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With pitching the only place left to spend, should the Mariners splurge on a starter?

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John Rieger-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how much the Mariners spend, there's a perception that they should spend more. "Not my money!", the common refrain goes, frequently followed with comments on how baseball does not—unlike basketball and football—have a salary cap. By that token, the demands go, the Mariners must spend more to win.

The Seattle Times' Geoff Baker, always keeping an eye on the matter, wrote last week in his role as the sports business reporter at the Times on whether or not the Mariners—despite their additions of Nelson Cruz and Seth Smith—had done enough to bolster their roster heading into 2015 when weighed against spending throughout the rest of baseball.

A quick excerpt:

Five of the top-10 spenders made the playoffs last season, as did seven of the top-15. The San Francisco Giants won the World Series with a No. 6 payroll of $165.1 million.

Only three of the bottom 15 made the playoffs and just one — the Kansas City Royals — survived the opening round. It’s trendy to admire the $97.7 million Royals, who had the 19th-highest payroll and lost the World Series to the Giants.

But they remain the exception.

I know some of you are reading this and mentally moaning "oh no, not this again," but Baker raises a key point: context is everything when it comes to evaluating spending in sports—especially baseball. Throughout his piece, he uses average team payroll, but I think that's thrown off a bit by the top two or three spenders. Still, he has a big point—the Mariners, contextually, haven't been spending nearly as much as they used to.

Going off Opening Day payroll rankings from the Associated Press, here's where the Mariners have ranked contextually over the past 15 seasons:

Payroll Ranking

Yes, over the span of nine seasons, the Mariners had a top ten payroll eight times. The other year, 2006, they were still in the top half at thirteenth. In the four seasons following 2010, the last time they opened the year as a top ten spender, they've yet to appear in the upper half of the league.

Now, that's expected to change. As Baker alludes to in his article, there's the cable deal, the one Howard Lincoln told Ryan Divish would "over the lifetime, from now till 2030...be comparable to the cash flow and the rights fees that the Angels and Rangers get."

Though the Rangers and Angels opened up last season $44 million and $63 million out in front of the Mariners, that gap is slowly closing with the team expected to open 2015 with a payroll around $120 million.

As Peter explained in his piece last week, that's expected to be right around the median payroll for 2015—which is an important step for the Mariners because, as he mentioned, 45 of the 70 playoff teams since 2007 spent above the median.

Winning teams usually spend a bit more, and the Mariners, comparatively, haven't been spending as much as their peers as they did in years past. That's all part of the context.

But there's an even bigger piece to the context: the players left for teams to spend money on. In recent years, that hasn't been so good, with what's left of the free agent marketplace serves as an interesting—though slightly hyperbolic—anecdote for where things have been in recent years.

The Mariners roster, for 2015, is about set. As I wrote most recently, that's probably fine—fine, in large part, because they look like a good team as they stand. But if there's one place where money could be still spent, and spent in a way that it'd make a big immediate impact while adding some surety to the roster, it's starting pitching.

Sure, the Mariners look good now if they can stay healthy, but adding one of the notable starters left on the market would be one of the "put them over the top" moves contending teams are often looking for. Those notable starters are, of course, Max Scherzer and James Shields.

Scherzer,30, is widely expected to receive a contract in excess of $200 million and Shields, 33, is believed to already have an offer north of $100 million.

What's interesting is that, as Tyler Carmont noted at Prospect Insider yesterday, the Mariners do have a chunk of money coming off the books—and the pitching staff—following the 2015 season as Fernando Rodney, Hisashi Iwakuma and J.A. Happ (if unsigned) will represent something in the range of $20 million slipping off the Mariners' payroll.

The question, to me, isn't really whether or not the Mariners can make it happen. If they really wanted to, if one of these players represented a move the organization and its ownership fully backed, they could move things around in such a way that it all fit. The question, really, is whether or not it's a good idea at all.

Prior to the off-season, the Washington Post ran an excellent piece taking a look at the history of pitchers receiving contracts exceeding $100 million.  In it, they note that prior to this off-season, Kevin Brown, Cliff Lee and Justin Verlander are the only pitchers past the age of 30 to receive a nine-figure deal.

How did those work out? Brown, baseball’s first $100-million player, was outstanding his first two seasons with the Dodgers (31-15, 2.80 ERA, 1.030 WHIP), injured his third and fourth, solid again in his fifth – and traded to the Yankees for the final two years of the deal. The Dodgers never appeared in the postseason with Brown on the team.

Lee, 32 when he signed, was brilliant for the first three seasons, 2011-13, posting the National League’s fourth-best ERA (2.80) and second-best WHIP (1.05) while throwing the second-most innings (666-1/3) over that period. But he was limited to 13 starts in 2014 because of an elbow injury, and he won’t throw until sometime this month. What do the Phillies have going forward?

Verlander is one of the most interesting cases. In the four years leading up to his deal, only Felix Hernandez had a better ERA among American League starters (2.81 to 2.95), and only Hernandez threw more innings – by 1/3 of an inning. Verlander struck out the most men and had the best WHIP.

In the two years since: Only six qualifying AL pitchers have a worse ERA than Verlander, who has been paid $40 million for those seasons. Next up: the five remaining years at $28 million per.

"He’s a warrior," one scout said. "But all those innings add up."

That they do.

Now, it must be noted that the Kevin Brown deal wasn't so bad and Cliff Lee was unbelievable at the start of his before leaving the Phillies with a question mark to go along with the guaranteed $37.5 million remaining on the contract. Then, as it stands now, the Justin Verlander deal is an unmitigated disaster.

And it isn't only the over-30 crowd. WaPo's piece has a great infographic examining all the pitchers who have signed $100 million deals. Names like Matt Cain, C.C. Sabathia, Barry Zito, Johan Santana and even Masahiro Tanaka should give fans momentary pause at the idea of handing out a big contract to a pitcher.

Then, of course, there's Felix Hernandez.

Felix is a marvel. Not only has he never spent any significant time on the DL, his velocity—absurdly—increased between 2013 and 2014. I don't know what's going on, but the point's still there, the Mariners have already invested heavily in one starting pitcher and to do so again would be akin to playing Russian Roulette with a six-shooter that has four loaded chambers.

Maybe they get lucky, maybe they survive—but even in the best-case scenario, signing an over-30 pitcher to a big deal is going to bring on some serious dead money, and for a team that's bound to have some in the future, that'd slam their window shut pretty quick.

Yes, it'd maximize it now, and the backlash to this logic is understandable—this would be fun, and sports are supposed to be fun. But it'd run in stark contrast to a philosophy the organization has held fast to.

And as I've mentioned above, this situation serves as the perfect anecdote and context on the Mariners and spending. Would a $160 million payroll be nice? Absolutely. But it isn't as if the Mariners, or any team, have had great free agent classes upon which to spend.

Which players did the Mariners miss on that you wish they hadn't? Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder? Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn? Shin-Soo Choo, Carlos Beltran and Ubaldo Jimenez?

There were some ideal fits out there, too. Jacoby Ellsbury still looks good, and Yasmani Tomas would've been interesting at the price. But when you look at the free agent classes over the past few years, there have a lot more misses than hits.

In recent seasons, the Mariners have been conservative—almost to a fault. They've caught some flak for it, and still do, but it's served them well.

The idea of them signing Max Scherzer or James Shields wasn't a realistic possibility to start with, and it makes sense why that's the case.