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The Mariners are spoiling an opportunity, not their fans

When the hare thinks it’s the tortoise, things can go wrong in a hurry.

Cot’s Contracts - Baseball Prospectus

The Seattle Mariners are ignoring a route to improving their 2023 roster.

However you may feel about the decisions of the M’s front office and ownership group this winter (and I of course hope you’ll feel closer to how I do by the end of this article), this is a rather unimpeachable starting ground. As Larry Stone noted Friday, the M’s abstinence-only approach to the top tier of free agency this winter has been an intentional choice, a surprising departure from even last winter when the organization signed the reigning Cy Young winner Robbie Ray and was heavily involved in the bidding for SS/2B Trevor Story, who ultimately took $15 million more and an extra year from the Boston Red Sox than Seattle’s rumored five-year, $125 million offer. This winter, with the club coming off its second-straight 90-win season and a drought-ending Wild Card berth ultimately ended in an ALDS sweep at the hands of the Houston Astros, it seemed the team was preparing for another significant step forward this winter to attempt to track down the Houston club that finished 16 games ahead of them in the AL West.

“The goal is not to get to the playoffs, the goal is to win the World Series, and we want to get better and that means better everywhere ... Our great preference would be we could land a shortstop that would like to go play second base, but we are not going to close the door to anything in that regard,” [Mariners General Manager Justin Hollander] said.”

Those statements came in late October, at the club’s end-of-season news conference. Much of the early stages of the winter from a club coverage perspective were spent parsing these words, as to whether the club would be willing to sign a player that might displace J.P. Crawford or whether they’d be beholden to convincing one of the major free agents to switch spots themselves. Or perhaps they would make a smaller move in the middle infield and instead make a significant improvement in the outfield. In any case, the expectations were not insignificant - the club had made fantastic strides, building at long last a young, talented core centered on a superstar center fielder and several steady, above-average contributors under contract for half a decade or more to come. This is when clubs make “augmentations,” as the team phrased it, to get to that next level. Instead, they have opted out, and I want to go in depth on several of the reasons why this is outlandishly risky behavior by an organization in such a spectacular position to thrive.

I also want to clarify this argument, because I’ve seen a few consistent complaints or retorts which I believe can be cleared up fairly easily. We’ll start with the topic of the past week and a half, which we also discussed in depth on the Lookout Landing podcast. If you listened, this article covers a decent amount of similar ground.

Are Mariners fans being greedy/spoiled/unreasonable in their expectations?

Betteridge’s law is certainly in effect here. I am not particularly keen to compete in any misery Olympics with other fanbases, but suffice to say Mariners fans have plenty of claim to the most frustrating franchise for fandom in MLB on the whole over the course of their existence. There’s an award-winning documentary about it, while all the Cleveland Browns got was “Draft Day” (apologies to one specific person who loves that movie). They are the only club without a World Series appearance. They have five playoff appearances in 46 seasons, two division titles, and despite several of the most exciting individual players in modern baseball history and several years of league-leading attendance when contending, a role in the region’s sports scene that has taken a back seat to the Seahawks over the past two decades for obvious reasons.

Those 46 years and even the last two decades are not all responsibilities of Jerry Dipoto and Justin Hollander’s front office, nor primarily John Stanton and the rest of his Microsoft-laden ownership group, who have all been minority owners at varying degrees since the 90s or early 00s but only took primary roles in the past decade. However, as represented in the header photo for this article, the club’s investment since the end of the 00s has mostly matched their performance, which is to say unremarkable. Public payroll tracking varies slightly from site to site but seems broadly in keeping with teams’ internal accounting. Cot’s Contracts holds that the Mariners have been between 10th-23rd in MLB in overall payroll since 2009, peaking in 2018. Since 2018 they’ve “stepped back” payroll, as their aging core was shipped off or allowed to depart, dropping to 13th in 2019, 17th in 2020, 23rd in 2021, and 22nd in 2022. Per FanGraphs, they project as the 17th-highest payroll again in 2023 when accounting for pre-arbitration and arbitration projections for all clubs.

As a reminder, “Luxury Tax Proj” refers to their payroll as calculated related to the luxury tax, which averages the cost of all contracts going forwards. As the first (and most negligible) Luxury tax threshold is $233m, Seattle is still 2-3 Carlos Correas away from even that first level of “tax.”

