Today, the Texas Rangers will parade down the streets as World Series champions. If you avoided all postseason ball, much was made of the two-year turnaround from 100-loss cellar-dweller to being crowned kings of MLB. For many, the World Series is the end-all be-all, even as the expansion of the postseason tournament does allow for greater upset opportunities. Texas made the playoffs identically to the Mariners of 2022, a 90-win second place club in the second Wild Card slot, though many indicators, including Pythagorean Win-Loss a.k.a. run differential, BaseRuns, and relative health at playoff time, suggested the Rangers had a strong case as the AL’s best team all season long. To add a juicy, ripened Rainier cherry atop this sundae, Texas vanquished the Houston Astros along the way, the club that has bullied the AL West for the better part of a decade and swept the Seattle Mariners out of the playoffs en route to their first cheating-free title in franchise history a year ago.
It should have been Seattle.
That sentiment has burned in my chest since last winter began, though of course there were moments and signings that inspired it prior. Still, litigation of the past is useful now as an aid in how it guides us forward. The Mariners organization missed their chance to be the ones to vanquish Houston. Now they’ll need to do battle with the whole of Texas. That begins now, with the offseason underway at last and free agency just days from opening. Seattle’s decision-makers, beginning with Chairman and Managing Partner John Stanton and President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto, need to decide how content they are with forever aiming at runner-up.
Stanton brayed his discontent watching the “step-back” in 2019 to Ryan Divish in the Seattle Times, noting “I hate to lose,” and that his
then-23-year-old (Ed. note: per the organization, 30-year-old) son Tim (who was promoted to Director of Baseball Operations for Seattle in 2021) gave him sage advice, “Dad, you need to enjoy the wins as much as you hate the losses.” While the younger Stanton’s counsel is a philosophy I agree with wholeheartedly, his father and the rest of the Mariners’ ownership group have been evidentially comfortable with losing, at least where the alternative requires further effort on their behalf financially. Yes, how your money is spent matters, and cheap teams can be highly successful.
Here is the obligatory series of links on how the Rays do not disprove that higher payrolls correlate with higher winning percentages, from Harvard, from the University of Washington, from FanGraphs. Perhaps more specifically, albeit frustratingly, payroll correlates most strongly with run differential and other indicators of a team’s quality, though the actual results can always vary, hence the excitement of the sport.
In the winter of 2022, heading into the 2023 season, the Mariners were coming off their most successful season in the entire lifetime of a typical college senior. 90 wins, Cal Raleigh’s Rainmaker to end the drought, the huge strides by many young players and externally added veterans. Playoffs! In fact a playoff series win, a home playoff game, and of course their Rookie of the Year and since-extended franchise cornerstone in Julio Rodríguez. The org was primed for a big augmentation, having developed a cost-controlled core worth building around for the first time since the 1990s. Instead, after a shockingly low-effort offseason Divish reported on a troublesome shift in January of 2023:
Dipoto never comments directly on his payroll budget for obvious negotiating reasons. He has maintained that ownership, led by chairman John Stanton, has always given him flexibility to spend, and yet …
But multiple MLB sources have indicated that he isn’t operating with the payroll flexibility that was widely anticipated following a 2022 season that saw the Mariners draw 2.287 million fans (second highest since 2008) and the emergence of Rodriguez as the organization’s biggest superstar and maybe the most beloved player since Ken Griffey Jr.
In the same piece, Divish noted that Seattle had no expectations of wooing Aaron Judge and quickly bailed out of efforts to sign any of the four big middle infielders this past winter due to financial impotence or, as I am more inclined to interpret it, competitive apathy and hubris. Hating to lose is a fabulous trait for an owner to have, it would be a blessing to the Mariners organization and their fans if Stanton rediscovers that ethic.
The ongoing debate, of course, is whether Dipoto is simply hamstrung by Stanton and co.’s flaccid financial foundation in comparison to the majority of MLB, or if Dipoto’s time in Anaheim poisoned him truly against luring free agents onto his team with ample cash. Since Dipoto (and, in primary, Stanton, though he’d been a minority owner for decades) took over prior to the 2016 season, Seattle’s payroll relative to the league has functionally never risen past where it began. Per Cot’s Contracts, the 2015 M’s were the 11th-highest Opening Day payroll, a level they would repeat in 2018 and 2019 after years at 12th and 13th, almost entirely due to the contracts inherited from Jack Zduriencik’s era. From 2021 forward the payrolls have been 25th, 22nd, and 18th, with the 2024 club shaping up to be middle-of-the-pack or below unless the M’s jumpstart their roster construction at last.
I do not know whether this organization is receptive to the external feedback they’ve gotten in the weeks since Dipoto’s infamous 54% press conference, suggesting to fans the org was doing them a favor by not trying to focus solely on winning a World Series. From the man who chuckled on Seattle Sports 710 AM in June that the inconsistent M’s weren’t “one player away” and that not even “prime Babe Ruth” would change their fate, the Mariners and their fans must hope falling just two wins short of the playoffs and an AL West title will encourage Seattle’s consistent preacher of patience to see the short AND long-term value of adding star power over nibbling at the edges. Dipoto’s quippy sound-bite doesn’t hold up against a glance at the back of a few baseball cards, digital or analog. It crumbles further on a mic’d up stroll through Seattle’s clubhouse where a club that was told to exceed expectations as Plan A disappointed by merely meeting them.
Dipoto has been the architect of a roster utterly worth celebrating, led by young stars and Seattle-shaped veterans, every one of whom now is someone he chose, directly or by proxy of General Manager Justin Hollander or his chosen Scouting Director Scott Hunter. The front office have had errors, but the body of work that is the present core of the Seattle Mariners is enviable to all but a few clubs in MLB. But that core cannot weather another wasted offseason, and through their inaction Stanton and Dipoto have placed themselves squarely in the crosshairs. It’s up to them to shift the target back towards a division title and, yes, a World Series.