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Daily coverage of the Mariners during the season and all year long.

August 5, 2011 at 12:27 PM

How baseball owners use the “rebuild through youth” myth to their advantage

NOTE 3:41 p.m.: Trayvon Robinson starts in LF tonight, batting ninth, while Jack Wilson is your starting SS and No. 2 hitter.
Plenty of nerves frayed by the last two blog posts, I see. That’s OK. Some of what I’ve asked you to swallow is hard to take. Especially that all of these years of sacrifice you’re being asked to endure as a Mariners fan may not have had to happen. And that they bring with them no guarantee of enjoying sustained — perpetual — competitive success in some distant, yet-to-be-determined future.
Nobody wants to admit that the Mariners contending on a consistent year-to-year basis will likely involve ownership having to abandon its quest of assuring itself something close to break-even annual financial status. After all, that’s happened only once in the Safeco Field era, when the M’s lost a reported $4.5 million after hiking payroll to $117 million and change only to lose 101 games in 2008.
Since then, no annual payroll has come close. The last two years, the M’s turned a small profit. Overall, their franchise value remains quadruple what it was when the team was purchsed almost 20 years ago.
Now, I’m not just writing these posts off the top of my head and theorizing about what could potentially happen with this rebuilding plan. It’s not like the M’s are the first team to try a rebuilding plan like this. Not like they are the only club using a “rebuild through youth” strategy in which they simultaneously balance their books and avoid any real pretense at competing in the interim.
I lived through a decade of covering a team that did exactly what the Mariners are doing right now — the Toronto Blue Jays.
They won two World Series in 1992 and 1993 by literally outspending their competition. And they haven’t made the playoffs since. When I began covering the team in 1998, they were already embarking on their first of several “rebuilding plans” to follow, all the while falling further and further behind their competitors in the proportionality of their spending.
My first rebuilding plan saw a young core of Carlos Delgado, Shawn Green, Alex Gonzalez, Jose Cruz Jr., Roy Halladay, Chris Carpenter, Billy Koch and Kelvim Escobar.
Then, several years later, a new owner — Rogers Communications, one of Canada’s wealthiest companies in their field — bought the team in 2000, soon fired the front office and started a new rebuilding plan under GM J.P. Ricciardi in November 2001. This rebuilding plan involved Vernon Wells, Eric Hinske, Josh Phelps, Jayson Werth, Reed Johnson and a bunch of other guys whose names I’ve forgotten.
Ricciardi was a Billy Beane disciple and claimed he was going to build through youth to give the Blue Jays a perpetual contender down the road. And yes indeed, he was going to do it for less money than his predecessors. He was going to show that you didn’t have to spend big bucks to achieve success.
Today, nearly a decade after the Rogers ownership group’s Moneyball quest back in November 2001, they are on to another GM and a new rebuilding plan with entirely different names and faces.
Here is what hasn’t changed. The Blue Jays and their cable conglomerate ownership is still not spending the money needed to compete. Whenever a Toronto baseball fan or media member complains to me about the unfairness of the AL East and competing with the Yankees or Red Sox, I simply shrug and say the same thing I always have.
The Blue Jays have never tried to compete. Not when Ricciardi took over and used the guise of “Moneyball” to allow his ownership to cut payroll. And not today, when shrewd new GM Alex Anthopoulos is being forced to compete with less money than Ricciardi had.
Come again, people say. Less money? That’s right. Less money.
In 2002, Ricciardi’s first year, it cost $1.62 to buy one U.S. dollar. So, Ricciardi’s $78 million U.S. payroll that year cost team owner Rogers Communications about $126 million Canadian to finance.
Today, the team’s payroll is $76 million U.S. With the Canadian dollar now worth about $1.04 U.S., that payroll is only costing the team some $73 million Canadian.
Once again: the Blue Jays were spending $126 million of their country’s money to finance the team in 2002. Today, they are spending $73 million.
They are not “trying” to compete with anybody. Not anybody that matters in their division.
Folks, this is how baseball works. It’s not a fair system, as some of you, like “Mikester” on the comments thread, have pointed out. It’s a terribly imbalanced system, partly because of the players’ association, which will not allow for an NFL-style salary cap or non-guaranteed contracts.
And partly because the owners, while they claim to want to compete on the field, have no real incentive to do it.

