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On these Mariners rumors and two important free agent truths

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Stephen Dunn

Things are about to get ridiculous. Baseball’s GM Meetings start today, signaling the real beginning to free agency and the legitimate transactional-filled portion of the off-season. You shouldn’t expect many (any?) deals this week, though they are possible—but this is the part when talks around both trades and free agency begin to take on a new level of seriousness.

The latest rumor on that front, naturally, is one involving Hanley Ramirez:

And that's before we even get to this:

While Ramirez—the bad defensive shortstop with an incredible bat who has been known to take entire seasons off—is bound to make a lot of people feel a lot of different things, I want to use these rumors to lay out a couple key points on free agency in general. I think most of us are on the same page here, but there are some ground rules to these long few months that everyone should know now.

The Mariners will be tied to everyone available, even more than before

In a recent episode of the Effectively Wild Podcast from Ben Miller and Sam Lindbergh, the duo started taking a look at the baseball off-season by examining the New York Yankees’ targets and potential signings. The way they framed it was as a bit of a throwback to how things used to be, in that the Yankees used to shape the entire winter—you’d try to determine who the Yankees wanted, because they’d get them, and then you’d move on to other players. And, of course, if you were an agent, you’d do everything you could to tie the Yankees to your player because the perceived cost to acquire him would then increase significantly.

Now, things have changed a good deal, but you’ve likely recognized the primary point there: if you have money, it behooves agents to make sure the media knows and shares that your team—in this case, the Mariners—have expressed any level of interest in their client. Last year, agents did so on the back of the "The Mariners are desperate!" narrative, which worked fine enough, but it didn’t have the level of legitimacy it does now.

The biggest reason to expect the Mariners to be linked to everyone is the fact that they’ve straight come out and said they’re going to spend and spend big. While we often trust the national reporters to signal teams’ true intentions—to fans and other organizations—it’s likely more worthwhile to look at local ball writers like Bob Dutton, who’s closer to the scene and said just last night that if the Mariners don’t make a major addition or two, "it won’t be for lack of trying."

And, while we’re clear on the Mariners’ intentions, it also helps that they’ve demonstrated they’re more than capable of reeling in a big fish, one most outlets were certain would never leave his contending team—and certainly not for the lowly Mariners.

Getting back to the idea of agent posturing, I’m not saying that’s definitely what we have here with Ramirez, but with every piece of news that comes out this winter, take a long pause and consider who exactly would like that piece of news to be widely known. Try to consider who’d benefit the most. Certain parties have every reason in the world to turn a "Hey, how much you guys asking for?" phone call into something much larger than it actually is.

Now, the Mariners’ newfound lavish ways are going to add agony and annoyance to what’s already an excruciating off-season, but of course, you’d prefer they’d spend than not spend—and that leads us to our next big point...

Free agents nearly always sign to the team who pays them the most

Yes, that’s just how that works. For as much talk as there was last year about the Mariners making Robinson Cano feel like family—and I’m sure the M’s’ front office did a superb job in their recruiting pitch—this isn't college football and such pitches mean considerably less than commas and zeroes. If you want a free agent, you pay him the most. That's true for big-time players, like it was with Cano, and it's frequently true of the buy-low options, as it was last year with Corey Hart.

You're going to hear a lot of different narratives this off-season, things like Ramirez's willingness to play someplace besides shortstop, Victor Martinez supposedly once saying he likes Chicago and the ability of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Lloyd McClendon to pitch players on the appeal of playing in Seattle.

Those things aren't entirely meaningless, as the possibility does exist that the appeal of certain criteria can open dialogues that wouldn't open otherwise—but in the grand scheme of things, being good and trending in the right direction (as the Mariners are on both counts), is the only storyline that matches the appeal of the biggest possible payday.

So while in the past, the "it takes two to tango" line has come up frequently in the Mariners' failed pursuits of big-name players, it's important to remember that, on about all of them, they didn't offer the biggest deal. And if you're worried about Martinez staying in Detroit on a lesser loyalty-driven contract, take solace in the fact that if it were going to happen, it would've happened already. This is full-fledged free agency now, and as the Mariners scour the marketplace, just know that all they have to do to acquire any given player is pay him the most.

And if you're wondering if the Mariners are willing to do that, despite the rumors and last year's Cano deal, let's go back to something said last year by a member of the Mariners' front office, offering keen insight on what they think about when it comes to spending big:

In team sports, "the measure of success is winning," says Bart Waldman ’70, executive vice president for legal and governmental affairs and general counsel for the Seattle Mariners baseball team. "Winning brings fans, television audience, and everything else that makes our business model work. Bringing in a superstar who adds panache and some glitz but doesn’t change the win/loss picture doesn’t move the needle the way winning does. It really depends on whether your team is poised to take advantage of what that superstar brings. In baseball, the marginal value of each victory increases as you approach or surpass 90 wins—the number that typically puts you in the playoff picture. A superstar who adds five wins, taking you from 75 to 80 wins, doesn’t add much value by himself. But the same superstar who takes you from 90 to 95 wins probably puts you in postseason play, adding a ton of value."


If it wasn't clear enough already, the Mariners know where they are and the opportunity they've created for themselves. While it's easy to get caught up in the fervor as the team is linked to player after player—and we haven't even gotten to the part where they're unexpectedly linked to one of the big pitchers yet, spurring a "But they need offense!" column from Heyman or Morosi or Rosenthal—just know where those stories come from, and why it's the rationale behind them that's the biggest reason for optimism.