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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.

October 25, 2012 at 11:17 AM

Mariners’ season tickets have declined 61 percent in past 10 years; plus, Kawasaki kerfuffle, Luis Jimenez outrighted, and Brendan Ryan wins “Fielding Bible” award

How soon will Mike Zunino be the Mariners’ everyday catcher?

In another 40-man roster transaction, the Mariners today outrighted Luis Jimenez to Triple-A Tacoma, leaving their 40-man at 38. That number will reduce by four more after the World Series, when Miguel Olivo officially becomes a free agent, and Kevin Millwood, Oliver Perez and Hisashi Iwakuma do as well. Teams need to leave themselves room on the 40-man roster both for player acquisition and also to protect minor-leaguers from the Rule 5 draft (the deadline for adding minor leaguers to the 40-man is Nov. 20).

This just came out: Brendan Ryan has been named the shortstop in the “Fielding Bible” team, which lists the best defensive player at each position, regardless of league. For those wondering why you stick with a shortstop who hits .194, that’s the reason. The award is chosen based on the analysis of Baseball Info Solutions. Here’s the team:

First Base–Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees (first-time winner)

Second Base–Darwin Barney, Chicago Cubs (first-time winner)

Third Base–Adrian Beltre, Texas Rangers (fourth-time winner)

Shortstop–Brendan Ryan, Seattle Mariners (first-time winner)

Left Field–Alex Gordon, Kansas City Royals (first-time winner)

Center Field–Michael Trout, Los Angeles Angels (first-time winner)

Right Field–Jason Heyward, Atlanta Braves (first-time winner)

Catcher–Yadier Molina, St. Louis Cardinals (fifth-time winner)

Pitcher–Mark Buehrle, Miami Marlins (fourth-time winner)

Their comment on Ryan: <strong>Brendan Ryan is the best defender in baseball. Period. Make that double period. His has saved 67 runs for his teams defensively over the last three years, the highest total among all players. The next highest runs saved total is not even close (Michael Bourn, 51). Ryan led all shortstops in 2012 with 27 runs saved, led in 2011 with 18, and finished second in both 2010 and 2009 with 22 runs saved each year.

Seattle recognizes the value of Ryan’s defense, and that’s why they keep putting him out there day after day despite his .194 batting average during the 2012 season. It will be interesting to see if the American League coaches and managers, who vote for the Gold

Glove Awards, can look past Ryan’s offense and base their ballot on his defense alone. This has been one of the problems with the Gold Glove voting–a certain amount of offense has always been required for what should be a defense-only award. Gold Glove voting has never allowed for a position player hitting below the Mendoza line to win a Gold Glove. Hopefully Ryan will be the first.

In today’s Seattle Times, you’ll find a story I did on the Mariners’ apology to season-ticket holders, with their executive VP for business, Bob Aylward, offering what I felt was a sincere and well-stated mea culpa for not effectively communicating the price increases. Of course, M’s fans have reached such a state of cynicism — and with good reason, I might add — that they aren’t inclined to accept anything that comes from the management side. Not until they start winning more games, at least.

One big takeaway from researching that story was finding out that the Mariners’ season-ticket sales dropped last year to between 8,000 and 8,500 in 2012. That’s full-season equivalents, so in other words, two half-season plans, or five 16-game plans, would equal one season ticket. As far as I know, the number hadn’t been made public until yesterday, and it represents a staggering, and sobering, nosedive for the once-mighty Mariners. It’s getting hazier and hazier, but there was a time, not long ago, when the M’s were the biggest success story in baseball. They had a beautiful, brand-new stadium (which took a prolonged, tense campaign that nearly resulted in their departure out of town). They had an exciting team that set an American League record with 116 victories in 2001. And they had an involved, passionate fan base that allowed the Mariners to lead the entire major leagues in attendance in both 2001 (3,507,975) and 2002 (3,540,482). Not the Yankees. Not the Dodgers. Not the Cardinals, Mets or Angels. The Mariners, in baseball-crazy Seattle, out-drew them all.

Since then, of course, it’s been a steady erosion of success, and a steady decline in attendance. Just how steady is reflected in the drop of season-ticket sales, from a peak of 22,000 in 2002, to 8,500 (I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt by using the larger number) in 2012. That’s a staggering 61 percent decline, which goes a long way toward explaining the 50 percent decline in attendance over that same period, from 3.5 million to 1.72 million last year (when Seattle’s 44-percent capacity rate was the worst among all 30 teams). Just to put it in perspective, with 22,000 season ticket sales in 2002, the Mariners were assured of drawing 1,782,000 without even selling one single-game or walk-up ticket. That’s more than they drew total last year, when the season-ticket sales (at 8,500) represented just 688,500 guaranteed fans. Beyond that season-ticket base, the Mariners sold 1.7 additional tickets in 2002, compared to 1.03 million last year.

No telling where season tickets will end up in 2013, coming off the team’s third-straight last-place finish, and seventh in the last nine years, but this isn’t a good way to start the process. Aylward tells me he expects the number to be close to last year.

“We don’t anticipate a big upsurge, but I think it will be very similar to last year based on the conversations I’ve had,” he said.

The million-dollar question (or maybe the $80-million question) now is what these ever-declining attendance numbers will mean for the 2013 payroll. The Mariners could make a big statement to their fans by going above the reported $82 million with which they opened last season. Coupled with the departure of Ichiro’s $18-million contract, plus the $5 million they paid Brandon League last year, the M’s could make a huge impact in new talent — perhaps enough to turn this team into a contender in ’13. So far, the team has been mum on its payroll intentions for next year, so we’ll just have to wait and see how that plays out. That will be a huge winter storyline.

In the same story, I talked to Tony Attanasio, the agent for Munenori Kawasaki, who was released from his major-league contract yesterday. Attanasio, of course, is the long-time agent for Ichiro, whose presence was essential in bringing Kawasaki to Seattle last year. I had wondered if Kawasaki would want to remain in Seattle with Ichiro gone, and Attanasio provided the strong answer: “”He would jump off a building to stay in Seattle,” Attanasio told me.

Attanasio said that Kawasaki would be willing to sign a Triple-A contract and play in Tacoma, but he doesn’t believe the Mariners will give him that chance.

“To have as good a kid as him, as versatile, and to lose him from the organization, quite frankly, in my estimation, is an absolutely disgusting travesty,” Attanasio said.

Kawasaki has until Friday to be claimed by another team, after which he becomes a free agent. If he is not claimed, or rejects the claim, he could theoretically re-sign with the Mariners on a minor-league contract, but wouldn’t be eligible to play for them in the major leagues until May 15.

When I reached him, GM Jack Zduriencik wouldn’t say if the Mariners had interest in doing that.

“We’ll go one step at a time,” he said. “Right now, we’ve put him on release waivers and we’ll see what happens.”

Zduriencik called Kawasaki “a wonderful teammate, and a very, very good person….Right now, we’re facing 40-man roster issues, and we have to make organizational decisions for the immediate as well as the long-term best interests of the ballclub.”

Seems to me, if a guy as popular as Kawasaki is that eager to hang around, it wouldn’t hurt to give him a minor-league deal and see what happens.

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