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November 6, 2012 at 4:50 PM

The difference between “smart” spending and avoiding risk as Mariners enter free-agency period

We’ll be hearing quite a bit in the weeks ahead about what the Mariners should and shouldn’t do in the free agent and trade market. But one thing to be on the lookout for are the annual buzzwords and catchphrases that have come to dominate Mariners off-seasons past like the worst Christmas ghosts you could conjure up.
One of my favorite is “smart” spending.
What exactly is that? Some will suggest it was “smart” that the Mariners spent only $1.5 million on Hisashi Iwakuma. Really? OK, then, was it “dumb” that they threw away more than $2 million on George Sherrill, Shawn Camp and Hong Chih-Kuo?
Of course not.
Spending on Iwakuma wasn’t smart. And throwing money away on those other three pitchers wasn’t dumb. What it was, in every case, was a low-risk proposition.
Nothing more and nothing less.
Very little ventured, very little lost when it didn’t work out. And a little gained when it did. Half a season’s worth of good starting pitching in Iwakuma’s case.
Now, when he’s expected to pitch for a full-season and be good, Iwakuma costs a bit more. If he bombs this year, will it be dumb spending?
The reason I get into this is, very often I see people mistaking low-risk spending for smart spending. And there is an important distinction to make between the two. Just because a team has a low-risk proposition work out, it doesn’t mean they were smart with their money.
Had the Mariners gone on to win the World Series a la San Francisco Giants, I suppose we could argue that the Mariners were “smart” because they saved big money on Iwakuma and were able to otherwise use it to build an offense that could hit its way out of the proverbial paper bag.
But alas, no. That didn’t happen. The Mariners still finished last and still had the worst offense in the American League.
So, were they smart? Or did they just save money in some spots? I’ll go with the latter.
And like it or not, for this team to get to the next level, it will likely involve upping the risk factor out of the safe little comfort zone many of those who argue for “smart” spending are reluctant to venture beyond.

Now, of course, nobody wants to waste $48 million on the next Carlos Silva. Just like nobody wants to use up $36 million on another Chone Figgins to ride the bench for half his contract.
But unless you are privy to a crystal ball, that’s a risk that will have to be taken.
No team goes into a free agent deal deliberately trying to throw money away. And not every free agent deal blows up in a team’s face.
There are ways for the Mariners to contend at some point if you don’t want them to take any serious risks this winter. I wrote a year ago that this team could theoretically contend by 2014 or 2015 if they simply want to wait for all of their prospects to develop.
After all, Dustin Ackey and Justin Smoak could both rebound. Franklin Gutierrez could come back healthy. Nick Franklin could come up and be a stud. Two of the “Big Three” could live up to the hype.
Or not.
Baseball really is all about playing the percentages. About upping the odds in your favor so that you aren’t relying on a whole bunch of uncertainty to go your way. Unfortunately, that usually involves spending money and spending it over several years. More than that, it involves taking a bit of a risk. More of a risk than you see with those cozy little one-year deals in the six-or-low-seven-figure range.
There’s a reason Josh Hamilton will cost more than Melky Cabrera even though both bring their baggage to the table. Hamilton has done what he has at the level he has for far longer than Cabrera.
So, while the “risk” on Cabrera might be lower, given the dollar amount he’s expected to sign for and the fact he will probably be inked for fewer years, it does not make signing him a “smart” move on its own.
Let’s play this game. Pretend you’re a GM and will be fired if your team doesn’t make the playoffs this coming season. You can add one more player to youir roster out of those two names. Who is it going to be? Hamilton or Cabrera?
If your answer is Hamilton, then why would it be a “smart” move for any GM whose job is not in imminent danger to sign Cabrera in lieu of Hamilton? It wouldn’t be. Hamilton is the better player. Period.
What it would be is a less risky move financially to sign Cabrera because, if he flops, he’s only a one-year problem.
But it isn’t your money. And it isn’t my money. It’s the team’s money. The same team that continues to charge fans full price (higher even) for tickets each and every year. I won’t begrudge them that right. But I also won’t automatically declare them “smart” simply because they take less-risky moves.
The Mariners haven’t inked a significant free-agent deal (something approaching eight figures per year) since Figgins. To take that next step, GM Jack Zduriencik will likely have to up his risk factor. At some point, if you look back at the last several champions in baseball, all of their GMs have taken some degree of significant risk.
Even GM Billy Beane of the widely-hailed, lower-budget A’s, took a pretty big risk last winter by signing international free agent Yoenis Cespedes. Beane had plenty of quizzical looks thrown his way after that one and would be getting widely ripped at the moment had that deal flopped.
But guess what? It didn’t. It worked out.
At some point, Zduriencik and those who believe in what he’s doing will have to set their comfort zones aside and up the risk factor a bit. It may work out and it may not. But playing it safe is something the team has done for several off-seasons now and the results have remained largely the same in the standings.
If no added risk is taken this winter, the Mariners could indeed pull off a minor miracle and still make the playoffs like the A’s and Orioles did. Those teams made it happen, so I’m not here to tell you it’s impossible.
It’s just not very likely.
Even if one lower-budget team from each league makes the playoffs each year, that still leaves another seven or eight that don’t.
Not the greatest odds. And to improve those odds, unfortunately, involves upping the risk factor.
It may not turn out to be very “smart” in the end. But it won’t automatically be “dumb” either. It will just be taking more of a risk to try to improve the results over several last place seasons in a row.
At some point, we’ll have to know whether Zduriencik can make those risks pay off. The sooner he takes some, the quicker we’ll know. And the future will become a whole lot clearer.

Comments | Topics: Chone Figgins, Hisashi Iwakuma


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