We’re just about done with a 2012 Mariners season that’s had its share of highlights, lowlights and — yet again — a last-place finish. Will anything change next season? Probably, since the Houston Astros are joining the AL West and the best they can hope for out of that next season will be to avoid becoming a 130-loss team.
That aside, it’s a real question as to whether the Mariners can hope to surpass the free-spending Angels and Rangers, or even the more cost-conscious Oakland Athletics, who currently comprise the rest of the division. To do so will almost certainly require acquisitions from outside the organization in terms of some shrewd trades and an impact free agent or two.
Whether or not the Mariners do that remains to be seen. They will be entering the fifth year of their rebuilding plan under GM Jack Zduriencik. But hey, it could be worse. They could be like tonight’s opposition, the Blue Jays, and going into 2013 as Year No. 12 of a rebuiding plan that began in 2002 under that club’s current Rogers Communications ownership. Yes, yes, I know, it will only be Year No. 4 under current GM Alex Anthopoulos, but while the names of those running the day-to-day team may change, the practices of ownership — which can determine a club’s fate in a top-spending division long before Opening Day of any one season — remain the same.
The Blue Jays, like the current Mariners, face big-time challenges in the AL East, where financial behemoths New York and Boston have ruled the roost for most of the past 15 years. For the M’s, the AL West has become the AL East, with the Angels and Rangers taking over as financial powerhouses.
Heck, the AL West now even has its own low-spending, miracle-working version of the Tampa Bay Rays to worry about in Billy Beane’s revitalized A’s. Or did the Rays become what the A’s were in Moneyball times? Who knows? Who cares? The bottom line is: the Mariners and Blue Jays are not the A’s or the Rays. They are neither as lucky, nor as shrewd, nor do they have the cheap, cheap base of talent to begin with in order to keep a payroll as low as those teams. Nor do they have to, since both enjoy potentially lucrative revenue streams that Oakland and Tampa Bay do not have — the Mariners through a state-of-the-art, taxpayer-funded ballpark and upcoming TV deal, and the Blue Jays through a cheaply-obtained, half-decent ballpark and an owner that operates a system of regional sports TV networks.
Which gets us back to the basics of what both are: teams that need to spend more in order to compete within their own division.
This has been clear as day in Toronto since the moment J.P. Ricciardi took over as Blue Jays GM back in November 2001 under the false claims he could compete on a budget, which he never did. The fact that Ricciardi went out and blew some additional cash given him back in December 2005 on ill-conceived purchases in closer B.J. Ryan and starter A.J. Burnett matters little.
It would be like saying the Mariners don’t need to spend more because Bill Bavasi once blew money on Carlos Silva. Or because Zduriencik wasted tons of cash on Chone Figgins.
Some deals don’t work out. But you hire the GMs you think will make deals that do succeed and you go from there. You don’t stop trying just because of past failures. When you do that, you get: the Mariners and the Blue Jays — a pair of fourth-place teams during a baseball season in which playoff berths have been wide open for any club (even the Baltimore Orioles) willing to step up and grab them.
One thing that continues to astonish me is how similar the paths of both the Mariners and the Blue Jays have been. The reason I keep bringing the Blue Jays up isn’t because I covered them for nine seasons. It’s because I’m trying to help Mariners fans avoid the fate of Blue Jays fans. I don’t want Mariners fans to wake up in 2020, about to begin Year No. 12 of their rebuilding plan under a GM that isn’t Zduriencik, but who is following the same restrictive, profit-salvaging parameters handed down by ownership back in 2009.
Simply put, both teams have to spend more to be relevant. It doesn’t matter what the Rays and A’s are doing. It’s what the Mariners and Blue Jays have done to become fourth-place teams.
In the months ahead, you’ll hear lots of talk from previous opponents of increased spending by both clubs about how things have now changed. About how “the time is right” for spending to be increased.
Really? Based on what? I’ll submit the time was right for both teams to begin spending last winter, or even prior to that.
Photo Credit: AP
How exactly are the Mariners now better-positioned to spend than they were last winter? Some will say the young core is more developed, ignoring the fact that core cornerstones Justin Smoak and Dustin Ackley took major steps backward, that Franklin Gutierrez was again hurt all year and that the team’s future shortstop and catcher remain somewhere in the minor leagues. That Jesus Montero is hitting OK for a rookie, but has struggled versus righties and has shown he likely won’t be a full-time catcher. That the biggest steps forward this year by position players came from unexpected sources in both Kyle Seager and Michael Saunders — two guys still hitting below .250.
The two best starting pitchers outside of Felix Hernandez were a pair of 30-something, soon-to-be-free agents in Kevin Millwood and Hisashi Iwakuma. Jason Vargas did take a step forward in terms of surface stats like win-loss and ERA, but his peripherals remain virtually identical to what he was before.
Tom Wilhelmsen has flip-flopped all-star level closer stats with last year’s version of Brandon League.
How exactly, then, is the time now better for the Mariners to spend this winter compared to last? The answer is: it isn’t.
Anymore than it is for the Blue Jays to spend now than last winter. What, did the complete crash-and-burn of staff ace Ricky Romero move the timetable up? Another injury-plagued, so-so season for Brandon Morrow?
Let’s get real.
