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Hot Stone League

Larry Stone gives his take on a wide array of baseball issues and weighs in about the Mariners, too.

August 10, 2011 at 10:55 AM

For Mariners, the team to emulate is the St. Louis Cardinals

larussapujols.jpg

(Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols have been vital to the Cardinals’ run of success. Photo by Getty Images).

(We’ve been having some technical difficulty related to the chart in this post, but we’re working on fixing it).

When it comes to “perennial contention,” a much-discussed topic on Geoff’s blog, two teams have stood out over the past decade. I think one will surprise you (unless you read the headline on this blog post and looked at the picture above).

The Yankees are the one that won’t surprise you at all, of course. They have been the dominant team in baseball ever since 1996, when they won the first of their five World Series in a 14-year span (which also included two World Series losses).

If you define contention by finishing within five games of either the division leader or the wild card, which seems to me to be a reasonable description of a contending season, the Yankees have done so nine times in the last 10 years (missing out only in 2008, when they finished third in their division, eight games behind Tampa Bay, and were six games behind wild-card winner Boston).

The only other team to hit nine contending years by that standard over the last decade has been none other than the St. Louis Cardinals. No, not the Red Sox. They have had just six such season in the last 10 years, missing out last year and also 2006, 2002 and 2001.

The Cardinals, on the other hand, have finished out of the running just once in the past 10 years, in 2007. The other leaders in contending seasons are the Phillies (eight), Twins (seven), Angels (seven), Braves (seven), Giants (six), Astros (six) and, as mentioned, Red Sox (six).

If you expand the definition of contention to include teams that finished within eight games of a playoff berth, to allow for those that perhaps hung close all year but fell back at the end, two clubs are a perfect 10-for-10 by this more generous standard. The same two teams: the Yankees and Cardinals.

The Red Sox,Twins and Braves jump up to eight contending seasons, along with the Phillies, while the White Sox, Angels, and Giants are at seven. The Cubs, Astros and A’s check in with six.

This research brings predictably discouraging results for the Mariners: Two contending seasons under the stricter definition (2003 and 2001) and four under the more generous guidelines (adding 2007 and 2002).

What’s fascinating to me is that the payrolls of the Mariners and Cardinals have been remarkably similar over the years, as you can see by the accompanying chart. It shows the payroll of the two teams, year by year, dating back to 1998 (using figures compiled by Associated Press based on Opening Day rosters), followed by the year-by-year results of the two teams. The number in parentheses in the payroll chart is their rank among all 30 teams in payroll that season.

Mariners Cardinals
2011 86,424,600 (16) 105,433,572 (11)
2010 98,376,667 (9) 93,540,753 (13)
2009 98,904,167 (10) 88,528,411 (13)
2008 117,666,482 (9) 99,624,499 (11)
2007 106,460,833 (7) 90,286,823 (11)
2006 87,959,833 (13) 88,891,371 (11)
2005 85,883,333 (9) 93,319,842 (6)
2004 81,543,833 (10) 75,663,517 (11)
2003 86,959,167 (7) 83,486,666 (8)
2002 80,282,668 (8) 74,098,267 (13)
2001 75,652,500 (11) 77,270,855 (9)
2000 58,915,000 (14) 61,453,863 (11)
1999 44,396,336 (18) 46,173,195 (15)
1998 43,698,136 (16) 44,090,854 (15)
Mariners Cardinals
2011 49-66 62-54
2010 66-101 86-76
2009 85-77 91-71*
2008 66-101 86-76
2007 88-74 74-84
2006 78-84 83-78*
2005 69-93 100-62*
2004 63-99 105-57*
2003 93-69 85-77
2002 93-69 97-65*
2001 116-46* 93-89*
2000 91-71* 95-67*
1999 79-83 75-86
1998 76-85 83-79
*made playoff

As you can see, both clubs have resided, for the most part, in the middle of the pack when it comes to payrolls. Using these Associated Press numbers as a guide, the Mariners have taken eight forays into the top 10 since 1998, while the Cardinals have done so just three times. In each of the other seasons, the Cardinals have resided comfortably between 11th and 15th among the 30 teams.

