This off-season is going to last forever. There's going to be more looking ahead to potential signees, more counting up the projected fWAR total as they come in and, all along the way, using the words "cable deal" over and over—because baseball's the only arena where those words even come close to touching.
It's probably the last item here that's most relevant to this story, or it could be that the Mariners led all of baseball in attendance growth this year. Either way the team plans to add to its payroll heading into 2015, and they're not shy about it.
In the postmortem press conference we wrote about earlier this week, with regards to Michael Saunders' status, Jack Zduriencik was blunt and up-front about the team's ambitions heading into the off-season.
"The payroll’s gonna rise," said Zduriencik, who had yet to sit down with his higher-ups to discuss specifics, but had gotten the sense they'd have some flexibility. "I am encouraged our payroll is going to increase," he reiterated.
After Zduriencik took the microphone on Tuesday, bolstering fans' hopes for the off-season, one of those higher-ups added fuel to the fire yesterday—that was Mariners President Kevin Mather, speaking on Brock and Salk, as he affirmed that payroll would indeed go up after he blew past the team's budget in 2014.
"Clearly, clearly our fanbase this year helped me with my resource problem," Mather said. "We're in the middle of it, we're working through it, we're grinding out a process, but clearly our payroll has to go up. We have holes that need to be filled and I'll leave the holes to Jack. I think it's pretty obvious what hole No. 1 and No. 2 are and we're going to get after that. So the answer to your question is yes."
From there, two questions remain: how much? And to whom?
To look ahead, it's worth looking back. In his appearance, Mather said the Mariners ended up spending $107 million in 2014. Bob Dutton at The News Tribune confirmed that total, as he appears to have gotten the exact figures from the club, with them spending $106.7 million this year, up a very respectable $17 million over 2013. If that $107 million figure sounds high, it's likely they're including other expenses in there—as their 2013 figure ($89.6 million) was also higher than most public rankings had them.
Either way, that growth from one year to the next is something to remember. Going from $89.6 million to $106.7 million would represent a 19 percent growth in payroll, and a significant bump during a year in which we were not expected to see much of an impact from the new cable deal nor, despite the Robinson Cano signing, have the team compete for a championship.
The former there remains very much an unknown, but the latter is clear—with 87 wins and a sustainable core, the goal now is position the team to win the division and take a run at the World Series. It sounds delusional to say, but that's where they are, we might as well get it out of the way and put it out there. They're playing for keeps now, and with that, you'd expect ownership to add resource accordingly. I don't think it'd be fair to expect another 19 percent increase—as that'd bring payroll all the way to $127 million—but another $15+ million bump isn't out of the question either.
Then, it's on to how it might be spent. Going back to Mather, he may have hinted at this when speaking on how he, like everyone else in the organization, wants to build sustained winning. He has an idea on the type of additions it takes (emphasis added):
"We need to be 85 to 95 wins every year, which means we need to draft well, we have to get our draft picks signed, we have to be strategic with our free agent signings, but we need to be competitive year-in, year-out. And you don’t do that by signing broken-down, middle-of-the-road free agents and hoping."
Now, this is the time of year for reading too much into things. Sometimes it's dumb, but sometimes there's a significant amount of foreshadowing. Either way, it's worth listening closely to those who know far more about the inner-workings than we do.
With that in mind, I'd highly recommend perusing Shannon Drayer's chat on 710 ESPN yesterday. I don't normally check in on these type of chats, but there's quite a bit of insight in there. Among that, Drayer said of the payroll that she "get[s] the feeling it will be enough to make at least one major addition."
Who's that major addition going to be? Should Mariners fans have hope that the team can, for the second year in a row, sign the best hitter on the market—as Larry Stone believes they should, with Tigers DH Victor Martinez? Well, if you were to ask Drayer—yes, they should.
"He is very high on their list," said Drayer. "I think they will make a good run at Martinez."
There are arguments to be made both for and against the signing of Victor Martinez—with that ungodly 211 wRC+/1.123 OPS against lefties this season looming large—but this is why some chose to be so excited about what the team accomplished in 2014.
It isn't only about Martinez, nor coming so close to a playoff berth—but instead about what's next. It's the reason the people nagging about fans being excited about progress somehow producing a "culture of mediocrity" was so idiotically misguided. As I wrote earlier this week, a first step is only important insomuch as it is followed by a second one. You do need to take that first step, but it isn't as if this team hasn't made major efforts to take a second one before.
Fans are quick to look back to the 2007 and 2009 teams, noting that progress frequently preceded a major backslide. And that's true, due largely to the fact that those teams didn't truly have the core to contend—evidenced by neither scoring more runs than it gave up—but that didn't stop this organization from trying to take that next step.
Before the 2008 season, the Mariners went all-in, sacrificing an enormous chunk of the future in adding Erik Bedard. In 2010, it was all run prevention everything as the team added Cliff Lee and Chone Figgins, telling fans to "Believe Big" that it could all work. It, of course, didn't.
So here we are again—progress made, and fans shouting "playoffs or bust!" with little mind towards what "bust"ing looks like.
But this is why we do it. Winters like this are why sports are sports. For all of September, each game, it was impossible not to give pause and think "I can't believe we're playing meaningful baseball right now." Well, that same attitude comes to this off-season. I can't believe we're building to try to win a World Series, but here we are.
No matter how much money is spent between now and April—and I get the sense it's going to be a decent amount—it still all comes down to the moves. If they want to go forwards and not back, they have to make the right ones—even if they are better positioned now to deal with missteps than they have been in a long time.
Still, the moves are out there, moves that would position them to enter 2015 as one of the best clubs in baseball. It won't be easy, and it probably won't be obvious, but they're there—and the organization has shown they're going to try to take them.
As Mariners fans, we have hope. It isn't the kind of hope we'd like to have here in the first week of October, but it's hope nonetheless—and, most importantly, it's more than warranted.