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To win now and later, the Mariners should spend this winter

We take a look at the many ways in which the Mariners would be wise to open up their checkbooks.

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Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

The baseball team we root for should spend money to try and improve! It’s not a radical stance for fans of any club, and considering the rich history of Mariners owners putting their personal finances ahead of the team’s success, it’s a long-running futile roar that dissipates somewhere short of reaching the executive suite. But this winter, with Seattle set to put out their lowest Opening Day payroll since the year 2000, 2020’s adjusted prorated number excepted, Jerry Dipoto has tempered his expectations of contention somewhat in the past two weeks compared to last September’s slightly more enthusiastic goal-setting. The reasoning, at least per Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times on the most recent Extra Innings Podcast, is unexpected financial limitations added by Mariners ownership, wanting to see more from the current players in the system before investing further.

We here at LL are generously choosing to take the “we want to see what we’ve got first” reasoning at face value instead of as good old-fashioned moneygrubbin’. We also think it’s shortsighted and a great way to set the organization up for failure. You don’t get any extra credit for succeeding on “Insanity” difficulty in MLB, and some smart spending now could save a lot of head and heartache later. Here are a few of the main points, from a few members of our masthead.

The AL West is more open than it has been in a long time:

As much as I think “THE PLAN” is a good one and all the major components of the roster need one more year of seasoning (and god-willing there’s a full season of the minors to help advance the top prospects), right now is a great time to read the room and by room I mean the AL West. Unless the Angels do something to anchor their rotation or the Astros suddenly become world-beaters again, fueled by pure spite and vengeance, then the division could be right there for the taking if the Mariners were to suddenly do some splurging to make the current on-field product 4-5 wins better. This offer is null and void if the Athletics get up to their devil magic bullshit again and somehow win 90+ games. ~Eric Sanford

To build off Eric’s excellent outline, the thought that Seattle can afford to punt more seasons in hopes that their division will eventually get easier is not merely a pathetic lack of guts from the folks in the executive suite, it’s antithetical to the idea of sport itself, and places an absurd degree of confidence in things playing out as the club expects over the next several years. I have a high degree of confidence in Seattle’s player development, and immense enthusiasm for many of the players in the organization right now, but it’s just not possible to see Seattle’s current budget and roster and feel they are closer to contention than anyone but Texas in their division. Will Oakland just roll over next year when Khris Davis’ $16.7 million contract comes off the books? Does Anaheim have no intention of reallocating the $30 million Albert Pujols will finally not be due in 2022 towards a star shortstop or ace? Will Houston curl up in a ball after ~$90 million comes off their books after this season with a core of Bregman, Altuve, Tucker, and Alvarez still under contract for years to come? Maybe! But I wouldn’t bet on it, and I wouldn’t bet on the AL West lining up any easier than 2021 for Seattle for years to come. ~John Trupin

For lack of better phrasing, fan service:

The team is clinging desperately to the last vestiges of fanbase goodwill like the ligaments in Mitch Haniger’s oblique are clinging to...well...whatever the obliques cling to. Signing a reliever to a two-year deal will no longer snuff the frothing masses. They demand fresh blood, a new carcass to gleefully tear apart. Show the fans that the Mariners are worthy of your time, or at least make some semblance of effort to show the fans that the Mariners are worthy of your money/support. Buying a shiny new toy is an easy way to do this. ~Isabelle Minasian

To this point, acquiring talented players is never a bad thing on paper, no matter the timing of a rebuild, and good players help put butts in seats (or eyes on regional sports networks, given the ongoing state of the pandemic). ~ES

The Mariners are the 16th-most valuable team in baseball ($1.6B worth) yet ranked 25th in payroll:

Let’s be honest: We don’t know all the specifics of the Mariners’ books, nor will we. But we know that sports teams, pandemic or no pandemic, continue to sell for record-shattering amounts (hello, Mets); we know that in the last 12 months, conservatively, investments in the US stock market have earned anywhere from 15-20+% (a timeframe which includes the entire pandemic!); and we know that the Mariners payroll has plummeted since 2018 (and declined each year the current ownership group has controlled it, per Cot’s year-over-year CBT figures.) Put simply, while there are no doubt methods by which it looks like the club is losing money—and while the reality of how much money they made in 2020 is certainly up for debate, thanks to the aforementioned closed books—there is no reasonable universe in which the Mariners’ ownership group cannot afford to add at an absolute minimum moderately to the club’s 2021 payroll. This ownership group has never raised payroll. I believe initially there were good or at least defensible reasons for doing so initially. The longer the people controlling the purse strings refuse to loosen them, the more the rebuild looks like the right thing done for the wrong reasons. ~Tim Cantu

The Mariners are one of many teams treating this winter as though they are a normal business. Despite the pandemic, the Seattle Mariners have deep deep wealth throughout the ownership group and stakeholder base, not to mention an asset in the team itself valued at $1.4 billion when the current ownership group took majority control five years ago. Per John Stanton’s profile at Trilogy Equity, the investment branch of Trilogy International Partners:

John is Chairman of our sister company, Trilogy International Partners, and co-founder of Trilogy Search Partners. John also serves on the board of directors of Microsoft Corporation and Costco Wholesale.

