Fann: Julio Rodríguez deal should mark start of Mariners payroll windfall
Every baseball fan in the Pacific Northwest collectively rejoiced last Friday when the news broke that the Mariners had agreed to a long-term mega contract with 21-year-old phenom Julio Rodríguez. The complicated and layered deal could keep Rodríguez in Seattle until 2037.
Rodríguez is the overwhelming favorite to win the American League’s Rookie of the Year Award with a .264 average, 21 home runs, 23 stolen bases and a 3.4 fWAR.
Let’s give credit where credit was due: Mariners ownership didn’t have to do this now. That group, led by John Stanton, could have drug its feet and waited years to ensure Rodríguez would remain in a Mariners uniform for the entirety of his prime. There’s an automatic peace of mind that comes with getting it done now, and we all benefit from avoiding the national conversation speculating whether it might not happen (a la Aaron Judge).
But let’s also be clear: Stanton and Co. shouldn’t be crowned for this move. Not until we see what’s next. Committing to a player who projects to be one of the faces of Major League Baseball is the definition of a no-brainer.
This move should signal the official turn of the key from a franchise in rebuilding mode to a franchise sparing no expense in order to be a perennial contender. The 2022 Mariners own a payroll of $114.6 million, which ranks 21st in baseball. That’s nearly $44 million shy of the $148.4 million league average. This should absolutely, unequivocally be Seattle’s final year in the bottom half of the league’s payrolls for the foreseeable future.
There are a few others on the current roster deserving of extensions. Mitch Haniger and Luis Castillo are at the top of that list. Haniger, who will be an unrestricted free agent, has shown he is still plenty valuable despite turning 32 in December. The veteran right fielder has posted a robust 129 wRC+, albeit in just 29 games.
Still, in 87 plate appearances since returning on Aug. 6, Haniger has hit four homers, driven in 11 runs and scored 13 times, all while posting a .356 on-base percentage and a 140 wRC+. Veteran leadership is important on any young and emerging ball club, and Haniger’s impact on the clubhouse is much more significant when you consider he remains arguably the Mariners most reliable hitter.
“It’s fun to win and it’s fun to play for something,” Haniger told reporter Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times following his walk-off hit against the Guardians last Friday. “I feel like I’ve gotten knocked for being a little bit like robotic, and rightfully so. But I want to win. I want to win just as much as anybody in this entire building.”
With the futures of Jarred Kelenic and Kyle Lewis so murky, keeping Haniger around for another couple years makes too much sense for Seattle.
Castillo has already shown worthy of the immense price tag it cost to acquire him at the trade deadline. The right-hander, who turns 30 in December and has one year of team control remaining, has posted a 2.84 ERA in five starts with the Mariners, including an 11.08 strikeouts per nine innings rate. It’s likely he’ll want to test free agency following the 2023 season, but that doesn’t mean Seattle shouldn’t do everything possible to try and persuade him otherwise.
Then it comes down to the team’s commitment to improve during free agency. J.P. Crawford, Adam Frazier, Jesse Winker and Marco Gonzales shouldn’t be guaranteed starting roles next season.
Crawford has a wRC+ of just 78 since June 1, which ranks 20th among big league shortstops with at least 200 plate appearances during that span. Frazier has been undoubtedly better of late, but his season-long wRC+ is still just 86, and he’s only topped 100 (league average) in three of his seven seasons. Winker’s bat has also improved recently (139 wRC+ in August) but his glove is a liability in left field. Gonzales may still have another year as a No. 5 starter, but that role shouldn’t come without competition. The veteran lefty has essentially been a replacement level pitcher with a 0.2 fWAR on the season.
This isn’t to look past this season, one in which great things are still in the cards. The Mariners are currently in the American League’s No. 2 wild card spot at 70-58. FanGraphs gives them 94.2% odds of making the postseason with 34 games left to play.
But the hype and hysteria that surrounds the potential of ending a 21-year playoff drought shouldn’t allow us to forget that Rodríguez’s payday needs to mark the start of Seattle’s salary windfall that, at the very least, gets them above the league average in 2023 and beyond.