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December 29, 2010 at 9:46 AM

Why do Mariners appear to be bargain-hunting as New Year approaches? It’s the payroll

Christmas came and went for the Mariners and not a creature was stirring, not even famed December deal-maker Jack Zduriencik. Of course, we still have a few days left in the month, thought the biggest rumors the Mariners have been linked to appear to see them in bargain-hunting (or, dumpster-diving for the cynics out there) mode once again.
Chris Capuano? Could be a low-risk, decent return arm, given how Safeco Field should minimize his flaws. Or, he could be the mound version of Casey Kotchman. You know, a guy who hasn’t had a good season since 2007 and is now in a lesser role (bullpen) as opposed to being a starter? Safeco was supposed to play well to Kotchman’s hitting style. How’d that work out?
So far, the moves made by the Mariners have not exactly been blockbusters given their historically bad offense and 101 losses in 2010. Brendan Ryan looks like the replacement for Jack Wilson (clone, if you will) once he leaves, while Jack Cust and Miguel Olivo should provide some offensive upgrades. But seriously, even with those adds, this offense continues to look like one of the game’s bottom three.
On the mound, the Mariners will have Felix Hernandez and then? So far, the biggest names to follow are Jason Vargas and a guy, Erik Bedard, who hasn’t pitched in a game in nearly two years.
So yes, there is plenty of room for improvement. Why aren’t the Mariners making greater impact deals? Well, one explanation is that they really are going to “let the kids play” and are prepared to sacrifice a sink-or-swim year for several young prospects while again piling up 90+ losses.
Honestly, I don’t believe Zduriencik is in favor of that. He’s already served notice to the young guys that they aren’t “on scholarship” here and I do think he knows there are quicker ways to get a team turned around than this.
But the real problem, I think, is evidenced in the chart below. The Mariners are quickly running out of money to spend in 2011, even with a bevy of cheap youngsters in the fold. According to my rough estimates — and as always, give or take a couple of million — the Mariners have about $87 million already committed to their 2011 payroll in guaranteed money, potential arbitration settlements and players no longer here
Throw another $1 million on to that pile in easily-reachable incentives for certain players — taking the total to $88 million — and you’re looking at a team with about $5.5 million left to spend at most if they’re to equal last year’s total. A few weeks back, at the winter meetings, team president Chuck Armstrong said the Mariners would not be cutting payroll from what they spent last year. See the above video to hear Armstrong’s payroll comments.
Armstrong has maintained that the team’s true payroll was between $93.5 million and $94 million last season. That total included $5.5 million in monies still being paid out on the salaries of Carlos Silva and Yuniesky Betancourt — the same amount owed on those two players again in 2011.

We discussed this exact payroll amount back in April on Geoff Baker Live! (starting around the 3min30sec mark) in confirming that the team had indeed cut payroll by over $5 million from Opening Day of 2009. This time around, Armstrong insists there is no mandate to cut and that the team can spend up to what it did on Opening Day of 2010.
So, let’s run those numbers for 2011 so far and see where the team is at.
Ichiro 17,000,000
Milton Bradley 12,000,000
Chone Figgins 9,500,000
Felix Hernandez 10,700,000
Jack Wilson 5,000,000
David Aardsma 4,500,000 est
Franklin Gutierrez 4,312,500
Miguel Olivo 3,500,000 est
Jack Cust 2,500,000
Brandon League 2,500,000 est
Dustin Ackley 1,500,000
Jason Vargas 1,200,000 est
Erik Bedard 1,000,000
Brendan Ryan 1,000,000 est
Josh Wilson 725,000
Michael Saunders 435,000 est
Shawn Kelley 435,000 est
Doug Fister 435,000 est
Adam Moore 430,000 est
Justin Smoak 430,000 est
Garrett Olson 424,000 est
Matt Tuiasosopo 424,000 est
Dan Cortes 414,000 est
Cesar Jimenez 414,000 est
Josh Lueke 414,000 est
Michael Pineda 414,000 est
Carlos Silva money to Cubs — 4,500,000
Yuniesky Betancourt salary — 1,000,000

Of that payroll total so far, $63 million or so will be going to the seven-highest earners on the team. We include a conservative estimate of a $4.5 million arbitration award for closer David Aardsma in that total.
Obviously, we don’t yet know what the team’s arbitration-eligible players — Aardsma, Brandon League, Brendan Ryan, Jason Vargas — are going to get. Nor do we know the exact amount over the $414,000 league minimum that each of the limited-experience players are getting, though we’ve also estimated small raises for some based on past trends. Finally, since no contract figures for Josh Wilson have been released, we have also had to estimate his amount (UPDATE: 2:58 p.m. — Just found out Wilson is earning $725,000 as a base this year with incentives that could up it by $200,000 more. So. my initial estimate was only $25,000 off. I’ve updated it on the salary board). We’re assuming that Bedard, who has to pitch to be paid, does indeed make it on to a mound. We’re told he has about $6.35 million in incentives attached to his deal. Obviously, if he had a Cy Young Award caliber season, it would reach essentially all of that money target. And wipe out virtually any room the team currently has left in the budget. We won’t assume Bedard hits every incentive, but if you’re the team, you have to assume he’ll get at least half those goals. Otherwise, it’s kind of like betting against yourself. Why sign Bedard in the first place if you think he’ll be sidelined most of the year? You don’t. The team has to set aside at least a few million in anticipation of Bedard making some targets.
So, as you can see, even in the most optimistic scenario here, Seattle has very little left to play with. Not enough to bid on a free agent pitcher who isn’t some sort of project. Hardly enough to pay for a bat with any type of good recent track record.
As I said, since the team isn’t opening its books to us at the moment, you have to take these estimates with a grain of salt and a couple of million either way. The estimates also pro-rate signing bonuses the way major league teams do. You divide the bonus by the number of contract years to get the figure included for each year. So, a $3.5 million bonus for Felix Hernandez in a five-year contract means you tack $700,000 on to his base salary for each year.
Keep in mind that the $1.5 million for Ackley is assuming he stays in the minors all season long. Remember, he gets a $1.2 million signing bonus installment each year and a $300,000 salary in 2011 if he stays in the minor leagues. That base salary jumps to $600,000 if he’s in the majors. So, instead of $1.5 million, he’d earn $1.8 million if he breaks camp with the team.
That’s not a huge difference. But on a team with limited flexibility, any amount counts.
As you can see, our current payroll projection for 2011 has 26 players on it. That’s because Ackley is not expected to begin 2011 with the club, but is still getting paid a guaranteed salary based on the deal he signed after being drafted.
You can also see now why the Mariners have to seriously consider a David Aardsma trade. Deal him and that frees up roughly $4.5 million. Which explains the rumors about the Mariners being after reliever Brian Fuentes. Sign Fuentes to a deal, he can step in and serve as your closer.
And if Fuentes really is seeking a three-year, $15-million deal, he’d be cheaper than Aardsma in 2012 and still under team control in 2013 when Aardsma is eligible for free agency.
If the team really wanted to free-up cash, it could trade both Aardsma and League and you’d have $6.5 million or so freed up. Then, you could sign Fuentes as your closer for 2011 and put in one of the hard-throwing young arms — like Dan Cortes — as the set-up man.
It’s not the bullpen of a contending team. But this team isn’t contending. Right now, at least so far, it hasn’t even contended on the better free agents. That could change. But the payroll noose is already tightening. And the team will have to get creative in January and February if the roster is to be significantly upgraded from where it now stands.

Comments | Topics: Brendan Ryan, Chone Figgins


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