But by and large, the Mariners and Cardinals have been in the same payroll ballpark. In 2006, for instance, they were less than $1 million apart. There’s never been a huge discrepancy like that between, say, the Yankees and Red Sox and just about every other team. In seven of the years from 1998-2011, the Mariners out-spent the Cardinals, while in the other seven, the Cardinals out-spent the Mariners. The biggest gap, until this year, was in 2008, when the Mariners’ payroll was $18 million higher than the Cardinals — and the M’s became the first team in history to lose 100 games with a payroll over $100 million. This year, the Cardinals are out-spending the Mariners by almost $19 million but still rank just 11th among MLB teams.

The Cardinals, of course, have completely destroyed the Mariners on the field over the last decade, regardless of whether they were out-spending them or not. As documented already, they have been a perennial contender, with seven division titles, two pennants and one World Series titles since 2000. They have had just one losing season during that span, in 2007, and even then, they were only seven games out of first in the NL Central. Keep in mind the Cardinals are in the only six-team division in baseball, while the Mariners are in the only four-team division. The Cardinals have two more teams to beat out every year — yet the Mariners have had just two playoff berths since 2000, and those came in 2000 and 2001. They have been blanked ever since, and are headed toward their sixth losing season in the last eight years.

The Cardinals are renowned, and rightly so, for the passion of their fan base. But when they were winning, the Mariners packed Safeco Field every night and led the league in attendance. Their fans are passionate, too. Both ballclubs have the benefit of relatively new stadiums, Safeco opening in 1999, the new Busch in 2006. The most recent Forbes rankings had the Cardinals’ annual revenue at $207 million, the Mariners at $204 million. MLB has often disputed Forbes’ numbers, but I’ve got to think the Cardinals and Mariners are pretty comparable in revenue.

Obviously, the Cardinals are doing something right that goes beyond money. It helps that they’ve had the best player in the game, Albert Pujols, for the past decade. He’s been a demonstrably more valuable player than Ichiro, who has been tying up a disproportionate amount of the Mariners payroll — and that held true even when Ichiro was performing at top level. That’s not a knock on the peak-level Ichiro, who was quite an asset; Pujols is simply one of the most valuable players in baseball history. But now that Ichiro is performing like one of the lesser players in baseball and still getting superstar money, while Pujols even in a down year is putting up solid numbers, the discrepancy is stark.

The Cardinals have also had the same manager over that entire time, a sure-fire Hall of Famer, Tony La Russa, while the Mariners have gone through a succession of skippers. Surely, the stability has helped St. Louis, and so has the acumen and intensity of La Russa, who I believe is one of the rare difference-makers in the dugout. He’s also been helped immeasurably by his long-time pitching coach Dave Duncan, who has turned around more careers than I can count.

Mostly, though, the Cardinals have out-performed the Mariners in the front office. They’ve signed better, they’ve traded better, and for the most part, they’ve drafted better. Yes, St. Louis is a much more desirable baseball destination for free agents than Seattle, and they’ve used that to full advantage. But Chris Carpenter, Lance Berkman, Larry Walker, Scott Rolen, Jim Edmonds, Larry Walker and innumerable so-called bit players who have been vital Cardinal contributors can’t all be explained by the glories of Midwest living. The Mariners’ recent past is littered with terrible free-agent signings, disastrous trades, and glaring draft faux pas.

I’m all for the Mariners opening their wallets to supplement the core of rookies they are putting in place. But the biggest key for this franchise becoming relevant again will be making sound decisions and evaluations — not just with free agents, but across the board. The Mariners will never be able to operate like the New York Yankees. But there’s no reason they can’t operate — and succeed — like the St. Louis Cardinals.

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