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January 30, 2012 at 6:37 AM

Mariners have shown they are taking the long route

Great to be back in Seattle and looking forward to spring training after a nice couple of weeks off in South Africa and France. As usual, the Mariners timed all of their big moves and non-moves for the moment I left, giving colleague Larry Stone plenty to do. I’ll schedule next year’s vacation earlier, so that the team doesn’t leave you hanging in suspense all winter long.
One thing I think the Mariners’ off-season has done is paint a much clearer picture of what the team intends going forward.
And from where I sit, it really doesn’t look as if the Mariners plan on making the playoffs before 2015. Instead, like their counterparts in Oakland, they appear to be shifting their focus to a few years down the road where a potentially huge financial windfall awaits.
There are many ways to rebuild a team. The Angels won a World Series in 2002 with help from youngsters Troy Glaus and Francisco Rodriguez, but were a veteran team anchored by Tim Salmon, Darin Erstadt, Scott Spiezio, Garret Anderson, Troy Percival and others. That team has rebuilt on-the-fly ever since at a huge cost to new owner Arte Moreno, who arrived in 2004. But the result was that the Angels contended until September every year and gained in value to where Moreno has now leveraged himself a $3 billion television contract.
The Tigers made the World Series in 2006, won 88 games in 2007 and rebuilt on-the-fly behind the dollars of owner Mike Illitch. They should have won the AL Central in 2009 before an epic collapse the final week. They made the American League Championship Series last season and are heavily favored to repeat this year with only a handful of players remaining from the 2006 team.
Moreno and Illitch showed — as did the Yankees and Red Sox before them — that you don’t have to spend five, six or seven years in purgatory in order to rebuild. But it costs money to shorten the wait.
The Mariners are opting for the longer course, making a clear choice not to significantly boost payroll and supplement their developing young core with elite, pricier proven players in the interim. They are not alone in this. The Blue Jays have done it for a decade, as have the Indians and A’s.
Oakland no longer makes the playoffs as it once did when Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson were on the mound. The A’s have been rebuilding, tearing down and rebuilding anew for most of the past eight years with one playoff appearance in that stretch. They are taking plenty of heat in Oakland this winter for dealing away young pitching in what looks like a bid to focus all efforts on 2015, when a new stadium deal and fresh bounty of public money could be ready for them.
Are the Mariners quietly doing the same thing with their team? Focusing on 2015 in anticipation of their own financial jackpot?
That isn’t some random date I’ve picked. By the end of 2014, the Mariners will have shed the current contracts of Ichiro and Chone Figgins and will know where things stand with Felix Hernandez. He will either have agreed to an extension by then or will have been traded.
On a much bigger front, that point in time is also when the Mariners will know how much additional yearly revenue they can expect from a renegotiated local television deal. The Mariners currently earn an average of $45 million per year from TV and many analysts are saying they can double that when they reach a 2015 opt-out clause in their deal with ROOT Sports. Double it even with a team that wins nothing between now and then. Of course, the Mariners could have earned even more than that by putting a contending team on the field ahead of that 2015 date, sort of the way the Texas Rangers did in leveraging a deal many reports now say will generate between $1.6 billion and $3 billion over the next 20 years.
But that would have required much more in terms of advance investment by the Mariners in order to speed up this rebuilding plan. In any case, they remain in line for a big TV windfall a few years down the road. And it will come at a time when the team either has a locked-up Felix Hernandez fronting an otherwise young, hopefully talented, cheap team with no other big contracts committed to. Or, just a Hernandez-less, cheap and hopefully talented team with plenty of added franchise value from TV and years of stockpiled funds to spend.
That’s how it looks right now. As for 2012, 2013 and even 2014, it’s going to be tough for the Mariners to contend for anything but third place.
Photo Credit: AP

