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

December 8, 2011 at 3:12 PM

Albert Pujols signing by Mariners’ rival is a huge wakeup call

There were plenty of gasps throughout the blogosphere this morning when the Angels did what the Marlins had been doing and spent a boatload on two premium free agents in an effort to shift the balance of power in the AL West.
Angels owner Arte Moreno has spent the past year listening to critics who scoffed at his Vernon Wells trade, predicting with smug certainty the imminent financial collapse of the Halo empire. Well, this morning, in a matter of hours, Moreno treated the smart crowd to the equivalent of a one-finger salute.
This should be a huge wakeup call to anyone still uncertain what the game of Major League Baseball is really all about. Much of it is determined before teams even take the field. And it’s determined by teams that have a great deal of money, more than many of us ever dare to imagine when attempting to predict the future.
Even today, I keep reading comments that predict Albert Pujols will be a contract albatross in coming years who could cripple the Angels financially. Those people doing the predicting have apparently already forgotten the lessons about Wells. And that would be: any strategy that involves trying to bleed your opponent dry in the game of baseball is about as sound as pretending that baseball is an equal game. It isn’t.
But many of us still harbor the belief that it is.
Over the years, a cottage industry has developed around some of the game’s statistics, to the point where some numbers attempt to calculate player “value” as if that concept is solid rather than fluid. One only has to participate in Baseball Writers Association of America MVP voting to understand that one person’s concept of value is different from another’s.
I think the onset of the stats industry has been magnificent for the game. So does MLB, by the way, knowing how it’s drawn a generation of younger, thinking fans to the sport. Baseball tried for years to cultivate the younger generation and the publication of Moneyball in 2003 did indeed pave the way for this side industry to take hold. I love stats as much as anybody and am continuously impressed by the dedication shown by those who truly care about researching the next frontiers in baseball. About attempting to answer what we don’t understand.
But now — at the risk of inviting criticism from those who will brand this as “anti-sabermetric” or worse — I have to qualify that end of it. Because I’ve written here for years that the best use of stats is to blend them within the realities of Major League Baseball. Not college baseball. Not Little League Baseball. Not MLB2K baseball. Real Major League Baseball played in the real world.
And I think that too many fans who come at things from a statistical point of view often miss the bigger picture when it comes to MLB and how it operates. I see too many fans who view themselves — judging from their written words — as a “smart” or “intelligent” fanbase, but who then limit their thought process by putting boxes around their ideas rather than thinking outside the box.
There are many examples, but I’ll use the Mariners for now. The past few months, I’ve kept reading ideas that suggest the Mariners lack the resources to pursue top-flight free agents. These ideas suggest the team is not a player or two away from contending and that spending $100 million or $150 million or $250 million on Prince Fielder would “cripple” the franchise and prevent further player development.
Well, that analysis fails. Because the only hard evidence of Mariners finances as they currently stand is that the team’s ownership spent $212 million since 1992 on a franchise that Forbes now values at $449 million. That’s a cushion of $237 million before we even talk about tax breaks or anyone “losing money” on their investment.
So, those making the argument that the team can’t “afford” Prince Fielder at $25 million per season, or $30 million, or $40 million per year, are flat-out wrong. And any analysis of how this team should proceed at constructing a roster — using this flawed analytical idea of being unable to “afford” Free Agent X or Y — is also dead wrong. No middle ground. They are wrong.
Might the Mariners eventually go broke if they could not use Fielder to significantly boost revenues over the long-term? Maybe. We don’t know. We do know that right now, the team can afford him. MLB does have rules about how much debt a team can take on and that’s why you won’t pay Fielder $100 million per year. But the Mariners are comfortably within baseball’s debt rules. They have the resources to pay Fielder $25 million per year if they have to and that’s why they have been pursuing him very aggressively since he became a free agent.
The Mariners had not been pursuing Fielder types since the 2008 stock market crash because they lost some franchise value during that season and have been building it back up while two owners controlling 80 percent of the team are dealing with financial setbacks outside of baseball. But that’s their choice. The team could have absorbed more loss in franchise value over the short term and still left investors well in the black had they upped payroll in 2009-2011. They chose not to.
That’s a far cry from them being unable to “afford” to do it.
So, those making such arguments have to come armed with something stronger than being skittish because Bill Bavasi made bad moves as a GM. Bavasi stopped making winter moves for the Mariners four years ago. He has not had a say in this team’s affairs for 3 1/2 years. Time to move on. Time to deal with present day reality in a division where the Mariners are on the verge of being left behind.
There were self-proclaimed “smart” people predicting that Angels owner Moreno would have his hands tied for years by the Wells contract. They were wrong. Wait, stop…no arguing. They were wrong. Clearly, based on what happened today.
Is Moreno just “dumb” because he refused to box himself into a limited way of thinking as so many of his detractors did? Nope. Moreno plays in the real world of MLB. He owns a radio station. Knows about the value of TV rights. Knows about spending money to make money in business. Knows that very few owners in MLB ever “lose” money. How can they? The deck is stacked in their favor.
I posted some of the Scott Boras comments last night and saw that he received the usual guffaws from some. But pay attention to what he said about the Mariners. Especially right here: “Seattle is a place where they’ve drawn 3.5 million fans,” Boras said. “They’re a proven market. Their TV ratings per household are one of the highest in major league baseball. They’re a franchise that, if they are successful, their fans really support the team. It’s that iconic dynamic that we talk about with those franchise players where a competitive team can mean an additional million fans.”
At $50 per head, that’s $50 million in additional revenues. Will it all come from Fielder? Nope. But if he gets this team closer to winning, then it helps. Not to mention the added playoff revenues. Boras mentioned the Texas Rangers as a recent example of how a winning team can change the fanbase and revenues in a matter of a few years.
And if you believe Fielder brings you closer to a winning team, then that has to be factored in to any analysis. And if you don’t believe this team can contend within the next two years, that’s OK. Doesn’t make you “dumb”. You may even be “smarter” than the rest of us. But then, you have to tell us what your plan is for Felix Hernandez, who will be nearly a $20-million pitcher this coming season.
You can’t have it both ways. That isn’t “smart”. That’s just being overly conservative. To the point where it may harm your team.
Because having a staff ace making $20 million for an 80-win team is not “smart” when you can deal him for four or five players this second and watch them grow until they can help you whenever that window arrives.
But whichever way you go, the time for skittishness is done.
This Pujols signing has to be a wakeup call.
The Mariners are not the Orioles or Blue Jays just yet. But “staying the course” right now could lead to an eight-or-10-year, Toronto-style rebuilding plan just as easily as it could bring any success.
This is why I got on some of the more stats-oriented fans a bit earlier. I just see too many fans nowadays who worry about the bottom lines of their teams more than the teams themselves do,


