In 2008, the Mariners will be paying the following money:
...for the following PECOTA-projected Wins Above Replacement Player:
(Necessary caveats: neither PECOTA nor WARP are perfect by any means, but they'll have to do for now.)
Add it all up and you're paying nearly $46m - approximately half of the team's probable payroll - for 14.5 additional wins. Even if you shave about $2m off of that figure to arrive at "Salary Above Replacement Player" (assuming minimum wage somewhere in the neighborhood of $340k), you're still looking at $3m per win. That's bad. It's not crippling, particularly if Beltre defies PECOTA and bounces back to something close to his 2004 performance, but it'll inhibit the team's ability to go out and acquire significant improvements to the lineup or rotation to a greater degree than you'd prefer.
It's worth noting that, among those players, Beltre will be the only one on the right side of 30 in 2008. Ibanez will turn 36 in June, Washburn and Sexson will be 33, and Johjima will turn 32 (which is up there for a catcher). As such, Beltre's the only guy who we can realistically expect to improve over the life of his contract. The other guys will probably go on a downward slope, with the gap between their performance and their cost widening with each passing year. The lesson here: it's a bad idea to reward aging players for good seasons with expensive, multiyear deals. Rarely will they live up to the price, and while the individual contracts aren't that bad, they tend to add up, which compounds the problem.
The good news? Those same 2008 Mariners will feature several cheap, young contributors, probably including (at the very least) Jose Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt, Felix Hernandez, Jeremy Reed, Jeff Clement, and Marcos Carvajal (assorted other arms and bats could also slide into the picture, especially Adam Jones, who might bump Reed elsewhere). Their combined high productivity/low cost ratio should serve to balance out a lot of the money that gets burned on the aforementioned veterans, which makes things look considerably brighter. Never underestimate the power of a productive farm system, particularly when you have a suboptimal Major League front office. Young talent always makes things better.
The Mariners need to use their young players and give them as many opportunities to blossom in the big leagues as possible, because they're going to be incredibly vital to the team's success down the road. That's one of the reasons I wasn't real high on the idea of trading Reed, and why I don't really like the way they're treating Lopez - it suggests a degree of impatience with young players, something that a team like the Mariners can't afford to have. They need to give the kids a chance because the alternative is getting swallowed up by bad contracts to aging veterans, much like what we've seen in the past. And that's a tough hole to escape.
As long as the Mariners are playing their younger guys, they'll be able to survive things like the Washburn contract or the Ibanez extension. That still doesn't make these deals good ideas, but it makes them less of a problem than they'd be for someone else, the kind of thing you can work around because the cheap talent on the roster affords you a lot of flexibility. I'm thrilled that this organization finally seems to be moving in the right direction, bringing in a bunch of young talent, the likes of which we haven't seen in a long, long time - all that's left is for the front office to show a long-term commitment to actually using those guys without getting frustrated and/or regressing back to the Gillick Veteran-Happy Days of Yore.
They've done well to accomplish Step One. Let's just hope they don't blow Step Two.