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October 31, 2013 at 8:48 AM

What can Mariners learn from Red Sox? Can’t win if you don’t play

The Boston Red Sox were "wise" spenders of their $160 million payroll now that they've won another World Series. But last winter, they were roundly panned for their $100 million free agent spurge. Photo Credit: AP

The Boston Red Sox were “wise” spenders of their $160 million payroll now that they’ve won another World Series. But last winter, they were roundly panned for their $100 million free agent spurge. Photo Credit: AP

There will be all types of attempts to categorize the Boston Red Sox team that just won the World Series in six games over the St. Louis Cardinals.

I’ve seen them hailed as an example of how to win while “spending wisely” — which is getting to be my least favorite expression in baseball. Sure, they spent their $160 million ‘”wisely” now that they’ve won something. But how many of the supposed expert analysts were using that expression last winter when the team signed Shane Victorino to a three-year, $39-million contract?

Yeah, not a lot of folks locally or nationally.

But now that they’ve won, in hindsight, sure, we can say they spent wisely. Just like the San Francisco Giants spent wisely a year ago, when they won it all. This year? With 86 losses? Not so much.

I find it tough to award any value-spending points to a team with a payroll twice as big as what the Mariners fielded this past season. Not that I blame the Red Sox, mind you. In baseball, you don’t get trophies for bang-for-your-buck efforts. In a sport with only the softest of spending limits, what counts is winning on the field. The final four teams in this year’s playoffs were all top-four in payroll in each of their respective leagues, giving them the depth needed to withstand the arduous playoff process and outlast the thriftier clubs.

So, sure, the Red Sox spent wisely. But they also spent big. Spent $100 million on free agents last winter and did it very well. They could have been content with sitting back smugly after offloading all of those big contracts to the Dodgers towards the end of a 93-loss season in 2012. But that would have just gotten them a few more years tacked on to a rebuilding plan. They don’t really go for those in Boston, namely because they don’t have to.

In Boston, getting bang-for-your-buck takes a back seat to winning. They knew you don’t win if you don’t play when the crucial off-season helps shape your team. So, they went out and played. And they won.

Let this be a lesson for the Mariners as we — sigh — once again embark on another off-season for a team coming off a 91-loss campaign.

There will be talk about how the Mariners weren’t just one or two players away from winning it all last season and yeah, that’s probably true. Then again, maybe it isn’t.

We’ll hear dire warnings about how free agents can hamstring a team for years to come, the same way the Red Sox were warned last winter about Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli.

We’ll hear talk about how, until the Mariners have their young core in place, it makes little sense to bring on big-money (and big production) names that might take jobs away from a deserving young Seattle player who could be on the verge of helping the team win something by 2016 or so.

And all of those arguments will have at least some merit.

But before we get all out of breath contemplating the “spending wisely” mantra, let’s at least understand what it really means.

How wise were the Oakland Athletics to spend only $60 million this past off-season when they again got bounced in the opening playoff round by a Detroit club outspending them more than 2-to-1? Especially when an A’s official quoted in a Bloomberg report last week boasted that the Oakland franchise could fetch $700 million on the open market?

That’s a lot of coin to be playing the small market card with. More than the $530 million or so Bloomberg estimated the Rays franchise to be worth.

Not saying the A’s should double their payroll tomorrow. But this idea that MLB owners are bleeding money out of their own pockets to sustain franchises is somewhat ludicrous. The A’s ownership has been begging for a new facility to be built with public funds in a more financially viable spot than their traditional Oakland venue. Not because they’ve been sacrificing personal wealth to keep the franchise alive as some type of charity. No, because they want the ability to spend other people’s money on top of the wealth they’ve already created for their very rich selves through gains in the value of their franchise.

The Oakland ownership has the very real ability to increase payroll any time they see fit. They’ll just never do it to the point where it personally costs them anything. Or — more importantly — impedes the ability of their franchise to keep gaining in value and deliver a huge windfall to them when they decide to cash out.

Those fretting last winter about the Red Sox and the wisdom of their $100 million in purchases missed the larger point altogether. The Red Sox, according to Bloomberg, have a franchise value somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion. They don’t have to play Moneyball for any reason other than to make their already wealthy owners even wealthier. In fact, spending all that money last winter probably didn’t impede Boston’s owners from getting richer on paper — where most of this country’s wealth resides — and would not have done so even had Boston finished dead last in the AL East this season.

How do I know?

The Bloomberg figures weren’t from this year. They were from 2012, the year the Red Sox did indeed finish last.

Even after a last-place finish of 93 losses, the Red Sox saw their franchise value keep exploding.

The Dodgers team that absorbed all those Red Sox players traded at the end of the 2012 season? They are worth even more at $2.1 billion, according to Bloomberg.

These arguments we hear every winter — even about spending $100 million on free agent acquistions — are mere drops in the ocean of the staggering amount of money these teams are worth.

The Mariners, we can pretty much agree, are worth at least twice as much as they were after a 2008 season in which they spent $117 million on payroll. And yet, this team just lost 91 games with a payroll of about $82 million — $9 million of which went to Chone Figgins, no longer here.

When we take inflation into account, that’s a pretty steep drop for a franchise likely worth $1 billion or more after a recent regional sports network acquisition.

The Mariners, just like the Red Sox, have every ability to “play” this winter without team owners having to worry about food stamps. Sure, they have to “spend wisely” and not just douse the money in lighter fluid. But again, as we just saw with the Red Sox, the notion of spending wisely is really the product of results-based analysis.

What history tells us is that standing pat and making incremental gains probably won’t take the Mariners where they need to be. As the Red Sox just showed us, it’s possible to jump from 90-plus losses to the promised land. But in order to win, you’ve gotta play.

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