Who is forcing the Mariners to compete in this uneven marketplace? I don’t see anybody holding a gun to their heads and saying they have to remain in the business of baseball. Why do the Pittsburgh Pirates and their owners stay in it? They have been losing for 20 years.
Well, I’ll tell you why. Take a look at their balance sheets.
One of the biggest favors Deadspin ever did for baseball fans came last year when it published the “books” of the Pirates showing the kinds of profit that team was turning year-to-year, in light of the newer baseball park it played in and the low payroll it kept turning out year after year.
The Pirates have been god-awful since any of us can remember. But it’s all relative. They spent next to nothing to put their awful teams on the field, got enough fans to come to the ballpark, pocketed revenue sharing money and turned a yearly profit. They did not harm their long-term franchise value.
That’s how the real game of MLB is played, folks. By the worst team the game has known for the past two decades.
Sure, it’s possible to “rebuild through youth” and compete once or twice every 10 years, like the Rays have done. Or, you can rebuild your farm system and spend additional funds to keep the big-league team competitive at the same time, as the perpertual contenders do. Somehow, the Angels have done just fine with their farm system, thank you very much. Don’t see how they’ve “mortgaged the future” since they’ve managed to contend, rebuild and keep on contending. They didn’t sit on the sidelines for half a decade like the Oakland A’s just did.
But some teams try to contend, some teams don’t.
What have the Blue Jays been doing the past 10 years while claiming to play “Moneyball” at first? Well, they managed to buy themselves a ballpark for only $25 million. A park that cost taxpayers more than 10 times that price to build.
While the Blue Jays were messing around on the field, fielding mediocre teams with mediocre budgets, they were also bleeding the former Chicago-based owners of the SkyDome dry. Until those owners cried uncle and caved in to a ridiculously-low stadium price in late 2004. Never mind that it took four years to reach that caving point. That a bunch of baseball seasons were sacrificed in the process so that the team could find the year-to-year “stability” it wanted while it waited out the Chicago consortium.
Contending — or even trying to contend — never entered into it.
Now, even with control of their stadium and ownership of their own TV network, the Blue Jays are spending far less than they did when this whole charade began. And their fans are finally tuning out in dangerously low numbers.
Back to the Mariners, they aren’t the only ones playing this game. As I said. But I don’t cover the Blue Jays anymore. I don’t cover the Pirates.
The Mariners spend more than both of those teams, yes. But it’s all relative. In the end, the M’s are not risking any of their significant long-term franchise gains on a year-to-year basis. They are spending just what they have to in order to break even or turn a tidy profit, which can then be rolled back into absorbing their only real “losses” of the last decade, which occured in 2008.
So, while a payroll of $93.5 million sounds like a lot, it really isn’t in this day and age. The M’s get more fans at games than the Pirates and Blue Jays do. They are paying $18 million to one player, which neither the Pirates nor Blue Jays do.
Take away Chone Figgins, Jack Wilson and Milton Bradley — guys who have barely contributed at all this year — and you’re looking at a payroll of $67.5 million. That’s without even accounting for Ichiro.
The M’s rolled the dice a bit in 2008. They took the on-field payroll $30 million higher than what it is right now (not counting money for guys already gone), had about the worst season imaginable and lost $4.5 million. Yes, that’s a lot of money. But it’s not franchise-crippling. Most of it has already been made back in the two seasons since. And it’s off accumulated overall franchise value in the deep nine figures.
This is the real game being played in MLB.
It’s the reason the sport continues to use an imbalanced system where some cities compete every year and others don’t.
Nobody really wants it to change. Why would they? Where is the incentive?
The teams squaking for change? The one Billy Beane works for. The Tampa Bay Rays. The Marlins, until recently.
What do they have in common? They lack the spanking new, tax-subsidized stadiums or renovated ballparks that would allow them to join the party.
The Oakland A’s still have to play Moneyball. The Mariners don’t.
And the way the A’s were playing it no longer works. Teams are too smart. But the Mariners seem to be trying to play it anyway.
I didn’t need Beane, or Tom Verducci, or anyone else to tell me what the modern rules of baseball are. The real rules, not the stuff you see on the field. Some of us in Toronto figured it out years ago when we saw what the Blue Jays were up to under the “Moneyball” guise.
And it was refreshing, upon coming to Seattle, to see something different. To see the Mariners give Ichiro a contract extension and then hike up payroll accordingly in 2008 so that he did not become an albatross eating up too much of it from a proportion standpoint.
But then, the M’s lost 101 games.
Instead of hiring a better GM than Bill Bavasi and letting him see what he could do with a similar payroll, the M’s went back to their low-risk approach of spending just enough to break even.
Instead of finishing the job for Jack Zduriencik in 2009 after his bold trade for Cliff Lee, it forced him to go out and spend a pittance on guys like Ryan Garko, Eric Byrnes and Mike Sweeney. Forced him to throw good money after bad on Milton Bradley, hoping to catch lightining in a bottle.
The M’s could have tried to contend that off-season of 2009-2010. But they didn’t spend more than was needed to break even.
Same thing this past winter. Dustin Ackley could have been this year’s Buster Posey and been the catalyst towards a playoff berth. But the M’s had already decided ahead of time they were not going to compete in 2011 and did not try to make any bold free-agent additions last winter.
And honestly, the winter is when you make your big splashes. Sure, adding in-season is better than nothing, but it helps if you’ve laid some groundwork in the off-season.
Instead, the M’s sacrificed 2010 ahead of time, as well as 2011. The result will be minimal losses or even a balanced budget over that two-year period.
Can the team contend next year? Absolutely, it can. It doesn’t have to write off three or four years in the interim and build entirely around youth. It can put some of its long-term accumulated franchise value at risk, fix some holes with impact free agents or trade for more-proven commodities, and still keep Ackley, Justin Smoak and Michael Pineda.
Or, it can balance the budget once again in 2012 under the guise of “building for the future”. As if writing off entire seasons is necessary in order to compete. It isn’t. The Mariners are merely continuing to play the game of MLB by its unwritten rules.
The rules that allow the big-spenders to compete every year.
And the rules that allow the break-even teams to “rebuild through youth” for that once-or-twice-per-decade shot, while continuing to accumulate franchise value long-term.
It’s worked for so long, why change it? That’s why nobody will.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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