They are closer to Cleveland at 24th than the Dodgers at 10th or even the Rangers at 12th. They are, as I noted recently, so far off the mean and median MLB payroll that signing Carlos Correa (or Trea Turner, or Xander Bogaerts) would have moved them up to barely scraping 15th or 16th in the league. even signing both Correa and Brandon Nimmo (something I would not protest but in no way shape or form would expect) would merely stretch the M’s into around 11th in payroll. Of course, Seattle may have had to pay more to sign Correa or another of the superstar middle infielders, but given their relative youth and track records, and the lack of other major costs for Seattle’s roster, it’s not an unthinkable ask to look at the holes in the M’s roster and organizational depth and see this offseason as a godsend for a club trying to take the next step.

However, it is evident Seattle is unwilling to invest back to even their historical levels, despite repeated reports and allusive statements such as that from Ryan Divish’s recent discussion with Dipoto, with Divish noting “sources indicate that the Mariners want to build to [2018’s] annual level of payroll again, if not higher, with increases in terms of yearly inflation and other circumstances they want to be mindful of the distribution of the dollars.” That $171 million peak of payroll in franchise history is nearly $40 million ahead of where the club stands now, and while Dipoto correctly noted that payroll is “up 25-30%” compared to the start of 2022, there are two important contextual notes:

  1. Most of that additional spending came in the form of (fantastic) contract extensions to Julio Rodríguez and Luis Castillo, moves that strengthen the long-term competitiveness of the organization and provide cost-certainty for the club in the present and future. However, they are also commitments to players already in the organization, spending to hold serve as opposed to actions to add to a roster that would have had Rodríguez and Castillo on it regardless in 2023. More on the “future commitments” comments in a moment, but first...
  2. Every team in Major League Baseball received an additional $30 million apiece this winter as Disney purchased the final 15% of BAMTech from MLB for $900 million. Seattle raising payroll from around $94 million to around $130-140 million is indeed an upward movement, it just happens to have almost no significance in context to other clubs at this point. Player salaries, as inflation is wont to do, have always gone up, albeit typically at a slower pace than franchise values and revenues for owners.

While MLB has no salary cap or floor, the self-imposed financial restrictions of most clubs make for similar logic to NFL and NBA rosters: when you strike gold in drafting a star young quarterback or shooting guard, that is the time to spend to improve around the young building block(s). Seattle has not, and so there is justified frustration as the club sits in approximately the same situation as they began the offseason while teams around them have taken great strides.

Okay, they’re below-average in spending, but they’re following the Astros/Braves model!

I don’t think every fan knows or cares (or needs to know or care) about these details, but it is frustrating to me seeing this misleading framing be embraced in local and national coverage of the club. The Mariners have done spectacular work building a core that can make the playoffs, and have been clever enough to extend many key contributors such that they have a competitive roster without needing to spend $200 million. Jerry Dipoto has emphasized their philosophy as being based on “draft, develop, and trade,” something generally understandable given that it is the cheapest way to accrue talent and that quality player development was infamously poor in the past two regimes of the M’s organization, leading to many of the issues of Seattle’s stars and scrubs dynamic from 2014-2018. However, Seattle cannot exclusively ape Houston and Atlanta, much less more austere clubs like Cleveland and Tampa Bay, and have a roster capable of overtaking the class of the American League.

Houston, beyond the obvious and infamous cheating scandal, received a staggering 12 first round picks in just 6 years between 2010-2015 and built their core under a previous CBA and ruleset that Seattle is no longer as able to access via tanking. Their three straight 100-loss seasons from 2011-2013 as part of an extreme 2009-2014 rebuild and abandonment of contention. As they have developed and extended their core, including deals with Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, Yordan Alvarez, and Lance McCullers Jr., they also made several notable upgrades from their farm system, notably with trades for top flight pitchers a year or two from free agency, specifically Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander, as well as, later, Zack Greinke. This was not signing a player in free agency, but the function - taking on almost $50 million over two years for Verlander - was hardly dissimilar.

