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

September 26, 2011 at 8:27 AM

Decisions loom for Mariners as season enters final three days

Don’t miss our story this morning on the Mariners and their longstanding ownership group. Hopefully, after reading it, you’ll have a better understanding of who owns the team and the process through which they’ve tried to run it.
This is part of our year-end newspaper package on the squad, which dropped the last four games of the road trip after winning the first three. Larry Stone kicked the series off with an excellent recap and overview of Ichiro’s season and what lies ahead from here.
So, we now know the team will lose between 93 and 96 games. This is where many of us felt they’d be before the season began. If you’d told me, however, that the team would play .500 ball through early July, I’d be somewhat perplexed about just how many games were lost in the final three months.
I get the “playing the kids” part. But these kids have been losing at an alarming rate. Not all of them are ready for prime time, which was somewhat the point of the whole exercise. Figuring it all out. And the M’s, despite the presence of more youth than we’ve seen in years — or perhaps, because of it — still have a whole lot more they need to figure out before anyone will pencil them in as a contender for something other than a top-5 draft pick.
The moves they make this winter will factor in to that. And so will the role this team’s ownership is prepared to play.
A rebuilding plan can take many steps. There are quicker “reloading” plans where top teams (you know who they are, I won’t name them again) tend to rebuild on-the-fly while still contending year after year. We’re seeing the Angels do that right now, staying in contention for the post-season up to the final week while breaking in Mark Trumbo, Mike Trout and others with a payroll in excess of $100 million. (OK, I threw the Angels in there just to show it’s not only the Yankees and Red Sox doing it).
There are also quicker rebuilding plans where teams can turn around in a few years. These can sometimes start out as longer rebuilds, but then, if the right pieces fall into place, these teams saddle up and try to go for it. The Cleveland Indians were an example of that this year, but failed to carry it on through. The Minnesota Twins in recent years were a more successful version of this, winning a title two years ago that nobody anticipated.
Then, there are the longer rebuilds. Sometimes, they last five years. Sometimes, they go on even longer, at which point you begin to rebuild once more. The Mariners are currently three years into their rebuilding plan, though we now can see that the initial teardown took two-plus seasons.

Where do owners come in? Well, they will play a role in just how long this rebuilding effort by the Mariners is actually going to take.
So far, the Mariners have engaged in their rebuilding while cutting back on payroll since the team spent a record $117.6 million on the 2008 opening day roster. Since that time, payroll has been slashed to the point where they opened this season with approximately $94 million on-the-books, which is roughly the same as last year by design.
We’ll see what the payroll finishes at.
Now, the team has salary coming off the books this winter. Gone are the extra $4.5 million yearly payments to the Cubs for the Carlos Silva-Milton Bradley swap, the extra $1 million salary for Yuniesky Betancourt (yes, he’s still getting paid), the $5 million per season to Jack Wilson, the $4.5 million for David Aardsma , the $2 million to Jack Cust. So, the team will have added money to play with this year, though Felix Hernandez and Franklin Gutierrez will eat some of that up with hefty raises as will Brandon League and Jason Vargas.
With attendance continuing to fall, it will be impossible for the team to maintain current payroll levels without losing money on a year-to-year basis. The M’s said going into the season that they expected to lose money this year, though past surpluses they’ve earned could be used to offset that rather than going to owners for more cash.
This morning’s story notes how the ownership group’s decision to leave yearly operating surpluses with the team — rather than take them as profits — enabled them to cover the only prior loss of the Safeco Field era. Back in 2008, when the team lost $4.5 million after opening with that record payroll and losing 101 times, the past surpluses were used to cover the deficit.
That could very well happen again this year.
But at some point, unless this team turns it all around in a big hurry, owners will likely be required to kick in more cash. That’s something they haven’t done in over a decade, since Safeco Field was built and they had to fork over their share of construction costs.
So, the question to ask is, could this rebuilding plan be accomplished any quicker with added ownership cash? Or, are the Mariners deliberately making this into a five, or six-year (or seven-year) rebuilding effort in order to keep from spending more money?
It’s a legitimate question.
Several of you have mentioned wanting to see the Mariners go after Prince Fielder this coming winter, even though he’ll cost between $20 million and $25 million per season, according to the latest estimates. There are other needs the M’s must look at as well and address before they can be considered contenders.
If you read Stone’s excellent piece, he mentions that Ichiro’s agent expects negotiations to begin this winter on extending Ichiro beyond 2012.
So, what type of rebuilding plan is this? A plan where the rebuilding is centered around a 37-year-old player coming off the worst season of his career? Because under more normal circumstances, that is not part of any rebuilding plan.
Does the current plan involve waiting an additional year so that Ichiro’s $18 million comes off the books first and he can be re-upped at a more team-friendly rate? Does it involve dragging the growing pains out longer so that half of the $18 million owed to Chone Figgins through 2013 can be eaten away as well?
Or, is this team prepared to admit that it made some expensive signing mistakes and be willing to override those with potentially pricey fixes in the name of getting better as quickly as possible? Clearly, there are other interests at-play here other than merely turning things over to the kids and hoping they can develop. There appears to be an ongoing willingness to commit more years to Ichiro, but also a desire not to ask team owners for additional cash.
Now, I could be wrong. The future has yet to play out.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers. But I do feel these are important questions that we’re going to see answered over the next 12 months.
Some of you would rather see the owners hold off on spending more cash until the “kids” are said to be “ready” — and then have the M’s take payroll back up near past levels. Fair enough. But again, how long will the “ready” process take?
And remember, whatever else happens, this rebuilding plan doesn’t have six or seven years to play out. Felix Hernandez is only under contract for three more seasons, meaning if this plan — already three years in — does take five years to produce a contender, you’ll only have him for one more season prior to free agency.
In fact, if the team does feel Hernandez will opt for the free agent route, we’re only 1 1/2 seasons away from the team having to seriously think about trading him. Yes, they can hold on to him for the full three years. But then, you lose trade value. And this ownership group does not have a great record of retaining top free-agent stars once things are allowed to drag out to the end of a contract.
Like I said, the clock is ticking.
Owners have some key decisions ahead. We’ve tried to lay the context the past two days. Enjoy both reads.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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