By Shannon Drayer
It has made for good and sometimes lively debate on the blog and on Twitter, but I am going to try and put to rest any thought (okay, I will allow maybe the tiniest thought) of the Mariners signing outfielder Shin-Soo Choo.
In an earlier post I said that Choo was just not a good fit for the Mariners. There are a couple of reasons why. Let’s start with the dollars.
With their recent acquisitions, the Mariners are sitting at around $82 million to $88 million committed in payroll depending on how raises and incentives are accounted for. They have said that payroll will be higher this year than last, but we have had no indication of how much higher. Many believe that figure will be around $100 million this year. This is the number I am dealing with here. If we are completely wrong about that, well, good for the Mariners. I would be surprised, however, if it was significantly higher than that.
A quick aside about the television money the Mariners will have coming in at some point: We don’t yet know what revenues the club’s majority ownership of ROOT Sports will bring. We know what the deal is reported to be worth but we don’t know what that will translate to in regard to money coming back to the club. We do know that CEO Howard Lincoln said that it will “make the Mariners competitive – if you combine the cash flow and the rights fees – with the Rangers and the Angels.”
The question is when. The Rangers and Angels saw big gains from their new TV deals immediately, but the Mariners are in a different situation. Unlike those two teams, they have a majority ownership in ROOT Sports. That wasn’t just given to them. The Mariners are still in the investment phase of the deal. The bigger returns will be further down the road.
On the heels of signing a player to the third-largest contract in baseball, a few have suggested that the Mariners would need to sign Choo in order to prove they are truly serious about winning. Serious about winning is probably not quite the right way to describe such a move under the current budget.
The Mariners already have an average of $49 million tied up in Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano. Just how significant is that figure for a duo in baseball? Only one team, the Angels, has more locked up in two players. To add Choo at $22 million a year – a grossly overpriced amount according to industry insiders but at this point seemingly necessary to land him – they would be looking at paying $71 million per year to three of their players. That is not happening with a $100 million payroll. The Phillies are the only team that currently has just over $71 million invested in two player, and they have a payroll of $159 million. Even if the Mariners were to get to the Angels’ payroll of $137 million this year, that would still be a dangerous payroll balance with no relief in the near term as all three of the mega contracts would have been given out within a year of each other. It just doesn’t make financial sense.
Choo is overpriced right now. Way overpriced. He is a very good player, a great hitter against right-handed pitching, but he is far from a complete player. Among 167 qualified batters last year, Choo was 145th in average, 68th in on-base percentage, 150th in OPS, 164th in slugging, 129th in wRC+ and 130th in wOBA against left-handed pitching. One reader suggested the Mariners platoon him. The easy answer to that is you don’t platoon a $22 million-a-year investment.
It is fair to point out that Choo still gets on base against lefties, but again, I am not making a $22 million investment for a table-setter unless he brings superior defense or speed, which Choo does not. He stole 21 bases last year (one off his career high) but at 31, I wouldn’t be banking on seeing that number go up. As for his defense, the numbers aren’t particularly pretty and the eye test isn’t so hot either, with one evaluator telling me he simply doesn’t have the best baseball instincts. Another believes he will not age well. He simply is not a great candidate for an overpay.
The Mariners may or may not be done giving out large contracts this year. My best guess is that general manager Jack Zduriencik is getting close to his budget and with multiple needs to fill he cannot sink all of what he has left into one player. There still could be flexibility with ownership, but Zduriencik would have to sell that player to the group. I think he would have a much better shot at selling Japanese pitcher Masahiro Tanaka, who with the new agreement in place could be posted soon. They might be willing to take that risk on a younger player, even though he is a pitcher, and they wouldn’t be settling. Choo is the best offensive player remaining on the market. Tanaka is arguably the best pitcher period.
At this point it is about spending money smart, not just spending money.