More importantly, despite the many core facets of Houston’s roster drafted, developed, and traded for, they ran a top-10 payroll in 2018, their third year of contending which Seattle now finds themselves about to enter. The Astros have done so ever since, adding higher-paid but highly-proven talent to their roster each season, from multi-year free agent deals with OF Josh Reddick (4/$52m 2017-20) and INF Yuli Gurriel (5/$47.5m 2016-20), as well as high average annual value (AAV) for Carlos Beltrán on his one-year, $16 million deal and trading mid-contract for multi-year signee C Brian McCann (5/$85m 2014-2018).

Cot’s Contracts - Baseball Prospectus

If Seattle is following the Houston model, they’re certainly not showing the same willingness the Astros showed in improving the club around their core with free agency at this same stage of the process, much less the willingness to chase bigger signings.

Atlanta has a more spending-averse route to success, with division titles each of the past five years and a 101-win club in 2022 that won the head-to-head tiebreaker with their first significant challenge in half a decade courtesy of the big-spending New York Mets. The third season of Atlanta’s contention, it should be noted, saw them take a leap from a bottom-third payroll into the top half of the league. They’ve made several dips into high paying free agency such as OF Marcell Ozuna (4/$65m 2021-24), RHP Charlie Morton (1/$20m 2022), RHP Kenley Jansen (1/$16m 2022), and RHP Will Smith (3/$40m 2020-22), as well as a significant outlay of money to trade acquisition 1B Matt Olson (8/$168m 2022-29). 2023 will mark Atlanta’s second-straight season with a top-10 payroll, projecting presently for $196 million in payroll that is $61 million higher than Seattle’s as things stand (a shade more than an Aaron Judge and a Brandon Nimmo signed for, combined, this winter).

That process also included their infamously low-cost extensions for OF Ronald Acuña Jr. and 2B Ozzie Albies, the latter of which was described by some as “the worst contract ever for a player.” Both deals sent a shockwave through the MLB Players Association that has since seen a proliferation of early-career extensions league-wide, however with increasingly appropriate compensation for players. Seattle isn’t liable to pull a fast one on most players, and while Evan White and Andrés Muñoz were signable due to riskier profiles, Julioooooooo’s potentially record-breaking deal and the lack of deals with Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, Cal Raleigh, and George Kirby are indicative that younger players are more willing to bet on themselves unless clubs improve their extension offers. So once again, Seattle cannot simply follow the same blueprint as their idealized predecessor. They must find other ways to add value and production.

Lastly, having a cheap roster only is as “valuable” as a team is willing to take advantage of those low costs in some places to allocate funds and improve in others. Atlanta has managed to keep their nose ahead of the rest of the NL East for several years, in large part due to expert development, staggeringly low-cost extensions signed for several of their stars, a geographical advantage over many clubs, and, it must be noted, a significant cheating scandal of their own. But their advantages are being tested by the Mets and reigning NL pennant winners Philadelphia Phillies, who have, somewhat like the Texas Rangers, decided the best pathway to relevance is signing stars to beef up the big league club and allowing them to give their farm system time to develop. Let me make this point abundantly clear, if there were a clear, cheap pathway to improving the roster at this stage, I would have no issue with Seattle pursuing it.

I do not care if the Mariners build a 90+ win AL West champion and World Series contender with $100 million or $300 million.

But I do find it frustrating when the club leaves opportunities to dramatically improve their current and future roster on the table, especially when those improvements would merely cost the team money, moving them perhaps into the upper half of the league in spending. The clubs they love to reference have shown this is about the time to make that leap in payroll, both to internal and external candidates. Seattle is lagging behind in payroll and roster talent.

But what about those future commitments?

Dipoto mentioned in a discussion at the winter meetings that Seattle is near the top of the league in financial commitments. Though he referenced the club being 2nd in committed payroll in 2026 and high up in the intervening seasons as well, they have obviously fallen significantly in the past week and a half as free agents have signed. The chart from FanGraphs embedded earlier in the “greedy?” section reflects that Dipoto is not wrong; the committed money is still up there for Seattle, with their “future commitments” in 2024 ranking 10th, followed by 8th in 2025 and 7th in 2026. You may also note in that chart that a few teams have $0 committed for some or all of those seasons, and (though I wouldn’t put too much stock into this) the bottom 12 teams in 2026 commitments feature 11 clubs who missed the playoffs in 2022.

