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October 10, 2011 at 8:17 AM

Can the Mariners increase payroll without going to owners for more money?

One of the bigger questions to come out of our story on Mariners minority owner Chris Larson last week was whether the team can increase payroll without a capital call. In other words, could payroll go higher without Larson and other owners putting in more?
The short answer is yes. The detailed answer is far more complex.
As I’ve mentioned on my weekly KJR AM 950 “Talkin’ Baseball” slot, the Mariners could go out and sign Prince Fielder while taking payroll down. All you have to do is move Jason Vargas, Brandon League and Franklin Gutierrez and you’ll knock roughly $15 million off the payroll. If you assume Fielder will cost $20 million to $25 million per season, then you apply the $15 million towards that, replace those three with in-house solutions and pay for the rest with money coming off the books from the departures of Milton Bradley, Jack Wilson and company.
You could probably do all that and still keep Gutierrez, so yeah, nothing going on with Larson has to impede the M’s from getting Prince Fielder.
But as many of you keep pointing out, the M’s are likely not just one Fielder — or Joey Votto — away from contending. They would likely have to make two or three more key additions as well.
And that’s where payroll and added cash really comes into play.

Looking at the Mariners of 2011, they essentially fielded a $70-million team once Bradley was cut loose in early May and Chone Figgins was benched in June. And that’s being generous.
The team’s opening payroll of around $93.5 million included a $4.5-million cash payout (as per what M’s president Chuck Armstrong told me last year) to the Cubs for the Carlos Silva-Bradley contract differential, and another $1 million payout for Yuniesky Betancourt’s remaining obligations.
So, the M’s started with about an $88-million on-field product.
Subtract $12 million for Bradley going away and you get a $76-million team. Then, remove another $9 million once Figgins was benched, you get a $67-million team. Consider that Ichiro was a non-factor for much of it, you’ve got a $49-million team.
But Ichiro was still playing, so you can’t really do that, can you?
Sure you can, but only for the purposes of looking forward, which is what this blog post is about.
Going into 2012, like it or not, Ichiro and Figgins are still on-the-books at $27 million. So, if you consider the possibility neither will contribute much (or, merely assume they’ll contribute equal to last year) that’s a $27-million hole as a start point.
The way I see it, the team has two choices:
1. Continue to bide (some might say “waste”) time waiting for one or both deals to run out, groom the prospects and hope they get older and wiser without losing 100 games. In the meantime, you turn off more fans and use up another of the precious five years originally on Felix Hernandez’s deal. Then, you head into 2013 knowing that if you can’t re-sign Hernandez after 2014, you might have to think about dealing him mid-summer (in 2013). This is reality based on past baseball events involving top pitchers headed for free agencywhose teams attempted to maximize trade value. This is what keeps Yankees fans dreaming about Hernandez in pinstripes.
2. Try to increase payroll right now to maximize the remaining time on Hernandez’s deal and attempt a Los Angeles Angels style “rebuild”. The Angels worked prospects Mike Trout and Mark Trumbo into their lineup this year, allowing them to develop on a $141-million Opening Day payroll while contending until the final week of the season.
So, those are the options. No, not to spend $141 million. But to allocate enough funds to give the team a realistic shot at rebuilding on-the-go while also capitalizing on Hernandez still being here. Otherwise, you might as well trade Hernandez for five players right now, give yourself a real “rebuilding” injection and move on.
So, the big question remaining — for those who believe there is a reason to keep Hernandez here, as do I — is how much money? Because I listened to people a year ago who said the team would automatically improve through natural development without spending more cash, only to see the M’s lose 95 games with an offense just as awful.
Let’s deal in reality. What payroll size would enable the M’s to bring Fielder (or a serious bat) in here, along with the mid-rotation arm, everyday impact left fielder or third baseman, everyday catcher or 1-a type of guy behind Miguel Olivo, or whatever you think the team needs? Those who say Fielder won’t be enough, you tell me. What will be enough?
Once we decide on that, what will it cost?
Let’s say owners approve a payroll hike to $100 million, based on using leftover surplus money from past years, will that be enough? Because if you take away $27 million for Ichiro and Figgins, that leaves you with a $73-million payroll.
In a division where the Rangers will be over $100 million next year and have their own share of young, ready-for-primetime talent, it doesn’t seem to leave the $73-million Mariners much of a shot. Considering the $141-million Angels have been developing their own “kids” on-the-fly, the M’s would again be leaving themselves behind the eight-ball.
Hoping for an Ichiro rebound? Well, the Angels are hoping for a Vernon Wells rebound. And Wells at his rebound best will be more valuable than Ichiro and likely enough to push the Angels over the top.
Again, when you’re talking payroll bumps of this magnitude, the M’s have to be realistic. This whole crossing fingers, dumpster-diving, career rebound thing has to take a back seat to more probable guesswork.
So again, what payroll will be enough?
I’d suggest, the kind of payroll the M’s had back in 2008 once they extended Ichiro to a base salary of $17 million per season and a $1 million annual pro-rated signing bonus (which is why we say he is paid $18 million per year, not $17 million as some have said).
Back in 2007, when Ichiro was paid $12 million, team payroll was $106 million. When Ichiro’s pay was upped to $18 million in 2008, the team’s payroll went up to almost $118 million.
That’s what you do proportion-wise when you decide to pay one player that much money.
And unfortunately, for the Mariners, that’s the kind of money you have to shell out if you’re going to erase your own payroll mistakes. Or, you can make the fans pay for those mistakes and wait until the contracts run out before you start even trying to contend for real again.
And that’s really what this whole thing boils down to.
