When the Mariners signed Robinson Cano to a ten-year contract, there was an immediate and understandable lust for the Mariners to do more—to spend more. With Cano joining Felix Hernandez in Seattle, the Mariners had two elite players on longterm contracts, players whose skills are as good now as they'll ever be. It made, and makes, sense to capitalize.
Going beyond the obvious rationale for why the Mariners should acquire talent, there were reasons it made sense to do it through spending in free agency—so long as they did so in a responsible way—as opposed to a trade.
If the Mariners are getting good, established players back, whether via free agency or trade, those players likely would have salaries above and beyond what we normally see in Seattle. So the cost of acquiring those players is one of two things: money, or money+talent.
As Shannon Drayer pointed out yesterday, something it's almost easy to forget about now that we're in the thick of real competitive baseball and not endless roster-building, is that Jack Zduriencik has long sold ownership—and the fan base—on not just winning, but making consistent year-to-year winning a staple of the organization.
As such, the blockbuster trade some have yearned for doesn't really jive with what Zduriencik has promised and what the higher-ups want to see. There are scenarios where some version of a David Price trade makes sense, but if the asking price for the Rays' ace is more than an organization's top two prospects—as reported negotiations between Tampa Bay and Oakland make it seem to be—that's a framework the Mariners would be justifiable in walking away from.
So here we are, talking about Bartolo Colon and Marlon Byrd. And the funny thing about both of them, each such an obvious fit for this roster in their own unique ways, is that they were available this offseason.
For a long time I've worried—only half seriously—that Mariners would make a run at trying to trade for Kendrys Morales after backing off in attempts to sign him outright. A current wRC+ that stands 17 points below Dustin Ackley's should preclude that from happing, but trades for Byrd and Colon stand as similar examples. Before, they only would've cost money—now they'll cost money and at least some talent.
In each case, we're looking at reasonable, but not great contracts. The players are both old, and they're getting their money next year—$8 million for Byrd and $11 million for Colon. Byrd even has a reachable vesting option that'd turn a 2016 club option into a guaranteed $8 million check.
The bigger issue here is more important than specifics—which is to say it's hard to blame them for not signing Byrd because he was one of the first free agents locked in, and Colon had some understandable question marks—but that bigger issue is that these types of mid-level contracts tend to scare the Mariners.
Let's go back to Morales for a second. In a recent article asking the same question I am now, The News Tribune's Bob Dutton—as established and respected a ballwriter as you'll find in this game—reported that Mariners ownership nixed deals with Morales and Nelson Cruz, deals for "less than [they] subsequently received." I'm not going to question Dutton's reporting work, but if one were to do so, at the very least we have multiple people who felt the need to air out Mariners' ownership. What's the impetus there?
Either way, it must be pointed out that sometimes ownership is right, and hesitation is justified. There's Morales, of course, but this ownership group can look back on botched mid-level deals that include Carlos Silva, Chone Figgins, the Franklin Gutierrez extension and then even this year, Cory Hart's guaranteed $5 million. Hart may yet break out, but as the people who write the checks consider their options, they don't have much return on investment there.
As a result, it's hard not to wonder if there's going to be some level of hesitation towards paying for mid-tier talent. Just look at this roster as it's currently constructed. The Mariners will be quick to tell you they'll spend big, because they paid Cano and Felix, but they still rank—by rough counts—18th in baseball in payroll as they wait to reap the rewards of a cable deal that Howard Lincoln said would be in the neighborhood of those buoying salaries in Texas and Anaheim.
And that below average payroll stands where it does because the pay to this roster is quite unbalanced. Felix and Cano account for nearly half of it, Hisashi Iwakuma and Fernando Rodney get paid for being among the best at their positions, Corey is Hart there kind of in the middle—and then everyone else is at a couple million or less.
It isn't the worst way to build a roster, as it keeps you flexible and upwardly volatile, but a time comes when it makes sense to add to it with established players. They don't have to be superstars, but there are a couple positions where a league average or a little above would be an impactful upgrade.
But will the Mariners be willing to pay?
We look at a guy like Marlon Byrd and assume that, if we pick up the salary, the Phillies shouldn't expect too much in return. So even if it isn't the ideal "only money" cost of acquisition, it's close. They passed on these types of deals before, are we sure they won't do so again?
For a long time, and as recently as radio hits within the past few weeks, Jack Zduriencik has stated that this ownership group is willing to open up their wallets for "the right player." Ask yourself: though Byrd clearly makes sense for this roster, are we so sure he's the type of guy who will be deemed "the right player" by ownership?
And that's why this test, this precipice, is so interesting. I'll laud this ownership group at every turn for keeping Felix in town and pulling out all the stops for Robinson Cano, but the fact is they still haven't spent more than $100 million on a roster in six years—and if they pass on a mid-tier player for financial reasons now, during this season, you have to wonder if owning a baseball team is right for them.
Whichever way it goes, we're about to find out. Divish reported Sunday the Mariners have had serious talks with the Phillies about Byrd, and he's said to be willing to waive his no-trade clause. On the other end of the spectrum, where ownership is not burdened in guaranteeing money to a mid-level player next year too, Jerry Crasnick reports the Mariners have talked to the Royals about Billy Butler—he of the .355 SLG% and 87 wRC+. Then, of course, there's Dayan Viciedo on a low-level arbitration deal.
Whatever happens, this can't be about money. Outbound talent? Sure. Inbound talent? Absolutely. But not money, not now.
Where this goes from here, and the reasons behind the actions, are going to say a lot. We're about to find out just how much this ownership group believes in this team—and cares about doing everything they can to make this season one that will make Seattle fall in love with the Mariners again.