That’s because “future commitments” is both technically important and utterly meaningless. The Orioles are not likely to fold in 2024, nor are they likely to cut Adley Rutschman, Gunnar Henderson, or even several of their soon-to-be arbitration-eligible players who are contributors like outfielder Cedric Mullins. But pre-arbitration and arbitration deals are not guaranteed until the determination deadline in the winter before each season, so they are not considered commitments. In most circumstances, players who are in their arbitration period are paid somewhat well; however, they still get far less than what they’d receive on the open market until their final season of arbitration before free agency.

Even if they receive Super-Two status, Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, and Cal Raleigh are liable to be relative bargains for Seattle for the next four seasons, and while hopefully each can receive a contract extension, it’s an extreme long shot to ask roughly the same exact group of players to run it back and outdo a Houston team that so thoroughly outclassed them. They’ll also need to outpace an improved pair of intra-divisional contenders in Texas and Anaheim and still-superior AL East rosters in New York and Toronto alongside Tampa, all of whom will benefit more than anyone from the new, balanced schedule that reduces divisional games and allows each team to play at least once. If you think the AL Central has multiple threats, you’re bold, but almost each club will at least be around a .500 club or closer to it than they were in 2022.

Seattle can rightfully bank on or hope for continued strides from their many young players, but they also will be hoping for similarly atypical health from their starting rotation and continued performance from several lineup regulars with question marked profiles. Can they do that with mostly the same roster as they had by the end of 2022? I’m uncertain, but I also don’t believe they’re so well situated as to simply wait around to leapfrog Houston with internal development. Yordan, Kyle Tucker, and Jeremy Peña are all younger than Raleigh and around the same age as Gilbert, Kirby, and Taylor Trammell. They will need active vanquishing, something reflected in current projection systems like FanGraphs’ Depth Charts (combining ZiPS and Steamer) which have Seattle around 5-6 wins above replacement weaker than Houston, around 2-3 WAR ahead of both Anaheim and Texas. In other words, a competitive team in the present, but risking plenty of present disappointment in hopes of avoiding future spending.

But these contracts were so long! Were they even fits? And what about Canó?

Yes. Unequivocally, these deals signed this winter have had astonishing chronological associations. 28-year-old Carlos Correa is likely to struggle in the back end of his 13-year deal with the Giants for $26.29 million per season, the 32nd-highest AAV in MLB history. The same may be true of Xander Bogaerts in his $25.45 million AAV deal, a rate that is 38th in MLB history, just ahead of what Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton, and Félix Hernández signed a decade ago in what were tied for the 4th-highest AAVs in league history in 2013 behind Roger Clemens ($28m 2007), Alex Rodriguez ($27.5m 2008-17), and Justin Verlander ($25.71m 2013-19).

Yet now each of those deals looks significantly more banal, as does Bryce Harper’s $25.38 million per year despite the massive year total. That’s because with inflation comes new precedents. Much like the earlier discussion on Acuña and Albies’ shockingly cheap extensions setting a baseline that’s been built up from each year, so too goes free agency. The length is a new appreciation for shenanigans with the luxury tax rules by clubs willing to threaten that threshold in the $220 million range. The luxury tax calculation averages the cost of a deal over its entirety of guarantees for a team. Players in pre-arbitration and arbitration are only counted for the current year, while those on extensions or free agent contracts, as well as those with signing bonuses have their pay calculated by mean cost (AAV) when appraising the luxury tax. In essence, Correa’s 13-year, $350 million deal could just as easily be 10/$350m, but that would cost San Francisco $35 million each year on their luxury tax calculation. Instead, they save $8-9 million of space between themselves and the tax, which provides them flexibility every year of the contract to improve further without incurring penalties.

So now we’ve come to the tough part - not every free agent is signable for the Seattle Mariners, and even if they have the highest bid it’s no sure thing they’ll get them. The San Diego Padres offered Trea Turner a shorter, higher AAV AND overall money deal that he ultimately turned down in favor of multiple connections to Philly and a somewhat lesser salary. Seattle cannot do anything about their geographic location, the opposite side of the country and the furthest geographical location in MLB from Caribbean-born players like Correa and Bogaerts. They did not have the additional edge of Dansby Swanson’s wife, Chicago Red Stars and USWNT standout soccer player Mallory Pugh, being employed in their city. It’s simply not going to come together for every player, particularly as Seattle seeks to establish themselves as a serious, sustained home for playoff baseball hopefuls.

