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July 12, 2012 at 12:50 PM

Would the Mariners want to make a Justin Upton trade? I seriously doubt it

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I will once again be hosting an hour-long show on the Mariners tonight on Sports Radio KJR starting at 7 p.m. PT after the team’s workout at Safeco Field. We’ll be taking calls, so, I hope to hear from some of you!
Lots of hullabaloo over the All-Star Break about the Mariners possibly making a deal to land Arizona Diamondbacks outfielder Justin Upton. Would a deal like that be a good fit for these Mariners? Sure, it would.
Upton is only 24 and even in a down year is outperforming every current full-time Mariners player at the plate, with the exception of Michael Saunders. Not only that, but he plays right field and would be the perfect replacement for Ichiro once the latter’s contract expires later this year.
In theory, Upton is exactly the type of player these Mariners say they want and more. He’s younger than many of the young position players the Mariners keep deploying and he’s beyond the initial growing pains so many Seattle hitters are experiencing as they begin their careers.
Is Upton a superstar? No, and that’s why he’s available. He coud be a superstar someday, or turn out to be just a very good player — something the Mariners need more of.
So, will the Mariners try to deal for him?
I seriously doubt it.
In fact, I’d fall out of my chair in a happy daze if they did. But I’m pretty certain I’ll be sitting upright once the July 31 trade deadline passes.
Why is that? The clue is in his contract.
Upton is in the midst of a deal that pays him $51.25 million over six years and runs through the 2015 season. He’s owed roughly $41 million in salary on the duration of that deal as of right now.
And that, folks, is your answer.
As we’ve written over and over, the Mariners do not appear to be gearing any efforts towards contention before 2015. Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone in baseball who believes the M’s can mount a serious AL West challenge by 2014, especially when several key parts of their plan — Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, James Paxton, Nick Franklin — haven’t even made it to the majors yet. Acquire Upton now, you’d be paying him roughly $10 million in salary and bonuses next year and about $15 million in 2014 just to watch the Mariners finish behind the Rangers and Angels.
It’s the same reason analysts nationwide feel the Mariners should deal Felix Hernandez now. What’s the point of keeping him for two more seasons of finishing in third place or worse before his contract expires?
By taking on Upton now, the M’s would have to give up young talent to get a player who they’d have under contract for — at best — one season of contention in 2015 at a cost of roughly $15 million.
Now, as I’ve said before: I’m open to surprises. I’d love for the Mariners to send a signal that they’re prepared to speed this rebuilding plan up and an Upton acquisition would certainly represent a major shift in how they do business.
But I don’t see that happening. I see the M’s continuing to do business the way they have the past two years.
Photo Credit: AP

The Mariners over the past two years have not been in the business of adding significant payroll commitments like an Upton contract to their ledger. Instead, they have been “rebuilding” and biding their time while deal after deal expires. This year, Ichiro’s $18 million per annum comes off the books. After 2013, it will be Chone Figgins and his $8.5 million in salary and bonuses and Franklin Gutierrez and his $7.3 million in salary and bonuses taken off the ledger.
The Mariners do hold a $7.5 million club option on Gutierrez for 2014 if they so choose. But the way things have gone up to now, you’d have to think they’re leaning towards buying him out for $500,000.
That would clear up all the big money and leave just Hernandez on the books as a big-time commitment for one more year in 2014.
And again, at the risk of repeating myself (I will because people keep asking me the same questions) if you’re looking to sell a team, that’s a great position to be in. A team with no debt load, no long-term payroll commitments and lots of young talent that could be a great starting point for a new owner to build off of for a few years. Not to mention all the new TV money poised to potentially pour in over the next few years once the Mariners do the expected and opt out of their current ROOT Sports arrangement.
Did I mention the 20-year spring training lease extension?
Yes indeed, everything is lining up perfectly for a sale at some point in the next couple of seasons and the last thing the Mariners are going to do is muck it all up by trading for Upton. Unless, of course, they could deal significant salary the other way to Arizona, which is not what the D-Backs want.
My hunch is supported by some reporting today by Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports that opposing GMs are saying the Mariners have a list of “untouchables” that includes pretty much every young player a trade partner would want. The Mariners aren’t going to give away any of their core pieces in a trade for a more expensive player.
These young core pieces are all cheap. And if you want your team’s bottom line to be lean and mean in order to exceed the reported $800 million the Padres just got in a sale awaiting MLB approval, keeping your young players is the best way to do it.
Is it the best way to win? Well, that doesn’t really matter.
The Mariners are going to get a whopping TV increase regardless of whether they win anything between now and 2015. The Padres are an awful team and just sold for $800 million — $200 million of that for their TV deal value — so again, it isn’t so much the short-term on-field stuff anyone cares about.
Don’t forget, attendance is dropping again this year, so payroll will have to go down again next year in order to accomodate the dip while keeping the books relatively balanced. And as long as those books are in order, the on-field performance won’t impact any future sale price too much. Don’t forget, the goal of the current Jack Zduriencik regime is for these players to improve at some point, so it’s possible attendance could go up if this group starts losing fewer than 90 games per season.
And then, if a sale is indeed achieved, a new owner coming in would have a blank slate to start with in order to fashion the team any way they see fit. Without the burden of some guy like Upton hogging up payroll space. Or, the current owners could just hold on to the squad, take the new TV money and use it on a team trimmed of any significant payroll commitments.
Anyhow, I could be wrong, but that’s the way I see it. Until I see different behavior from this current Mariners ownership group, I will continue to view the team through this prism of a squad paring its bottom line.
And you don’t do that with Upton. You do it with guys you can acquire now by offloading players who cost money as well. Or, if you’re going to trade young players, by acquiring cheap, young players in return. By balancing the books.
Upton is young. But he isn’t cheap. Not cheap enough for the Mariners.
This deal made sense when folks first suggested it before the 2011 season. At the time, assuming the M’s wanted to try to win something by 2012 0r 2013, I thought five years of Upton would be well worth it to trade some top young prospects for, like any two of Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak or Michael Pineda.
But now, with the slow route the M’s have chosen in their rebuilding, it just doesn’t work.
So, I’m betting they pass.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins


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