For those who keep pointing to the Tampa Bays and the Arizonas of this world, yes, they did make the post-season with sub-$100-million payrolls. And yes, the Yankees got knocked out in the first round, as did the Phillies, though they’ve both made the playoffs perenially, so I’m not sure what the point is there. If Cliff Lee holds a 4-0 lead, as he does 99 times out of 100, the Phils likely sweep that series and we’re not even mentioning their knockout as a fluke “victory” for lower payrolls. Bottom line is, two of the four remaining teams have payrolls of $109 million and $107 million, the Rangers are at $92 million and about to cross $100 million as their youth matures, while the $83 million Brewers will likely lose lynchpin Fielder within weeks due to being unable to afford him.
And again, as mentioned, the Mariners start every payroll level conversation knowing that $27 million will already be eaten up by Ichiro and Figgins. Meaning that even if you want to argue Seattle can win with a Brewers-level payroll — ignoring the two wealthier opponents in the AL West and that NL payroll is generally lower due to free agent migration patterns — there is the possibility that same $83 million payroll will require Seattle to spend $110 million just to equal it in quality and overcome the money already sunk on Ichiro and Figgins.
You have to compare apples to apples. And the speed at which the M’s become competitive again will depend on the willingness of Seattle’s ownership to spend its way past mistake contracts handcuffing the franchise.
The Mariners made a mistake signing Figgins to $9 million per year for four years if they were going to bench him just a third of the way in. They made a really big mistake importing a leadoff-hitting third baseman and turning him into a No. 2 hitting second baseman because of an unwillingness (by ownership, I’m assuming) to address the Ichiro leadoff situation.
After that, the rest is on Figgins for not producing.
But get past the finger-pointing and that’s where we are. Figgins is a mistake this team now has to live with. So, you either spend to correct the mistake, or make the fans pay for it by waiting for his deal to run out.
Ichiro’s contract became a “mistake” the minute the team allowed payroll to fall below the point where his money could be proportionately absorbed. He’s now an $18 million player on what could — charitably — be described as a $70-million team.
That’s not Ichiro’s fault. It’s the fault of ownership. Nobody else.
So, again, ownership either corrects the mistake on its own, or it allows fans to pay for the mistake by waiting for the deal to run out after 2012 — fielding mediocre-to-poor teams in the process under the guise of long-term rebuilding.
Yes, yes, I know, ownership actually might extend Ichiro, prolonging a conundrum when it doesn’t have to. We’ll do them a favor and leave that alone for now because this post is getting real long and that’s a whole other realm of self-inflicted ownership damage fans might be made to absorb.
Given how payroll was roughly $94 million last season, taking it back to $118 million would require an additional $24 million in money. Actually more, because you’ll remember Armstrong telling everyone last winter that owners expected to run an operating loss for 2011.
So, tack that loss on to the $24 million because that’s what it will take the team to “break even” next year assuming attendance remains the same. If attendance goes down, throw some more millions on to the pile.
But a cosmetic payroll increase of a few million, which the team could easily accomplish by using past payroll surpluses, almost certainly won’t be enough. It will get you Fielder, but it won’t bring in the other additions many folks — including me — still think this team needs.
A meaningful payroll hike means you’re willing to erase costly contract mistakes and bring in the handful of impact players needed while continuing to develop the two or three cheap rookies who showed last season they might be counted on (Dustin Ackley, Michael Pineda, Mike Carp).
Maybe the M’s can do that with their surplus money. But if that’s the case, why did they roll out such historically bad teams the past two years? Especially in 2010, when they told fans to “Believe Big” but cut payroll and stopped all impact spending after December of the prior off-season with gaping offensive holes still needing to be filled?
Something isn’t adding up.
If the M’s really do have the money on-hand, they might consider spending some before they lose a chunk of their fanbase for good. If not, then a capital call to accomplish this (with Chris Larson funding 30.63 percent of it) is a realistic expectation, given that circumstances faced by the team are far different than back in 2004 or 2005 coming off huge attendance and years of success.
The team has rolled an inferior product out there for a while and customers are no longer buying in. We’re at the point where “spend money to make money” has to happen.
And if the M’s aren’t prepared to do this? And let’s face it, there are many fans out there who say they understand why the team isn’t willing to go that route.
Well then, you have to tackle the Hernandez issue head-on.
Because Hernandez right now would fetch enough everyday players to give an electric injection to any long-term rebuild. And for all the stuff Hernandez says about loving Seattle and wanting to be here after 2014, you won’t know the outcome until he signs on the dotted line.
The clock is ticking on him and on the M’s to get this rebuild done.
They can stay the course and hope for the best. Or take pro-active steps to speed it up.
Either way, some very tough decisions need to happen over the next few months.
Rebuild or not, this team just lost 196 games in two years while running the worst offense of the DH era out there in front of fans. They added insult to injury by trotting poor, overmatched Class AAA pitcher Anthony Vasquez to the mound for seven starts while he produced some of the worst numbers in baseball history (worst Fielding Independent Pitching stats ever and 13 homers allowed versus 13 strikeouts).
All that, while team owners employed a strategy designed to take on minimal-to-no risk to their overall investment, which keeps growing in value while they reap revenue from a ballpark that would not have been built without taxpayers.
The Mariners may indeed have enough piled up in surplus cash to fund a significant payroll boost without going to Larson and other owners. If true, you wonder why some of it wasn’t used the past two seasons to put more of a major league product on the field.
The team can’t have it both ways. The money is either there or it isn’t.
If what we’ve witnessed the past two seasons is supposed to be major league baseball, Seattle-style, the proverbial “bar” truly can’t get any lower.
But attendance still can. It’s now the team’s move.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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