JOE FANN

Fann: Thoughts on Mariners’ offseason thus far and the great spending debate

Dec 8, 2022, 6:11 PM
Mariners Julio Rodríguez Carlos Correa...
Julio Rodriguez of the Mariners and Carlos Correa of the Twins talk during a June 15, 2022 game. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The San Diego Padres set ablaze MLB Twitter, and subsequently Mariners Twitter, with their blockbuster signing Wednesday evening of star infielder Xander Bogaerts to a massive 11-year, $280 million contract.

Based on reaction from Mariners fans on social media, it appears to be evenly split between jealousy and relief that Seattle didn’t fork over that type of money – not just for Bogaerts but for this year’s top tier of free agents in general.

The Padres are worth focusing on nonetheless given they’re an outlier when it comes to spending. Despite San Diego being the nation’s No. 27 market, the Padres have dished out three contracts of around $300 million, with deals for Fernando Tatís and Manny Machado preceding Bogaerts. The Padres also acquired Juan Soto at the trade deadline last season and will assuredly be looking to extend him on what would be a fourth megadeal for the franchise.

No fan base outside of New York or Los Angeles can relate to the roster-building approach of “there is no cost too great in order to build a winner.” And that makes San Diego objectively good for baseball, a sport that has been largely taken over by the ‘Moneyball’ mantra made famous by the Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays.

Now let’s examine how San Diego’s approach contrasts with Seattle’s. Nobody will argue with Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto’s stated philosophy of “DDT: Draft, Develop and Trade.” I would never claim that a foundation of a roster should be built through free agency. But the foundation has already been built in Seattle with a nucleus of Julio Rodríguez, Cal Raleigh, Ty France, Teoscar Hernández, J.P. Crawford, Luis Castillo, George Kirby, Logan Gilbert, Robbie Ray, and a talented stable of bullpen arms.

This Mariners team, at least in my opinion, is genuinely a piece or two away from being on par with MLB’s top contenders, most notably the World Series champion Houston Astros, who Seattle is chasing in the American League West. So to reiterate, it’s not that I disagree if the Mariners prefer to use free agency as a last resort. That rationale makes sense when prioritizing acquiring players in the prime of their careers via trade while simultaneously grooming your own crop of in-house prospects. What I find troubling is that the Mariners are seeming to view free agency like an avenue for less sophisticated franchises.

Bob’s Mariners Breakdown: Offseason check-in — trades, what comes next

By all reports, the Mariners’ conversations about Bogaerts or Trae Turner in free agency this offseason didn’t go far and they have no plans to pursue Carlos Correa or Dansby Swanson. It seems that Seattle’s ownership, led by chairman and managing partner John Stanton, presents free agency as a taboo market in order to evade accusations of being a cheap franchise. Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reported from MLB’s winter meetings Wednesday that there is “some thought that Dipoto is operating under constraints of a payroll budget set by ownership based on comments he’s made to other teams and to agents.”

Yes, I understand that every team has a budget, but I will continue to argue that most of these arbitrary budgets aren’t nearly as high as they should be. Dipoto has used the talking point that the Mariners are a mid-market team, which leads to mid-market spending. That’s true if you’re going strictly by market size, where Seattle ranks 13th.

Related: Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto explains their offseason direction and expectations

Here are my two rebuttals to that notion. One, the greater Seattle area possesses one of the most immense collections of wealth in the country. And two, the Mariners are one of the few franchises that enjoy the luxury of owning an entire region without competition.

Forget the diehards. Those folks will stick around no matter what. If a 21-year playoff drought didn’t deter them, nothing will.

This is a conversation about the casual fan, and most casual baseball fans in Washington, Oregon, Idaho and parts of Montana are Mariners fans by default. The lack of regional competition has arguably kept the team from having more of a growth mindset. I say that confidently given the repetitive “mid-market” comments by Dipoto.

Consider this: Would the Mariners want another professional baseball team in Portland? Of course not. There’s immense value to having the nation’s 21st-largest sports market just a three-hour drive south down I-5, which is why I would include that market when determining whether the Mariners are truly a “mid-market” club.

We also have evidence to suggest that Seattle is a sports market with huge revenue upside when supporting a winner. The Mariners led the league in attendance in 2001 during their 116-win season. Of note, Seattle ranked 11th in payroll that year.

According to Forbes, the Mariners ranked 12th in revenue in 2022 despite a payroll that ranked 21st (per Spotrac) while having the fourth-most operating income. Additionally, each MLB team reportedly earns somewhere in the ballpark of $60 million annually from national TV deals and $110 million from revenue sharing. That’s $170 million annually before you consider the Mariners majority ownership of ROOT Sports Northwest and the other 52% of their own revenue (tickets, merchandise, concessions, etc.) that doesn’t go toward the league-wide revenue share.

So again, pardon my skepticism of any claim that the back half of these mega deals would be franchise-crippling. Maybe the best barometer of whether or not we’re on the same page when it comes to this discussion is how you view Robinson Canó’s contract and tenure in Seattle, because he was absolutely worth it in my opinion.

Canó provided the Mariners with a 5.6 fWAR in 2014 and a 6.8 fWAR in 2016. The issue was that the Mariners didn’t have a playoff-caliber foundation built prior to signing Canó to that 10-year, $240 million contract. They do now, which is why so many Mariners fans, myself included, salivate over the idea of adding a Carlos Correa-type player (4.4 fWAR in 2022) to an already potent lineup. The same could be said last year with the Mariners watching Marcus Semien (4.2 fWAR in 2022) and Corey Seager (4.5 fWAR in 2022) go to another AL West rival, the Texas Rangers.

The claim that mega contracts are a championship window-shortener can be applied to trades, as well. Emptying the farm system for Pirates outfielder Bryan Reynolds would arguably have a greater negative impact down the road because it would eliminate some of the talent in the next crop headed from Triple-A Tacoma to Seattle. An owner deciding to spend more in a league without a salary cap is a more readily-feasible solution than replenishing a farm system with top prospects in short order.

I completely understand the desire to replicate the Astros’ success step-by-step. The Mariners have done an admirable job to this point operating within that blueprint. But what’s lost in the “Well, Houston hasn’t ever spent big in free agency” counterpoint is the reality that the Astros hit home runs in the MLB Draft with George Springer (2011), Correa (2012), Alex Bregman (2015) and Kyle Tucker (2015). Houston also benefited from getting Yordan Álvarez essentially for free in a 2016 trade with the Dodgers that only cost them reliever Josh Fields.

It’s also sort of irrelevant at this point because the Astros currently sit atop the MLB mountain, and regardless of how they got there, it’s Seattle’s mission to unseat them.

I know the offseason isn’t over yet, and Dipoto could very well have another significant move or two up his sleeve. I’m also not trying to argue that the Mariners are doomed next season because they aren’t going to sign a prominent free agent.

My point is that these boilerplate talking points from Dipoto the last few weeks aren’t indicative of a franchise sparing no expense to capitalize on its championship window at hand. And contrary to what we are being told, I don’t believe the Mariners are an organization incapable of doing so.

Another take: Mike Salk on how to understand Mariners’ approach to improving

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Fann: Thoughts on Mariners’ offseason thus far and the great spending debate