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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.

March 14, 2012 at 11:13 AM

Following year of $7.3-million loss, Mariners payroll set to drop

This story in today’s Seattle Times details the Mariners’ $7.3-million operating loss for 2011 — just the second time they’ve lost money since Safeco Field opened. That’s obviously quite a blow for the Mariners, and indicative of dropping attendance (they reached a new low of 1.89 million, their first time under 2 million) as well as a capital expenditure of $9 million for ballpark improvements.

The Mariners said that another reason they lost money was their decision to go over the team’s budgeted payroll last season. According to the annual Associated Press figures, their Opening Day payroll last year was $86.4 million (16th highest in MLB), down from $91.1 million in 2010. At the end of the 2011 season, final payroll figures were released which had the Mariners at $98,067,684 (14th in MLB). The Opening Day payroll numbers included the salaries and pro-rated shares of signing bonuses for the 25-man roster and players on the disabled list. The end-of-season numbers were for the entire 40-man roster and included salaries and pro-rated shares of signing bonuses, earned incentive bonuses, non-cash compensation, buyouts of unexercised options and cash transactions (which in their case included money still owed Carlos Silva and Yuniesky Betancourt).

It appears that the Mariners payroll is going to go down in 2012. That’s shouldn’t be a big shock in light of the fact that they didn’t make a single high-profile free-agent signing, nor acquire any big money players in a trade. Their highest-paid acquisition will be Japanese pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma, who will make a reported base salary of $1.5 million with a chance to make another $3.4 million in incentives. More than half the team will make $1 million or less — fantastic money in the real world, but peanuts in the realm of MLB. More than half their payroll is tied up in three players: Ichiro, Felix Hernandez and Chone Figgins.

Putting together a best-guess 25-man roster and DL to start the season, I came up with an Opening Day payroll of $81.81 million (including pro-rated signing bonuses). That includes Franklin Gutierrez ($5.5 million) on the disabled list. Keep in mind that the minimum salary this year has risen to $480,000. For players not yet eligible for arbitration — thus under team control — I put down most of them for $500,000. A few could be getting slightly more, but it wouldn’t be much. Many of the salaries came from the Cot’s Baseball Contracts website, others from published reports. I’m not claiming it’s 100 percent accurate, but it should be in the ballpark. And in virtually every case, if a player I have listed doesn’t make the team, his replacement would by very close in salary.

Keep in mind these numbers don’t include incentives, which could be wind up being hefty. But Opening Day calculations never include incentives, so it’s apples to apples when you’re looking at past figures. Here’s what I have:

1B: Justin Smoak $600,000

2B: Dustin Ackley $2.1 million

SS: Brendan Ryan $1.75 million

3B: Chone Figgins $9.5 million

OF: Mike Carp $500,000

OF: Michael Saunders $500,000

OF: Ichiro $18.0 million

C: Miguel Olivo $3.75 million

DH Jesus Montero $500,000

Bench: Munenori Kawasaki $700,000

Bench: Casper Wells $500,000

Bench: John Jaso $600,000

Bench: Kyle Seager $500,000

SP: Felix Hernandez $19.7 million

SP: Jason Vargas $4.85 million

SP: Hisashi Iwakuma $1.5 million

SP: Kevin Millwood $1.0 million

SP: Hector Noesi/Blake Beavan $500,000

RP: Brandon League $5 million

RP: George Sherrill $1.1 million

RP: Shawn Kelley $600,000

RP: Hong-Chih Kuo $500,000

RP: Tom Willhelmsen $500,000

RP: Shawn Camp $750,000

RP: Charlie Furbush $500,000

DL: Franklin Gutierrez $5.81 million

That would mark a decline of about $4 million from the last two year’s Opening Day figures, and a much more precipitous drop from previous years (as recorded by USA Today) — more than $30 million below their Opening Day peak of $117 million in 2008:

2010: $86,510,000 (14th in MLB)

2009: $98,904,166 (10th)

2008: $117,666,482 (9th)

2007: $106,466,833 (7th)

2006: $87,959,833 (13th)

When a team loses money, and projects for its attendance to decline even more this season, it’s not surprising that payroll is going down. Of course, some would argue that this is the precise time when a team should spend more to get itself out of its rut, trying to acquire talent that would allow them to win more games, thus increasing both attendance and revenue. That’s where the Prince Fielder debate came into play this winter. But the Mariners didn’t go that route, and they will have to live with the results, either good or bad.

The danger for any team in the Mariners’ situation is they can get caught in a never-ending cycle of poor attendance, low revenue, low payroll and losing teams. Just ask the Pirates and Royals. The Mariners, of course, are counting on their farm system and burgeoning young talent to help them break out of that cycle. But Eric Wedge found out first-hand in Cleveland that even if the rebuild is successful, there can be a lag in getting disenchanted fans back on the bandwagon.

Mariners fans are not a happy group these days, beaten down by six last-place finishes in eight years. I think many are intrigued and excited by the young kids on the rise. They will be waiting to see if and when management hastens that process by spending to acquire established players.

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