We're talking about the playoffs.
It's funny to pause and think about that given how recent off-seasons have gone. Where in past years we'd be looking to gradually improve and "take a step forward," this winter the goal is clear given the organization's actions: build a team capable of contention.
But though actions—specifically, the Cano signing—have said one thing, the Mariners have been a little bit more careful with their words. When I asked him directly about it at the Mariners' media luncheon, Jack Zduriencik was quick to note that, while every team would like to win the World Series, his realistic goals were to see growth and to have players maximize their talent.
Though Zduriencik was hesitant to put such lofty expectations out there with his name attached, the true goals for this team have leaked out through other means.
In speaking on 710 ESPN's Hot Stove League earlier this offseason, Mariners pitching coach Rick Waits said "I don’t have any desire to in September say ‘We were better, we won 81 and we’re getting better.’ We’ve got to win 90 or more games to get in the playoffs and that’s the only goal we should have."
New Mariners third base coach John Stearns, a fiery personality, said the same right off the bat in his appearance on the show as he spoke on readying for Spring Training: "I'm excited about our team, I'm excited about the future and I'm really looking forward to going to Spring Training next week. I can't wait to get down there, I'm ready to go, I'm in shape, and I want to get with these guys and see if we can coach them up into a playoff spot."
When these individuals were brought on-board by manager Lloyd McClendon, it seems the immediate goals for this regime were made clear. This isn't about getting oriented and building for the future anymore. It's about winning now.
But, with this staff—their job realistically starts on Wednesday, as Mariners pitchers and catchers report to camp in Peoria. But for others, their ability to impact the 2014 club is in its twilight hours.
For the Mariners' ownership and front office, we've reached the fourth quarter of a crucial offseason, and while significant progress has been made towards taking a 91-loss team and turning it into a contender, success is far from guaranteed. It's crunch time, and there are key things each sides need to do and remember as they round out this club.
Let's start with ownership. There's been much talk over the course of the offseason about just how "in" the Mariners are. They went all-out and signed Robinson Cano, living up to Buster Olney's description of the team as "a sleeping giant." Then, just a short time later, Ken Rosenthal reported that the Mariners were out of money following the Cano deal. Then, just this past week, we've completed the circle as Jim Bowden reports the Mariners are back to being "all in."
Well, it seems to be national media took the scenic route to something we've known all along.
Here's Ryan Divish, from November 27th:
Lincoln said the payroll budget for the upcoming season will be higher than what the team budgeted last season. The team budgeted close to $95 million for payroll last season, but only used about $84 million.
"It’s certainly going to be above what we budgeted last year," Lincoln said.
With the Fernando Rodney deal, and player incentives (especially Hart's) counted closer to their maximums, 2014's payroll sits right around that $95 million based on the calculation's I've seen.
So maybe it is true that Jack Zduriencik, Kevin Mather and the rest of the front office do have to lobby to have ownership spend more money—but it's something they've always planned on doing, and now the only question is just how much they're willing to go beyond the $95 million they allocated for last year.
It's time for ownership to do a bit of self-reflection and decide why they became owners of a professional sports team in the first place. For the team's majority owner, things are certainly cloudy, but there are other powerful figures at play here. Do they want to have this continue to be only lucrative investment, or have they looked across the street and seen what an owner who wants nothing other than winning looks like?
We know there are members of the front office who clearly understand that it makes sense for the organization to spend more as they get closer to that projected 90-win threshold. Now it's time for ownership to realize that this team, which already has a fair amount of volatility and upside, is a few pieces removed from being in the thick of contention. They should spend like it.
But making the resources available is just one step in the process—the resources must be appropriately allocated. And right now, it doesn't sound as if they will be, what with the Nelson Cruz signing seeming more inevitable by the day. But, for now, let's just assume that's going through and get over it. It isn't a smart move, but for purposes of this writing, I'm not going to waste further words expounding upon why it's a bad idea.
Instead, we have to note the state the roster would be in after his acquisition. Plainly: he'd have to play the outfield if you're looking to still utilize this offseason's other acquisitions (Hart and Morrison) on anything resembling a semi-frequent basis. And if you're playing Cruz in one corner, Hart or Morrison in the other and Saunders, more of a corner guy, or Ackley, someone still getting acclimated to the position in the majors, in center on anything more than an emergency basis—you're setting yourself up for disaster.
And Zduriencik should know this. I see the questions come across Twitter all the time: "Hasn't Jack learned anything from Morse and Ibanez?" I usually respond by pointing out something he said shortly following the 2013 season about adding offense and sacrificing defense:
"This wasn't a secret. We knew we were sacrificing our outfield defense," he said. "We have been a really good defensive club over the last several years, and we have been a pitching-oriented club with struggles offensively. We have made some strides offensively, but our defense struggled, and I think these are areas that need to be improved. We will have to continue to look into this. I don't have the answers now, but these are areas we have to get better at."
He's aware; at least we've made that step. He knows the outfield defense is bad, and says it will be improved. But the way things are looking right now, and the way they likely soon will look, the Mariners haven't done enough to prevent this from hurting the team. Being better than last year, as the team almost certainly will be, is a step, sure, but you can be better than last year and still have it be a wreck.
If Zduriencik is going to go through with the signing of Cruz, he needs to find a way to make this roster work, and it almost certainly includes a trade of some level. I wrote way back around Christmas time that, if this team is going to genuinely contend in 2014, that we'd need to see a return of that once-famed "Trader Jack" persona—and that remains more true than ever.
Zduriencik has the chips to acquire talent, and to do so without giving up too much, but we're getting down to the end here. The option exists to add players during the season, but when looking at 2014 and the roster the Mariners currently have, they're not quite close enough that they can afford to start the season without further improvements.
But make no mistake, the Mariners are closer than they've been in recent memory. I've done my best to quash the belief that this just a 71-win team that added Cano and not much else, still far removed from contention—but to see it demonstrated plainly, look at the projected standings Fangraphs has put together. All the way down, from first to fourth, only a single game separates each slot in the AL West.
It remains unlikely the Mariners will put together a roster that projects to win 90 games—and it's worth noting that no one projects to win 90 games (due to the conservative nature of projections)—but they are close enough to contention that you can see it from here.
Spring Training starts in three days. Opening Day is seven weeks from tomorrow.
There is still time left to add to this club, but it's going to take ownership and this front office being at their best. The fourth quarter, in sports that have it, is described frequently as "winning time." That's exactly what this is. It isn't the time to be frugal, and it isn't the time to be foolish.
2014 has the potential to be the Mariners' best season in more than a decade—but both of the parties mentioned here must understand and seize the opportunity.