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Peeking Ahead: Projecting the Mariners’ Payroll in 2019

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If we start a GoFundMe, we might be able to afford (checks notes) five and a half innings of Andrew Romine!

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Houston Astros
Bring him baaaaaaack! (And sign AJ Pollock too!)
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

People don’t like talking about money. Parents, coworkers, friends, it doesn’t matter much: You’re just kinda not supposed to talk openly about this stuff.

In Major League Baseball, of course, the opposite is true. Fans scrutinize and obsess over every last financial detail, endlessly debating whether a given signing is a masterstroke or a catastrophe in the making. We don’t always get these right (see: Figgins, Chone or Cruz, Nelson), but since when does that stop us?

Heading into the 2018–19 offseason, the Mariners stand in a somewhat precarious position. This year’s squad finished eight games back of a playoff spot and 14 back in the AL West, and many would argue that it did so on the back of unsustainable production in close games. Yet with over $120 million already committed to players, plus a healthy dollop more among players who are arbitration-eligible, there isn’t a ton of room to play with in the months to come. Let’s look at the team’s salary commitments. All figures courtesy of this handy-dandy spreadsheet from Cot’s Baseball Contracts, and all projected arbitration figures come from MLB Trade Rumors.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Texas Rangers
O King, my king?
Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Under Contract (8 players, $122 million):

  • Félix Hernández: $27,857,143 (free agency: after 2019)
  • Robinson Canó: $24,000,000 (2023)
  • Kyle Seager: $19,500,000 (2021, with club option for 2022)
  • Jean Segura: $14,850,000 (2022, with club option for 2023)
  • Dee Gordon: $13,300,000 (2020, with club option for 2021)
  • Mike Leake: $11,000,000* (2020, with mutual option for 2021)
  • Juan Nicasio: $9,250,000 (2019)
  • Wade LeBlanc: $2,300,000 (2019, with club options for 2020-2022)

* — Mike Leake is making $16,000,000 in 2019, but the Mariners received $5 million in cash from the Cardinals as part of the trade acquiring him.

It’s a generally accepted premise around baseball that long, big-money deals are advantageous to the team in the first few years of the contract and to the player in the last few years. Nowhere is that more evident than in the final year of King Félix’s deal, which is a painful albatross to carry around given his unclear role on the 2019 Mariners. And should Kyle Seager fail to rebound from a garish 2018 campaign, his contract will look equally frightening.

On the flip side, if Jean Segura can keep up his 2018 performance, his deal figures to be a bright spot for the M’s, and even at age 35, Robbie Canó keeps chugging along. Who’s to say 2019 is the year things will fall off?

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Seattle Mariners
Mike Zunino Is Good (And About To Make Millions Of Dollars)
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Arbitration-Eligible (9 players, ~$26.5 million):

  • James Paxton: $9,000,000 (2020)
  • Álex Colomé: $7,300,000 (2020)
  • Erasmo Ramirez: $4,400,000 (2019)
  • Mike Zunino: $4,200,000 (2020)
  • Nick Vincent: $3,500,000 (2019)
  • Justin Grimm: $1,600,000 (2019)
  • Chris Herrmann: $1,500,000 (2019)
  • Ryan Cook: $1,000,000 (2020)
  • Roenis Elías: $1,000,000 (2021)

Based on these projected arb salaries, the LL braintrust (read: the triumvirate of myself, John Trupin, and Zach Gottschalk, aka anybody within ten feet of me) decided not to offer arbitration to Erasmo Ramirez, Justin Grimm, and Ryan Cook, for their inabilities to stay healthy, their not being very good, or both. With that in mind, these salaries should give the M’s an extra $26.5 million in commitments.

