(Photo by Getty Images)
I hope all of you are doing what I’m doing, and setting your alarm to get up and watch the Mariners play the Oakland A’s tonight. Oh, wait — never mind.
Baseball is back, and I thought this day would never arrive. I mean, it’s been eight long, miserable, lonely days since the season went dark after those two early mornings from Japan. But our patience and perseverance has been rewarded, and tonight they’ll play for real. Again.
Even though the Mariners have already played two games that count, this actually feels more like Opening Day to me, because Opening Day is about kicking off the daily grind of the season, which didn’t happen in Tokyo with its convoluted schedule and weird time-zone and travel situation.
So in that spirit, here’s my third annual Ode to Opening Day, which I’m trying desperately to make a tradition, whether you like it or not (I know some of it doesn’t apply literally any more, but use your imagination):
1, Everyone is 0-0, .000, 0.00 – a tabula rasa, the whole world of possibilities awaiting
2, The pomp and circumstance – dignitaries, celebrity anthem singers, flyovers, bunting
3, The pre-game introductions of the entire team, even the equipment managers
4, The excitement in the eyes of the rookies doing it all for the first time, as they stand on the base line
5, The stats count – for your fantasy team, too
6, When someone homers, you get to say, “He’s on pace for 162,” and it’s funny every year.
7, You know there’s 161 more games ahead, the six-month soap opera and reality show about to commence
8, At least 161 more. Eternal hope, and the sense that anything is possible. Pirates fans can dream of contention and Cubs fans can believe this will finally be the year. Mariners fans, too.
9, Even people who don’t care about baseball are paying attention today.
10, Baseball is back. For real.
As promised, here is the first Mariners minor-league report. A shout out to Kelly Munro of the Mariners, who does a great job putting all this together, and also to Robert Wickwire and Amy Bergstrom at the Seattle Times, who do the technical magic that allows me to link it for you.
I think there’s going to be more interest than ever in the minor leagues this year, particularly the Jackson team, which was just named the most talented club in all of minor leagues by Baseball America. The Generals, of course, have the heralded pitching threesome of Danny Hultzen, Taijuan Walker and James Paxton, as well as a fourth member of BA’s Top 100 prospects list, shortstop Nick Franklin. And here’s another name to watch from that team: lefty Andrew Carraway, a former University of Virginia teammate of Hultzen who comes into this year with a 28-14 career record. Carraway drew the Opening Day start for Jackson and worked six shutout innings in their win. Paxton gets the start tonight.
I know a lot of people were disappointed in the Mariners’ offense in Japan. They scored just four runs in 20 innings, and hit .174 as a team. But after watching the other early games of the MLB season, their production was right in line with the rest of the majors. The poor Florida Marlins have scored one run in two games and are hitting .129. Two other teams were shut out in their opener, and the Cubs managed just one run. Heading into Friday’s play, 10 games have been played, and those teams are hitting a cumulative .194/.265/.328, with 47 total runs scored — barely over two per game per team. The Mariners don’t look so bad in that context. In other words, it’s still early. Don’t read too much into these stats. Yet.
Finally, while Geoff had a post yesterday on the salary figures released by USA Today (I’m happy to report that my calculations on March 14 of a likely Mariner payroll of $81.81 million was off by only $168,000), one thing struck me as I read the USA Today on my plane ride home from Phoenix on Thursday. The Mariners have 15 players being paid less than $500,000 (the minimum salary this year is $480,000). The A’s have the most under $500,000 (17), followed by the Rockies (16). The Mariners and Astros rank next at 15. That shows pretty vividly just what a young team the Mariners have. The Mariners’ median salary of $495,150 is fourth lowest in the majors, behind Colorado ($482,000), Oakland ($487,500) and Houston ($491,250).
Overall, the Astros and A’s are where you’d expect, ranking 28th and 29th in total payroll among the 30 MLB teams (behind the Padres in the bottom spot). Houston’s payroll is $60.6 million, Oakland’s $55.3. Colorado is 22nd at $78 million, while the Mariners rank 18th with their $81,978,100. Considering what I just told you about the number of players under $500,000, for them to rank so high is indicative of a top-heavy payroll, in which Felix Hernandez, Ichiro and Chone Figgins make more than half of the total payroll, a combined $47.2 million.
In an accompanying USA Today article by Bob Nightengale about the record number of players making $20 million or more (14), Milwaukee owner Mark Attanasio has a telling quote: “When you look at virtually all top teams, the top five players’ compensation is 50-55 percent of total payroll. Teams unlikely to perform well have more like 60-70 percent of payroll in their five highest-paid players. That’s usually the function of a bad signing. You may be able to afford it, but if you make a mistake, it can set you back for years.”
The Mariners’ top five players — Hernandez, Ichiro, Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez at $5,812,500 and Brandon League at $5,000,000 — make a combined $58,012,500. That’s 70.7 percent of the Mariners’ total payroll — by Attanasio’s standard, an ominously disproportionate division of salaries.