JOE FANN

Fann: Mariners taking notes from Braves’ World Series-winning strategy

Sep 8, 2022, 9:49 AM

Mariners Julio Rodríguez...

Julio Rodríguez takes the field before the Mariners' game against the White Sox on Sept. 7. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Every series against a playoff team serves as a quality litmus test for any ballclub. The Atlanta Braves are headed to T-Mobile Park for a three-game set against the Mariners this weekend as not only the defending World Series champs, but a team that is once again among MLB’s elite.

Mariners’ playoff push, love affair with Seattle featured by MLB Network

Atlanta (86-51) owns the fourth-best record in MLB, having won seven of its last 10 games. The Braves’ lineup enters with a scorching hot 121 wRC+ since Aug. 1, good for third-best in baseball. Ronald Acuña Jr. and Co. have scored at least seven runs in four of their last five games. The pitching staff has been stout as well, ranking ninth in FIP since Aug. 1.

As a team that just reached baseball’s pinnacle and is attempting to do so for a second consecutive season, the Braves provide the Mariners with a unique blueprint in building a championship contender, one that is already being put into practice in the Pacific Northwest.

Seattle, of course, is a team that hasn’t sniffed the game’s summit since 2001, a playoff drought that will almost assuredly end in a month’s time. The Mariners (77-60) are 8-2 over their last 10 games and sit a game back of the Rays for the American League’s No. 1 wild card spot. They’re five games clear of the fourth place Orioles.

It’s not necessarily an apples-to-apples comparison between Atlanta’s powerhouse and Seattle’s budding franchise, but there are still some notable and applicable takeaways from how the Mariners are mirroring the Braves’ roster construction tactics all the same.

Atlanta’s front office has been heralded for locking up the organization’s homegrown core to long-term contract extensions. The strategy is simple and yet has been widely regarded as innovative: buy out a player’s years of club control to get them immediate cash while saving money on the back end of the deal with the expectation that those players continue to improve.

It began in 2019 with Acuña (eight years, $100 million) and has continued with Ozzie Albies (seven years, $35 million), Austin Riley (10 years, $212 million) and Michael Harris (eight years, $72 million). Atlanta has then used free agency and trades to build around that young core with notable additions like Matt Olson, Charlie Morton and Kenley Jansen. The Braves currently rank ninth in total payroll at $181.8 million, still light years behind the Dodgers ($265.6 million) but comfortably above the league average of $148.8 million.

There’s no reason why the Mariners, who currently rank 22nd in payroll at $114.9 million, can’t reach comparable numbers this next offseason or by 2024 at the absolute latest.

Atlanta’s strategy isn’t at all foreign to Seattle general manager/president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto. Remember, the Mariners signed Evan White to a six-year, $24 million contract extension back in 2019. The deal hasn’t aged well for Seattle, but that number is still a footnote on the organization’s bottom line (not to mention there’s still time for White to bounce back with Seattle having club control through 2028). And even if White never figures it out, it can be affirmed as good process in hindsight given his Gold Glove-winning defense.

At the beginning of the 2022 season, Seattle locked up bullpen flamethrower Andrés Muñoz to a four-year extension worth just $7.5 million. Conversely to White’s contract, the Muñoz deal is already aging to perfection like a vintage Walla Walla cabernet.

The Mariners also made the wise, albeit no-brainer decision to lock up Julio Rodríguez to a long-term mega extension that could span all the way until 2037. It will cost the franchise money the next few seasons, ones where Julio was scheduled to make relative peanuts, but will ideally save the club tens of millions during his prime so long that Seattle’s phenom continues on his meteoric rise.

And while the Mariners lineup isn’t loaded with young stars like the Braves’, the rotation has already proven arms like Logan Gilbert and George Kirby that would certainly qualify as early extension candidates. Emerging prospect Emerson Hancock might not be too far behind them. A big money extension for Luis Castillo should be in the works along with a short-term deal for Mitch Haniger as two additional in-house options for boosting payroll.

Even the most optimistic of Mariners fans wouldn’t try to argue that the Mariners have already joined the Braves along with the rest of baseball’s top contenders (though a case could be made when strictly speaking about Seattle’s pitching staff), but they’re on their way.

And over the course of this upcoming three-game series, in front of an expected raucous crowd at T-Mobile Park, Seattle’s beloved M’s have the opportunity to demonstrate that the gap is continuing to narrow.

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