Toronto third baseman Brett Lawrie has had a very Seager-like year OPS-wise. The Blue Jays also found something nice in first baseman Edwin Encarnacion. But their bullpen, which they tried to patch together on-the-cheap last winter, was a flop.
So, that’s the development that now makes it the right time to spend in Toronto? The breakout of Encarnacion? OK, then.
Like I said, I’m trying to spare Seattle fans from a decade-long nightmare of perpetual rebuilding.
The short answer is, the time is always right for a team owner to spend in order to upgrade a ballclub, especially when rivals are outspending you 2-to-1 in your own division. Waiting until the time is perfectly right in order for all the stars to allign and your best playoff odds to match up with the perfect free agent market is a pipe dream.
Last winter’s big free agent bat was Prince Fielder. He has put up a .928 OPS — almost exactly in-line with his .929 career OPS. Without him, the Tigers would not be close to contending for a playoff spot, given the collapse of their No. 5 and No. 6 hitters this year and injuries to their pitching.
There is no other guy like Fielder out there that young, this winter, who projects to put up those numbers. So, those teams that were sitting back and waiting for the time to be right to go out and find themselves a Fielder type are just plain out of luck. Turns out, the timing this winter is all wrong for that.
But we spent plenty of time last winter talking about the need for the Mariners to make secondary moves in the event a Fielder signing wasn’t happening. Turns out, Josh Willingham would have been one of those: his .902 OPS looking like a bargain at three years, $21 million.
Sure, that’s well above his career .846 OPS. But still, I’d pay for that second number. I remember some fans last winter arguing that Casper Wells or Mike Carp could put up numbers close to that just because they’d done so for a couple of months in 2011.
Hopefully, now, we’re a little less pie-in-the-sky and know the difference between stats proven over several years and those acquired by newbies over a couple of hot months.
No, not all guys with proven track records will work out as free agents: Example A being Figgins.
But here’s what I can guarantee you: that sitting on the sidelines again this winter will pretty much guarantee the Mariners another finish behind their division rivals. And I know that’s not what any of you want.
I know you’d rather see the Mariners having a season like the Orioles, the A’s, the Tigers, the Angels, the Rays and the White Sox are having. Where every game in September means something. Not where we try to measure success based off whether the team loses 95 games, or 90, or 85.
Folks who are now dancing on the graves of the Yankees and Angels while both are still in the thick of playoff contention miss the point entirely. Spending doesn’t guarantee you’ll make the playoffs: but both of those teams are where they are because of the dollars they did spend. They are still playing relevant baseball while the Mariners and Blue Jays are not. While fans in Seattle and Toronto get their biggest thrills out of hoping that other teams fail.
Why is that? Are they getting a cut of the money saved — or value gained — by bang-for-the-buck team owners in Seattle and Toronto? Of course not. The only way baseball fans get true satisfaction is by seeing your team win a title, something that can only happen if you make the playoffs and that can only take place if you contend for a spot.
Instead, it’s the same big-spending teams — with a few exceptions — that contend year after year while the more frugal emabark on extended rebuilding and gear everything towards a shot once-or-twice-per-decade. Actually, at this point, I’m sure fans in Seattle or Toronto would take the once-or-twice-every-10-years thing because that sure hasn’t happened for either.
The Angels will be there next year. So will the Yankees and the Tigers. Will the Mariners, or the Blue Jays be there?
I’ll tell you what, since last year’s big free agency period ended, the introduction of baseball’s second wild card in the weeks that followed has now made quasi-contenders out of even .500 teams. There is no longer any excuse at all to sacrifice entire seasons in the name of rebuilding. Teams can now rebuild and try to put a competitive product out there at the same time.
Nobody ever asked the Mariners to throw $120 million away on just anybody. Nor did they ask the Blue Jays to do it. Everybody wants their team to spend smartly. But to do that, sometimes involves taking a risk or two. It involves spending beyond the mistakes, or holes on your current roster to get to where you need to be, whether that takes you to $150 million like the Angels, or $100 million, or $80 million.
For the Mariners and Blue Jays, a payroll in the $80-million range has not been enough and that’s been proven over several years. That’s why they need their franchises to up the ante and take some chances through added acquisitions that work out. Finding the deals that work out is why teams pay big bucks to their GMs instead of simply asking any fantasy-leaguer to do the job for them.
There’s a minimum entry fee for teams like the Mariners and Blue Jays and they’ve tried to get away with not paying it going on several seasons now. The Blue Jays have clearly been a near-.500 team for several seasons (since 2005 really), but have seemed content to stay at that level and this year, the lack of depth caught up to them big-time when injuries hit. Heck, even some previously-reluctant bloggers seem to be joining the spend-more call of mainstream media types in Toronto, which was going on as much before the season as it is right now in another lost year. Better late than never, I say.
For folks in Seattle, this team does not have to wait that long. What can you do about it? About getting the Mariners to invest more in the on-field product and speed this rebuilding plan up? Not a whole lot. My best advice would be to just not make it easy on the team to get away with doing nothing. Before you start arguing in blogs or on the comment section here about what the team can “afford to spend” or whether “the time is right” to do so, make sure you aren’t just parroting some flawed party line.
As I’ve just shown, the time is no more right today than it was last December. For either the Mariners or the Blue Jays. And after they beat the heck out of each other this week, both teams and their fans will have the rest of the winter to think about it. To think about doing more than being outsiders looking in.