Today’s paper contained our second of a two-part season-ending analysis of the Mariners, where they’ve been and where they are headed. It contains a topic that is of utmost importance to this team’s future: its ability to increase payroll.
Whether it’s via free agency, or taking on more-established players via trade. The Mariners simply cannot continue to try to get by with mainly the minimum-salaried types they have been trotting out there the past few years. How do we know this?
We look at the standings and three consecutive last-place finishes.
There has been quite a bit written about payroll by various types of people this year, some of it enlightening, some of it distorted, and some of it just plain misinformed.
Just to be clear: there is no magic amount of money needed to win a title in baseball. Obviously, the Oakland Athletics just won a division title with an Opening Day payroll of $53 million.
But here is where the mistake is commonly made by those who claim that the Mariners don’t need money to win in baseball. Just because the A’s won a division with the lowest payroll in baseball, it doesn’t mean it’s a formula the Mariners can realistically hope to emulate with any success.
Just because the Dodgers took a rookie pitcher from Mexico 31 years ago and rode his arm to a World Series, it doesn’t mean every other team in baseball can go to Tijuana, or wherever, pluck some guy out of there and have him become the next Fernando Valenzuela. It just doesn’t work that way.
Those who sat back as early as May, applauding that the Angels and Tigers were struggling because of big-ticket acquistiions in hopes of proving some hypothesis that you don’t need money to win in baseball are, again, hopelessly missing the point. The Tigers did win their division. And the Angels, while getting eliminated, still won 89 games and will be back next year.
To openly cheer for certain teams to make or miss the playoffs based on payroll size betrays a lack of understanding on how payroll works. It is not an arbitrary, set thing. It is a fluid beast by nature, fluctuating in terms of relative importance to each team.
The Angels getting eliminated doesn’t prove that big spending is the wrong approach. If that’s the case, then I guess the Rays getting eliminated proves that small spending is the wrong approach too. Ditto with the Pirates, who were all set to become the new favorite of the win-cheap crowd until they crashed and burned due to a lack of depth.
In this morning’s story, I tried to outline the difference between the Mariners and bigger spending teams like the Angels, or the Giants, and heck, even Seattle and the Yankees.
It isn’t all about the Mariners needing to spend $160 million like the Angels, or $131 million like the Giants. It’s about them doing what those teams have done in order to play season-long competitive baseball: spending to keep a core together and to overcome past mistakes.
Photo Credit: AP
Those teams have done that. The teams with bigger payrolls are all trying to do that. Some of them succeed and some do not.
For the Mariners, the “spending past mistakes” part is what has killed them on the field the past few seasons. They simply, deliberately, refuse to do it.
The Angels are stuck with an albatross Vernon Wells contract that we now know was a big mistake for them. Much like the Mariners made a big mistake signing signing Chone Figgins to a four-year, $36-million deal. They made another on-field baseball mistake by inking Ichiro to a five-year, $90-million extension that really did not work out over the majority of that contract. Especially for a team planning to eventually cut costs and payroll. Might have seemed like a good idea at the time, but it clearly was not.
The difference is, the Angels took advantage of their resources, acquired Albert Pujols as their new “big bat” to offset the disappointing Wells, and went out and competed all year long. The Giants, hamstrung by Barry Zito, who still earns $19 million per year, went out and spent past that albatross of a deal to the point where they contended through to the second-half last year and won a division title this year.
The reason the Yankees have a $200 million payroll every year is because, as bad as guys like Kevin Brown was for them, or as overpaid as Alex Rodriguez might be for any other team in baseball, New York is willing to pay the price year after year to overcome any mistakes and put a winning team out there.
Same with the Phillies, or Red Sox. We can laugh at their high-priced flops this year, but both teams had payrolls as high as they were because they kept on adding pieces to overcome any shortcomings. And they contended: year after year after year. Up until this year, no season in recent memory for those clubs was ever over by July.
The Mariners, as I wrote this morning, have taken the opposite approach.
While there was one game they were playing on the surface in terms of “building a young core” the hidden game also taking place simultaneously was a waiting game — waiting for any and all pricey contracts to expire. Last year may have been about breaking in Dustin Ackley and Kyle Seager, but it was also about letting the Milton Bradley deal and the Jack Wilson deal and the David Aardsma deal run out.
This year might have been about seeing whether Seager and Michael Saunders and Mike Carp could cut it as everyday players. But it was also about finally shedding the contract of Ichiro and the contract of Brandon League.
Those five contracts I just mentioned from the past two seasons were worth a combined $45 million in payroll reductions for the Mariners since the end of 2011.
