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Why it doesn’t make sense for the Mariners to spend money

Not a lot, anyway.

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, my colleagues published an eloquent, well-thought-out argument for why the Mariners should spend money in free agency this offseason. I recommend you give it a read if you haven’t already.

What I’m going to do in this piece is look at what “spending money” might actually look like in concrete terms. I’m loathe to call this a “rational look”, as those who most often appeal to rationality seem to be the most blind to their own emotions. Rather, this will be a differently structured and admittedly crude exercise that aims to answer the question: “Should the Mariners spend money this offseason?”.

Full disclosure: I am going into this piece with the attitude that, no, they should not. Here’s the main reason why.

What are the Mariners working with?

Folks, I hate to be the one to have to tell you this: the current Mariners roster is not likely to be very good.

Here is a table with the team’s Fangraphs Depth Charts projections for 2021. So that it only include the teams with whom the Mariners will be competing for a playoff spot, I have removed the Yankees and White Sox (who are projected to win their divisions) and the entire National League. If you want, you can find a nice sortable version of this table, which includes a positional breakdown, here.

2021 Projections by Team

Team Batting Pitching WAR
Team Batting Pitching WAR
Blue Jays 25.7 15.8 41.5
Astros 28.3 13 41.3
Twins 23 15.7 38.7
Angels 23.8 14.7 38.5
Red Sox 21.8 15.2 37
Athletics 22.5 14.3 36.8
Rays 19.1 14.9 34
Indians 17 14.6 31.6
Royals 15.1 11.9 27
Mariners 11.7 12.8 24.5
Tigers 9.1 12.2 21.3
Orioles 11.4 8.6 20
Rangers 3.6 14.2 17.8
Per Fangraphs Depth Charts

As you can see, the Mariners are projected to be about 17 wins away from winning the AL West (which is currently projected for the Astros), and about 12 wins away from the last Wild Card spot (currently projected for the Athletics). So while the AL West may certainly be more winnable than in years past, all that means is that the Astros are merely very-good, rather than great.

OK, so it looks bad. Of course, part of the reason it looks bad is why I’m writing this article in the first place: with about $57 million committed, the Mariners are projected to open 2021 with their lowest payroll since Bill Clinton was president. If they were willing to spend the cash, surely they would become competitive, right? Well..

Who is available?

More importantly, who is available at the Mariners’ positions of need? That, at least, is somewhat easy. The Mariners’ positions of need happen to be... most positions.

2021 Mariners Projections

Position Mariners Player fWAR Projection
Position Mariners Player fWAR Projection
C Tom Murphy/Luis Torrens 1.3
1B Evan White -0.2
2B Dylan Moore/Shed Long 1.1
3B Kyle Seager 2.3
SS J.P. Crawford 2.5
LF A Cardboard Cut-out of Ricky Weeks -0.2
CF Kyle Lewis 1.7
RF Mitch Haniger 1.3
DH Ty France and Others 0.6
SP Marco Gonzales 2.8
SP Yusei Kikuchi 2
SP Justus Sheffield 1.8
SP Chris Flexen 1.8
SP Justin Dunn 0.9
SP Logan Gilbert 0.9

For simplicity’s sake, I have omitted relief pitchers. Rest assured that those Mariners are bad too. As you can see, the Mariners have exactly four players projected for at least two WAR. They have exactly zero players projected for at least three WAR.

So who could they actually sign?

Mariners Roster vs. Available Free Agents

Position Mariners Player fWAR Projection Free Agent fWAR Projections Difference Med Years Med AAV (M) Med Total (M) fWAR/$
Position Mariners Player fWAR Projection Free Agent fWAR Projections Difference Med Years Med AAV (M) Med Total (M) fWAR/$
C Tom Murphy/Luis Torrens 1.3 J.T. Realmuto 4.1 2.8 5 $22.00 $110 $0.13
1B Evan White/Jose Marmolejos/Ty France -0.2 Travis Shaw 0.8 1 1 $4 $4 $0.25
2B Dylan Moore/Shed Long/Ty France 1.1 Tomma La Stella 2.2 1.4 2 $7.00 $14.00 $0.20
3B Kyle Seager 2.3 Justin Turner 3.1 0.8 2 $16.00 $32 $0.05
SS J.P. Crawford 2.5 Marcus Semien 3.1 0.6 3 $17 $51 $0.04
LF Don't Even Look -0.2 Marcell Ozuna 2.9 3.1 4 $18 $70.00 $0.18
CF Kyle Lewis 1.7 Nobody Better Available N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
RF Mitch Haniger 1.3 Joc Pederson 2.4 1.1 2 $10 $20 $0.11
DH Ty France and Others 0.6 NELSON CRUZ 1.2 0.6 2 $15 $30 $0.04
SP Logan Gilbert 0.9 Trevor Bauer 3.8 2.9 3 $29.00 $87 $0.10
SP Justin Dunn 0.9 Masahiro Tanaka 2.9 2 3 $18 $54 $0.11
SP Justus Sheffield 1.7 James Paxton 2.1 0.4 2 $15 $30 $0.03
SP Marco Gonzales 2.8 Nobody Better Available N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
SP Yusei Kikuchi 2 Nobody Better Available N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
SP Chris Flexen 1.8 Nobody Better Available N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Projected fWAR and Salary per Fangraphs Free Agent Tracker

