announcement this week that all of these coaches would be returning for 2010.
There is a common denominator in the Mariner ranks in that all of the coaches spent far more time working in Minor League systems than at the Major League level, with the exception of Wetteland, the former relief ace with the New York Yankees. Wakamatsu formed a relationship with his staff members during his time in various positions in baseball, much of that time spent in the Minor Leagues.
Major League teams looking to make improvement often put their focus on high profile managers and coaches and discussions of what they might do in the free agent market, but the Mariners put their attention on building a foundation for the future.
The Mariners have been down the road of big-time payrolls and the feeling of being only one or two players away to turn everything around. The results in 2008 proved to be chaos.
The Mariners reduced their payroll by $20 million this season from 2008, and $30 million more will come off the books when previous contracts expire this year.
What the Mariners have shown is that it's not all about the payroll and not all about high profile players. It is a lot about what Wakamatsu refers to as a "belief system."
When I asked Wakamatsu to define that phrase, he said he had no standard answer but, "It's about the process of getting to know your players as people, of believing in yourself and the guy next to you, of developing trust in one another."
It is the relationships that Wakamatsu has built during his time in baseball that defines him best. He was somewhat of an unknown to the public when he was hired as the Mariners' manager last November, but he is well-known and highly respected within the game.
In 2008, Wakamatsu was the bench coach of the Oakland Athletics. He also has served as the bench coach for the Texas Rangers, and held prominent player development roles for the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.
He developed his belief system along the way while getting to know his current coaching staff, either working with them in the same organization or competing against them and gaining respect.
The Mariners' announcement about their coaching staff for 2010 also included the fact that third base coach Bruce Hines would not be retained for next season.
"That call on Bruce was very difficult because we have been friends for 30 years, and I hope we will always be friends," Wakamatsu said. "Bruce is a great baseball man, but we wanted to go a different way with our third base coach position."
It is clear that Wakamatsu has the ability to build strong relationships and also the ability to make difficult decisions.
One year ago in November, he was announced as the manager of the Mariners, and many fans responded with the question of "Don who?"
Today, Don Wakamatsu not only has answered the question but he also has put himself into the conversation when it comes to the discussion of the top managers in the American League.
Fred Claire was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers from 1969-98, serving the team as executive vice president and general manager. He is the author of "Fred Claire: My 30 Years in Dodger Blue." This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.