Next year, the team stands to shed an additional $16 million when deals to Chone Figgins and Franklin Gutierrez expire. That’s the hidden game the team has played during this “rebuilding the right way” phase.
Two years ago, prior to the 2011 season, when somebody asked me what minimum payroll the Mariners needed to contend, I believe I wrote it as $120 million. That was taking into account the fact Ichiro, Wilson, Aardsma, Bradley and League were still on the team.
If you ask me the same question today, I’d tell you this team could probably contend with the same $95 million payroll it opened the 2011 season at. Because this team ended 2012 with a roster worth $60 million. Throw on another $35 million in free agents or from taking on veteran contracts via trade, that’s probably a real good team.
What did it take to reduce the cost of contending from $120 million or $130 million, down to $95 million?
Heck, only two more seasons of last place baseball. Only two more years of the worst offense the game has seen. Of treading water while big contracts came off the books. Instead of spending beyond them like other contenders did. On top of the 101-loss season prior.
Some of you may be willing to play that waiting game. I’ve said all along, this team could wait two more years and put a darned good product on the field for about $80 million. All it will have taken to get there is half a decade.
Those of you in your 20’s might not mind waiting that long. Those in your 50’s might. Those of you paying for season tickets might really object to being forced to watch last place baseball when you really didn’t have to.
The Mariners are not the Rays, or the A’s when it comes to the help they received from taxpayers for a new ballpark. When it comes to the overall, money-making health of their product — regardless of plummeting attendance — and the massive local TV money looming right around the corner. Not the small-change national TV money everybody shares, but the jackpot regional sports network stuff.
The Mariners can’t emulate the A’s. They don’t have to and should not even be trying. Want to emulate the A’s? Good, have Jack Zduriencik trade away Felix Hernandez, Jason Vargas, the Big Three minor league arms and hope all the returns come back spot-on aces. Then, sign the biggest-ticket international free agent out there (without help from VP Bob Engle, who resigned today) and they, too, can be just like the A’s.
Or, the Mariners can realize they are not the A’s, probably won’t hit the jackpot like Billy Beane did last winter, and make it work within the confines of their abilities. And those abilities, unlike the A’s, involve spending a lot more money than they’ve been doing.
The pricetag for this team isn’t $200 million like the Yankees. But it also isn’t $53 million like the A’s. And it sure isn’t the $60 million pricetag the M’s end-of-season roster was worth.
I know the free agent market is thinner this winter. Which is why I advocated going after Prince Fielder last winter as a first step to putting a contender in place within 12 months time. The idea was to sign Fielder, shoot for a .500 season (which would have meant contending into September this year) and spend the next 12 months acquiring the supporting cast needed.
For those who don’t want to look, the money quote: “With Fielder on-board long-term, the Mariners could spend the next 12 months rounding out the roster around him. Let’s fact it: they aren’t contending in 2012 no matter what. But they’d have one more year to weed out the contenders from the pretenders among their younger crop of talent, then could spend next winter completing more trades and signings to give this team the look of a contender.”
This whole “we weren’t one player away from contending” line I keep hearing is one red-painted herring that has no bearing on the discussion. Worse, it’s an argument that distracts from serious discussion of the options the Mariners have. No team is one player away. The Nationals weren’t when they signed Jayson Werth. But if you have a plan that involves realistically contending within a year or two, there is nothing wrong with seeking out what you think are premium, long-term pieces a bit ahead of time. It’s called planning.
That way, for the Mariners, you enter 2013 with your first baseman and lineup anchor solidified (instead of waiting to see if Justin Smoak can rebound yet again) and merely have to concentrate on acquiring the secondary pieces. Or, if Fielder doesnt want to come last winter, you go out and spend instead on multiple other pieces in the hopes of making your team more competitive than it became in 2012. Gives you less to worry about when you truly do have to add — like right now — only to discover there’s less out there.
That’s what was written by me last winter. Those who now complain the free agent cupboard is bare? What can I say? Told you so? Yeah, that always works.
First off, the cupboard isn’t totally bare. There are guys out there who can help the Mariners.
Second of all, it’s not my problem. The Mariners made this bed and their fans now have to lie in it. We’ve played this waiting game for several years now and the longer the M’s wait, the more money will come off the books and the easier it will be for them to spend big at some distant future point.
All it’s costing fans is a logjam of last-pace seasons. If you’re willing to wait it out, there’s a good chance you’ll be rewarded come 2014 or, more likely, 2015.
That’s how small market teams have operated for years. The Mariners have merely borrowed pages from their playbook.
But make no mistake. The time to spend didn’t just happen. It’s been there all along. The Mariners are not a small market team. They’re just behaving like one. When they stop doing it, that’s when you’ll see a team that contends.