But, as we’ve seen before, the M’s CAN sign the top players on the market. The Robinson Canó deal was controversial but thrilling, and is by my evaluation a categorical success. The 31-year-old at-signing 2B played five seasons in Seattle, outperforming his contract on a $/WAR basis and then getting traded alongside RHP Edwin Díaz for a package that has helped Seattle build a contender directly and indirectly. Notably, both teams paying the bulk of Canó’s contract made the playoffs last year, and were competitive the year before, despite this seemingly unfathomable albatross.

The 2014-2018 stretch was disappointing, as Seattle consistently built rosters with 83-87 win projections and missed the playoffs thrice despite winning records. If you hold Robinson Canó’s contract responsible for the Mariners not improving more elsewhere, I understand but disagree. Canó’s PED suspension in 2018 is an undeniable pockmark on his tenure, but he was astonishingly consistent and productive otherwise. In his five years in Seattle Canó accrued 21.4 fWAR (7th in team history) and 23.5 bWAR (6th). He hit .296/.353/.472 with 107 home runs and a 129 OPS+ while at times playing through a double hernia and missing a total of five, six, one, and 12 games in his first four seasons, then only missing four additional games around his 2018 suspension. I am upset like you that the club was never able to get into the playoffs in Canó’s era, but that group had few of the positive traits of this current core going for them. Imagine what the club could look like with similar, still-middle-third-of-the-league investment.

Take the 28-year-old Correa, for instance, whose deal I’ve seen frequently compared to Canó’s. I will wait, but please, visit Robinson Canó’s Baseball Reference or FanGraphs page and look at his age-28 thru age-34 seasons. Adding that player to this Mariners team is how they take the next step from good to great, as one disgruntled 710 AM host put it recently. Bogaerts similarly offered a pathway to massive stability, as well as few of the associations that might have been a dealbreaker with regards to Correa and his involvement with the Trash Can Astros. Instead Seattle returned their lineup to a similar state as the start of 2022, with Teoscar in place of Haniger and Kolten Wong in place of Adam Frazier, a pair of upgrades Steamer projects to be around a one-WAR boost to the club, though the loss of Jesse Winker (or at least what Jesse Winker was supposed to be) leaves them with a more tenuous lineup. It’s not a bad lineup necessarily, but it is risky, making the previous moves and their present inaction all the more surprising.

Seattle had primed themselves specifically for signing an impact middle infielder, trading away their two best prospects Noelvi Marte and Edwin Arroyo in a deal to acquire RHP Luis Castillo that I’d do again in a heartbeat. However, Seattle’s middle infield depth organizationally is now among the worst in MLB. Their best options at present are 2022 1st round pick Cole Young who is a high schooler likely several years away from the bigs, unheralded international amateur signee Axel Sanchez who was in Low-A Modesto most of 2022, and perhaps one of their several even-more-recent international amateur signees who are half a decade from big league consideration. Few teams are more well-situated to sign a star to fill one of their glaring holes given their low payroll, exciting, young, on-the-heels-of-a-playoff-berth roster, and organizational need for several years of development to find their own internal solution. Instead, Seattle did not, by all accounts and their own attitude, give the idea more than a passing glance’s worth of effort.

So here we are, with a club that I am overwhelmingly excited about and yet exceedingly frustrated with. I do not wish to rob anyone of their well-earned excitement for the coming season, which should be an exciting one. But it felt attainable and hardly unreasonable or excessive to hope the Mariners would seize the opportunity to right-size their payroll up to at least league-average or a shade above, a range they could reach by simply signing a star instead of making nibbling trades and paying talent instead of money. Seattle is following the playbook of clubs like Houston and Atlanta when it suits them, but they need to do more than retrace the past to outpace their current rivals. Hopefully more creativity in improving the roster remains, because Seattle’s pathways to use their money and improve the club have dwindled significantly in their stagnation. I hope it’s not too late to put things on the right track towards significant offseason improvement and not merely holding serve.