Salk: Mariners’ route from good to great may not be big free agents

Nov 10, 2022, 12:14 AM

Mariners Scott Servais Jerry Dipoto...

Mariners manager Scott Servais and president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto on Sept. 29, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

Good to great.

You will hear that famous phrase over and over this offseason as president Jerry Dipoto, general manager Justin Hollander and their team try to get the Mariners over the next hurdle.

ESPN’s Jeff Passan: Mariners have two paths to a successful offseason

They accomplished their first goal of making the postseason and ending the drought. But that was just a lookout point on the way to the real destination: a World Series championship in Seattle.

And so this offseason begins in a different spot from any in recent memory because there is a legitimate base on which to build. The Mariners have already assembled the nucleus of a playoff roster. They don’t just need to rely on hope as a course of action. They have a battle-tested core that has accomplished something meaningful and should continue to improve as it enters its prime years.

But that hasn’t altered some of the familiar refrains from fans, media and other observers and interested parties.

“Sign Judge!”

“Spend the extra money on Trea Turner or Carlos Correa!”

“Raise payroll!!!”

None of these ideas are necessarily wrong, and it’s possible the Mariners will go down one or more of those paths. But I wouldn’t bet my paycheck on it. And while it could be a successful strategy, it isn’t the only one.

Let me start by addressing the payroll. To win consistently in baseball, you have to spend money. You cannot survive as one of the lowest payroll teams in the game and have realistic chances to win championships. But spending money doesn’t necessarily mean spending it on free agents. The problem with many of the “small market” teams is that they don’t retain their best players – they deal them before they reach free agency or risk losing them to teams more willing to spend. Because of that, they rarely have premier veteran players.

But the Mariners aren’t one of those teams. They locked up Julio. They locked up Luis Castillo. I would expect them to sign George Kirby, Logan Gilbert and others. Their payroll will almost certainly rise, but it may do so without a $35 million annual investment in a free agent.

The Mariners need to be great and spending money is a key tool in ensuring that happens. But as a fan, I don’t need them to spend it in free agency. If they can acquire premier talent that small market teams are giving up before free agency, they can maximize the prime years of those players rather than overpaying for the lean ones at the end.

Dipoto told us recently on Brock and Salk that the Mariners are a “draft, develop and trade organization.” That doesn’t mean they won’t dip their toes in the free agent waters (see Ray, Robbie), but it isn’t where they believe the best players are found. I understand the logic.

Because baseball’s collective bargaining agreement prevents players from reaching free agency until they have been in the league at least six seasons (and often more), free agents represent the older half of the league. Of the marquee names available this year, only Correa is 28 or younger. Many of the best available players have already turned 30. Given that prime years are generally considered to be 27 to 31, paying top dollar for a player that will exit their prime within a year or two of signing a contract seems risky. On the other hand, trading for a player who is 26-27 allows you to take advantage of their best seasons.

If you want to be great, it helps to have players at their best. And trading for them gives you the best shot at the peaks of their careers.

Of course, that isn’t entirely true. There is a better way to make sure you optimize the productivity of your players: develop them!

Whether you initially acquire them through the draft, by trading for them as prospects, or by signing international free agents, developing your young players and then signing them to contracts that keep them in your control during their prime years is ideal. And it gives you the flexibility (both roster-wise and financially) to control your own destiny. It lets you trade prospects for proven talent. It gives you leverage. And it gives you the best chance to know your players.

“The teams that separate themselves,” according to Dipoto, “are the ones that build out processes and educational plans and skill development and strength gain that allows a player to go from that 18-21 year old that you sign… and get to the big leagues looking like (a pro).”

I think this logic makes sense, but you don’t have to take my word for it. Nor Jerry’s. You can just look 2,300 miles to the southeast where the best team in baseball right now has employed this exact strategy.

“Tell me the last premium free agent the Astros went out and signed,” challenged Dipoto.

And I’ll wait, because the reigning World Series champions simply haven’t gone that route. Yes, they have signed free agents (Michael Brantley probably being the most notable). But the core of their teams during their run of success was drafted, developed and/or traded for. Correa, George Springer, José Altuve, Alex Bregman, Jeremy Peña, Kyle Tucker, Dallas Keuchel, Framber Valdez and Cristian Javier were all developed in their system. Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Beltrán and Yordan Álvarez arrived via trades. They have built a sustainable, dynastic roster by following these principles.

And the Mariners have the systems in place to follow that example.

While the Astros celebrated last Saturday, the top free agents from last year were at home. Correa, Trevor Story, Kris Bryant, Marcus Semien and Corey Seager all missed the postseason. And while some of the marquee names from previous offseasons have helped their teams (like Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber and others), there is no way to say that free agent spending is correlative to winning titles.

So while they may opt to sign a marquee free agent this offseason, I won’t demand it. I think Jerry will likely use the trade market to acquire his top targets and use free agency to top-fill in around them. And while I believe the Mariners’ payroll must (and likely will) increase, it doesn’t need to come from the top of the free agent market, either. It can come from paying their own players or newly-acquired trade acquisitions.

In the words of Scott Servais, “Doesn’t Matter, Get Better.” I would take that to heart this offseason.

It doesn’t matter what route you take to get better. You just need to improve. And I think they fully understand that assignment.

More on the Mariners

Mariners add pair of pitchers; Sadler, Borucki elect free agency
Mariners’ Rodríguez, Servais finalists for Rookie and Manager of the Year
Shannon Drayer: Important offseason dates, M’s roster status and more
MLB Network’s Jon Morosi: Bats in free agency Mariners could target

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