And I do not think this is healthy for the game. I think that it perpetuates the myth that low-spending teams can contend just as easily as big-spending teams.
They can’t.
It continues the myth that Theo Epstein was a true practicioner of Moneyball the way Billy Beane was.
He wasn’t.
If anything, a brilliant Epstein put the “Money” in Moneyball, using hefty payrolls and smarts to field World Series winners and gloss over the mistakes that others could not.
Epstein also believes heavily in team “chemistry” which — as Red Sox consultant Bill James told me last year — the Red Sox spent an inordinate amount of time worrying about even if sabermetrics had yet to come up with a way to measure it.
Just like sabermetrics has yet to measure the impact one big hitter can have on a lineup full of popgun guys. Yes, it’s true that there has never been any proof that a big hitter directly behind another can “protect” that guy in front of him and cause him to get better pitches to hit.
But those are two different things. And both hitters and pitchers, managers and GMs will tell you one big bat can make a difference throughout the lineup.
Am i “smarter” than all of them? I don’t pretend to be.
I also don’t pretend to be “smarter” than Bill James or Theo Epstein.
Doesn’t make me an enemy of sabermetrics, or the stats cottage industry that’s developed around baseball. I don’t have a vested financial interest in it. No dog in the proverbial hunt.
I’m just giving you my observations. I’m not going to say that I agree with someone or think that an argument is sound when I find evidence to the contrary. I’ll let others make nice-nice. I’m just giving you my unbiased take.
And right now, what I’ve seen is too many people pigeonholing themselves into arguments and rooted positions based on things they don’t completely grasp about Major League Baseball.
Chemistry and big bat impact on lineups are two of them.
And how much teams can really “afford” to pay players are another.
I’ve seen too many teams making too many profits, some of them even grabbing revenue sharing charity when they are owned by conglomerates,
I’ve seen too many intelligent business owners like Moreno get called “dumb” by much less successful fans than him because he refuses to put himself in their “value” box.
My only advice to Mariners fans is, try to think outside the box.
If someone tells you a team can’t “afford” something, ask why. Don’t just take the team’s word for it on blind faith.
It’s nice to assign money values to players based on production and average expectations of performance, but in the end, if Moreno thinks he can make another $50 million in revenues off Pujols then that player is potentially “worth” way more than $25 million, no matter what we think he’s worth.
On a non-contender, he might be “worth” nothing. If an $80-million payroll team with Pujols loses 100 games but the first baseman delivers production some chart says was “worth” $25 million, does it matter? Nope. Didn’t to A-Rod and the Texas Rangers a decade ago. But I’d say Mark Teixeira and A-Rod’s deals, no matter what the charts say, have been worth it to a Yankees team that keeps making the playoffs and allows franchise value to grow.
Stats are fun. They are educational. They can tell us who is a good player and who is a bad one.
But they don’t have eveything nailed just yet.
And until fans get the money facts on their respective teams, they’d do themselves a favor by not trying to play banker or PR rep by telling other fans what those squads can “afford”.
Teams love it when their own fans make cases for them to be frugal. Helps keep profits up.
Don’t make it easy for them to become the Pittsburgh Pirates or Cleveland Indians. Try thinking a little more outside the box. When we see evidence of financial calamity around the game on a massive scale, I’ll change my tune.
But for every Mets and Dodgers meltdown, there’s a Marlins and Angels. The baseball world keeps on turning.
The real world of Major League Baseball. It’s not always easy to understand. But pretending it doesn’t exist, or that we’ve got it all figured out on paper will only lead to frustration down the road.
This is why the Mariners are going hard on Prince Fielder. They’ve got to either get this rebuild fast-forwarded or trade Hernandez. There is no middle ground. And right now, they think Fielder is the best option.
And after today, seeing how much money there really is to throw around in the AL West and all of baseball, the reality of what faces them hopefully became a little clearer.

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