There are a lot of numbers in there. The long-and-short of it is that I’m showing the best available free agent at each position (excluding them if the Mariners’ incumbent is better than the best available free agent). I’m showing how many wins better they’re projected to be, as well as what they’re projected to sign for. I’m then dividing the projected “improved WAR” by the money, just to show the best “deals” for the team.

If the Mariners were to sign my treasure trove of available free agents, they would improve by a total of.... 16.7 wins! Throw in another two wins from signing semi-competent relief pitching, and boom. We’ve made a projected division winner.

It’ll only cost us $171 million dollars per year, bringing the Mariners’ grand total to over $200 million, which would make them the team with the highest payroll in the league. This obviously isn’t reasonable.

Here’s the main issue with this thought experiment: what is reasonable? We don’t really know. Let’s say that the team is willing to hit the league average payroll of $105 million. Per Forbes, they’re valued as the 16th-most-valuable team in the league, so that seems about right. That gives them about $50 million to play with. What’s the best way they could spend that money?

Going by the highest “wins per dollar” players from the table above, the Mariners could sign the following.

  • Travis Shaw to play first base @ 1 year, $4 million. With Shaw projected at just 0.8 fWAR and a salary of about $4 million, my crude little calculator loves this signing because Depth Charts hates Evan White.
  • Tommy La Stella to play second base @ 2 years, $14 million. Sorry, Shed Long and Dylan Moore. While Moore played at a five-win pace last year, Mariners fans should set their sights on him as the utility man of the future, not as an every-day starter. And Shed Long has plenty to prove before he can be penciled into anyone’s lineup. Even the Mariners’.
  • Marcell Ozuna to play left field @ 4 years, $70 million. I’m sensing a theme. These signings seem to be less about the quality free agents (though Ozuna is the best so far), and more about the awful projected starters they’d be replacing.
  • JT Realmuto to play catcher @ 5 years, $110 million. It’s hard to feel great about signing a catcher to a huge deal that runs well into his thirties. That said, Realmuto is arguably the best catcher in the league, and he replaces a journeyman coming off of an injury.

That’s our $50 million. We’ve improved by a grand total of... 8.3 wins. Throw in another couple of wins by signing competent relief pitching, and the Mariners find themselves in a familiar position. Sure, they could hit a Wild Card spot... if absolutely everything goes right. If Mitch Haniger bounces back, and a young pitcher outpaces his projections, and the free agents perform as expected, and... you get the picture.

And then what? You make the Wild Card, and have a fifty-fifty chance of your season ending instantly?

OK, you might say. But then what is the point? If not now, then when?

Soon, I say! Look, back when the team blew everything up after 2018, Jerry Dipoto probably shouldn’t have ever quoted “late 2020, and ideally 2021” as the projected starting date for contention. I get it. “One or two bad years” sounds a lot better than “At least three bad years”. Hindsight is 20/20, but this was probably always going to be the unfortunate reality.

With Jared Kelenic hopefully debuting in late 2021, Julio Rodriguez hopefully debuting in late 2022, and additional prospects on the way or continuing to develop, the Mariners will hopefully not have to sign band-aids over miserable black holes at, well, most positions.

If you don’t believe Kelenic, Kyle Lewis, Julio Rodriguez, Evan White, and the up-and-coming pitchers are going to be good, then these deals don’t make sense. This is how good the team is gonna be. You’re capping the team’s upside at exactly where it was in 2017 and 2018: a Wild Card team that needs more to go right than wrong.

If you do believe Kelenic, Lewis, and the rest are going to be good, then these deals still don’t make sense. Give yourself a bit more time to see where your actual areas of need are. Then work to patch those. Because patching these holes in a year or two doesn’t take a mediocre team to Wild Card contention. It takes a Wild Card contender to a division winner.

For now, sure. Please sign a few decent relievers to save your fans the indignity of watching Anthony Misiewicz and Erik Swanson repeatedly implode in high-leverage situations. Sign Taijuan Walker or Chris Archer, because it wouldn’t cost very much and it would make your fans hate you less. Sign, um, any left fielder. But the goal of these signings isn’t to make the playoffs. It’s to make the team watchable.

Barring a miracle, the playoffs aren’t in reach for the 2021 Mariners.