The Mariners appear to have accepted this. What we learned from the Prince Fielder signing isn’t so much that the Mariners could not outbid the Tigers. It’s that the Mariners likely weren’t all that serious about landing Fielder in the first place.
It may not have mattered if Fielder really didn’t want to come here. But his agent, Scott Boras, made it clear to everyone from the outset that he was seeking a deal of eight-to-10 years at cost of $20-to-$25 million annually. And that’s exactly what he got from the Tigers.
So, if the Mariners were serious players for Fielder, rather than letting everyone just assume they were, they had to be ready to meet this price going into the process. There is a theory the M’s thought they could get Fielder much cheaper, but waiting on that as a strategy would be a huge risk considering an entire off-season was allowed to drift on by before the team got its price answer.
In the interim, a number of second tier free agents or trade possibilities who would have upgraded the Mariners were allowed to go elsewhere: guys like Grady Sizemore, Josh Willingham, Carlos Quentin, Michael Cuddyer, Aramis Ramirez, Seth Smith and Carlos Pena on the offensive side and any number of pitchers. You don’t have to like all of those names, or even think they’d help beyond 2012 or 2013. But to suggest a team that’s lost 196 games in two years would not have benefitted from any of them is ludicrous.
Just as it was ludicrous a year ago and the year before that when some folks argued that there wasn’t really anyone for Seattle to spend winter money on. If that was true, those are some awfully lofty standards for a team that loses as much as this one does.
Unless, or course, the M’s actually don’t plan on winning anything that matters the next few years.
And given what ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick wrote three weeks ago, saying an agent told him the Mariners’ interest in Fielder was overblown and the team only had a few million more dollars to spend, I’m coming around to that viewpoint. It seemed suicidal as a strategy at the time, given all the heightened expectations. But cut payroll enough, any team can withstand a massive drop in attendance.
Looking back on what I’ve written the past four months about the financial struggles of Mariners minority owner Chris Larson, or the continued challenges for majority owner Hiroshi Yamauchi as Nintendo’s fortunes decline (with him as the gaming company’s single largest shareholder), I can see why risking any franchise value of the baseball team through bigger investments might not be on their near-term agendas. And so, for me, seeing the team with a payroll of only $80 million (a third of it going to Ichiro and Figgins) less than two weeks before spring training does not shock as much as it might have now that I’ve had time to sit back and look at the big picture.
It is what it is. None of us can read minds. But the facts are, the team is slashing payroll once again, with minimal upgrades after a 95-loss season and as two division rivals soar well beyond $100 million. Maybe the Mariners had no choice. Maybe they did. In the end, it’s not Jack Zduriencik’s call. If he was told to cut payroll by ownership, his moves would be limited.
And they have been.
The big move was acquiring Jesus Montero and parts for Michael Pineda and parts.
For the record, I like the move because this offense needs big-time help and Montero should give it some if he lives up to the hype. Coupled with a big bat like Fielder, it might have massively transformed the offense and set the M’s up for some complementary moves next winter and contender status for 2013.
On it’s own, the Montero move is about contending much further down the road. He’ll need 2012 to get his feet wet in the majors full-time, figure out what position he’s going to play, then deal with his sophomore jinx in 2013 and mature a little more if he (and not Fielder) is supposed to be the focal point of a contending offense.
Pineda was a steep price to pay. But again, the move makes sense for a team not really planning to win anything before that new TV deal arrives.
Don’t forget, Pineda has only two seasons left before becoming arbitration eligible and potentially quite expensive. If the team knows it isn’t going to win anything in 2012 and 2013, when Pineda brings the most value for little money, better to cash-in on that value via trade. And by 2014, when Pineda would have been entering his first arbitration season, the team will have extra dollars to throw at a Hernandez extension, or the arbitration costs of — maybe — Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak and others. They will also have more room in the rotation for the young arms expected to make big league debuts the next 3-to-15 months.
So, yeah, a steep price. But the M’s dealt from strength to try to boost one of weakness, knowing Pineda’s value would be less by the time the team was prepared to seriously try winning again.
It won’t lead to much the next couple of years. In fact, I doubt you’ll find any analyst picking the M’s for something other than third place in 2012 or 2013. Likely 2014 as well, but that’s too far off to predict due to the potential for injuries and other factors. Still, I feel comfortable saying that I seriously doubt the Mariners are counting on contending prior to then.
They just haven’t made the moves that would indicate they are. And they aren’t spending the money it will take. Maybe they will spend in two or three years, at which point — in theory — they (with the current or new ownership) should be well-positioned to do so. But maybe they won’t spend it then, either. Who knows?
One byproduct of choosing the long approach to rebuilding is that the Mariners have succeeded in lowering the expectations of their fan base for the next several years when it comes to winning. And that means, next winter, when a new crop of pricey free agents come on the market, the team will likely feel less pressure to open its wallet and pursue any of them.
Perhaps, this time, the team really didn’t feel Fielder was worth it, or maybe it’s true they got rejected by a guy who never wanted to play here. Or, perhaps they didn’t really try all that hard and the plan all along was to cut payroll by $10-million-to-$15-million at the request of financially-challenged owners.
We’ll never know the full story. But baseball is a results-oriented business. Whatever the team’s intentions were this winter, these are the off-season results in front of us.
And for right now, rather than investing more money to do a quicker rebuild like the Angels, Red Sox, Tigers or Yankees, the results indicate the Mariners have chosen the long route to get where they need to be. How long that will take is anyone’s guess, but setting 2015 as the new target seems a good place to start.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins, Jesus Montero


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