A couple things to note. Firstly, the Mariners’ mid-May trade for Álex Colomé and Denard Span, though inarguably a shrewd one, came only because of Robinson Canó’s suspension, which freed up roughly $12 million in salary in 2018. With Robbie set to, y’know, not be suspended next year, the Mariners are left with extra money from Colomé, whose arb figure is so high because of the nature of arbitration. These hearings tend to reward traditional stats like homers, batting average, and saves, and since the former Rays closer led MLB with 47 saves in 2017, he was rewarded handsomely for 2018.

Secondly, the M’s have an interesting track record with arbitration. The only Mariner to actually go to an arbitration hearing since 2003 was Tom Wilhelmsen back in 2014–15. As a part-time closer, Wilhelmsen wanted to be paid as such, while the Mariners wanted him to get a salary commensurate with that of a good reliever. Arb hearings are necessarily a nasty thing, with a team having to diminish (at best) the talent & production of one of its own players, and it’s for that reason that the M’s have systematically avoided these hearings for years. Expect them to do the same this year, though given Colomé’s past as a closer, there’s always a chance he could make the same argument as Wilhelmsen.

MLB: Los Angeles Dodgers at Seattle Mariners
Fun fact: Denard Span has the cutest baby I’ve ever seen.
Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

Decision Pending (1 player, $4 million):

  • Denard Span: $12 million club option with a $4 million buyout

Span was a revelation for the M’s in 2018. Included in the Colomé swap to provide the M’s with an extra bat and to give the Rays some salary relief, Captain Greybeard was a solidly above-average hitter over 328 plate appearances in his age-34 season. That said, the free agent market for 35-year-old corner outfielders isn’t exactly robust. And as my grandma drilled into me from a young age, whenever you get a chance to save $8 million, you do it.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Arizona Diamondbacks
Bad jersey, incredible pitcher.
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Club Control (17 players):

  • Heredia, Guillermo
  • Díaz, Edwin
  • Haniger, Mitch
  • Healy, Ryon
  • Gamel, Ben
  • Tuivailala, Sam
  • Pazos, James
  • Gonzales, Marco
  • Altavilla, Dan
  • Vogelbach, Dan
  • Armstrong, Shawn
  • Bradford, Chasen
  • Festa, Matt
  • Freitas, David
  • Negron, Kris
  • Povse, Max
  • Rumbelow, Nick

Each of these players will make the league minimum barring a long-term extension. Edwin Díaz missed the Super Two deadline, and thus millions of dollars in 2019 and some extra in the years to come as well, by just 13 days. Many of these players will likely find their way to a new organization in 2019, courtesy of a Jerry Dipoto midnight trade, but in order to manage the top-heavy balance sheet, the Mariners will need to rely on several minimum-salaried players next season.

Free Agents (7 players):

  • Nelson Cruz
  • Gordon Beckham
  • Zach Duke
  • Cameron Maybin
  • David Phelps
  • Adam Warren
  • Andrew Romine

Of this group, it seems far-fetched to imagine anyone coming back save two: David Phelps and Nelson Cruz. Nellie deserves to be written up in many other spaces, and he certainly will be. Phelps, on the other hand, has spent a great deal of time with the M’s rehabbing, missing all of 2018 with Tommy John surgery. Bringing him back could go a long way toward solidifying the ‘pen. Unrelated to anything, but if Jerry Dipoto brings Andrew Romine back, I’ll gladly organize a massive protest at Formerly-Known-As-Safeco Field.

Final Commitments (~$160 million Opening Day payroll):

So all this is to say, the M’s have something like $160 million currently committed to their Opening Day payroll. Given that they wound up spending approximately $171 million in 2018, that would seem to mean that any big free agent signings (including retaining Nellie) would require a payroll increase. Actually contending would likely require a further bump, unless Dipoto & Co. can be a bit creative. (Perhaps trading Dee Gordon is on the docket?)

Lots of choices remain for the Mariners’ front office this offseason. From center field to first base and the back end of the rotation, not to mention the large question marks looming over Kyle Seager and Félix Hernández, there is uncertainty galore. Things are certainly well prepared for an interesting few months ahead of us.