While the 2020 MLB season progressed, Trilogy International Partners posted “record service revenues and Adjusted EBITDA” in their New Zealand work for $143 million in revenue in Q3, and projecting towards $600 million in revenue for 2020. Meanwhile Microsoft and Costco saw immense financial growth themselves. Whereas in past worldwide economic disruptions, like the 2008 recession, Mariners ownership was seemingly ill-situated as many to thrive, the combination of telecom, tech, and supermarket magnates at the top of the M’s board suggests little slowdown, and if anything significant growth in personal wealth. Of course, it’s their money, but if you are using your wealth to take control of your local sports team, it’s odd to have so little competitive spirit as to choose not to invest in the team enough to make it successful. It’s a frustrating decision, and one I have never been able to wrap my head around. In portraying themselves as less than an organization with a great deal of money still flowing in, the Mariners have become a “Choose To Lose” organization. Their more halcyon days had a similar rhyme scheme but a slightly different message, but we have to view this as what it is: a choice. ~JT

While the team has largely been quiet on the free agency market for the past two off-seasons, prior to the 2020 season the Mariners invested significant money in upgrades to T-Mobile Park, specifically ones targeted at a high-end, business-class consumer. To everyday fans, this sends the message that what happens on the field doesn’t matter to the team as much as the business conducted on the Club Level. ~Kate Preusser

There are more ways to spend money and improve your baseball team long term than just giving out contracts to whoever is available:

TAKE. ON. “BAD”. CONTRACTS. I believe that teams are not as prone to make true “salary dump” trades in real life as they are in video games or sports with a salary cap. Still, with the hemming and hawing clubs around the league are making, the lack of initiative taken to use a willingness to spend as a leg up on penny pinching competitors shows the limitations of John Stanton and co.’s professed loathing of losing. Losing cheaply and making it harder to win in the future appears to trump losing more expensively with a better shot at winning soon in ownership’s eyes. If the Rockies are shopping Nolan Arenado to save money but aren’t willing to move Ian Desmond and grease the wheels with a prospect or two, so be it. If the Orioles are trying to get players to take deferred money on their arbitration salaries but won’t ship off Chris Davis or Alex Cobb with some young talents to clear their books, c’est la vie, but Seattle has to be asking these questions. Money spent now can be an investment in future success, with no obligation to play the high-paid vets they acquire if they don’t improve the team. The point is filling the organization with as much talent as possible so that even when you make mistakes or folks don’t pan out, the system sustains and thrives anyways. The more smart money spent, the less time losing. I hope they get tired of it soon. ~JT

This is a good free-agent market to spend in:

As someone who believes in The Plan, I am hesitant to bring in players on long-term contracts who might eventually clog up the route to playing time for Seattle’s talented crop of young prospects. With that being said, that’s not exactly the market that’s out there. The Mariners have said they want to acquire a left-handed bat. They have, currently, a hole in left field. Eddie Rosario is just sitting there. Trades are fun to speculate on, but the Mariners should be keeping their waves of prospects intact to set up the ballclub for the immediate and far-off future, and the best way to do that is to splash a little cash for short-term deals in a market where other clubs are jealously guarding their purse strings. ~KP

Gather ye wins while ye may, because the immediate future of MLB doesn’t look great:

Related to the above point, there is a good chance that, when the CBA expires, the MLBPA and ownership aren’t able to come to another agreement, and a strike/lockout is not only a possibility, but one that looks likelier every day players are left to languish on the free-agent market as teams compete to see who can spend the least without outraging their fanbases. Building for the future only works if there’s a future of baseball to build to, and if the last baseball season played in Seattle before a shutdown extends the playoff drought well-past “old enough to vote” and into “old enough to rent a car/get kicked off its parents’ insurance/no longer be considered an MLB prospect,” that’s a real bummer. Moreover, it’s one that hurts the state of baseball in Seattle specifically, as the NHL, and by that time, likely the NBA as well, are poised to capture both the city’s attention and the almighty fan dollar. It’s this kind of penny-wise and pound-foolish behavior that has dented the franchise—including these Dipoto-era Mariners—in the past, and it would set the new decade off with a decidedly sour taste in fans’ mouths, and deservedly so. ~KP

While one of the most compelling arguments against investing in my mind is the threat of no season in 2022 due to an owner lockout or player strike, as Kate puts it withholding investment is gambling on being the smartest folks in the room, quickest, whenever the dust settles. Each new Collective Bargaining Agreement has yielded tweaks to rules that create new market inefficiencies, but we know right now that paying good players to play for your team is always the best way to win. “Efficiency” could not be less important to success on the field, and it certainly has nothing to do with division titles or World Series trophies. What Seattle can create for itself is certainty in something beyond Evan White’s presence on the roster, particularly as the focal point of next winter’s negotiations for the MLB Players Union will be finding a way to raise pay for players in their first 6-7 seasons to encourage free agent activity and discourage the cheap utility in tanking with a fleet of league minimum youngsters. Will the union be successful? It’s hard to say, but waiting and hoping the roster will stay cheap and under their control is a risk just like anything else. Might be worth trying a risk that has the upside of more winning. ~JT