M’s don’t get it: It’s all about good players, draft or free agents

By Terry Benish

Special to The Sports Paper


Over the past year in this market there has been a roiling debate about the financial commitment of the Mariners as measured by how much their payroll level is in contrast to the teams that are competing within the division as well as across all of Major League baseball.

The beat writer ‑ I should say the former beat writer ‑ for the Seattle Times and chief blogger Geoff Baker has iterated and reiterated that the path to victory is to do what the Toronto Blue Jays have done, as have the Red Sox and now the Dodgers.

That is to spend, spend and spend again.

As a very general statement I don’t care a jot about the wealth of the people that make up Mariner ownership. Now that that is out of the way, the viability of the Mariners as a competitive baseball team is an academic interest in that it has been tied to their ability to field a team. For nine years they have not signed a top tier free agent.

It is easy to drop into a riff on free agent hitters won’t come here because of the stadium and lunacy amongst the front office. I have played that tune and can do it to a fare the well, but well, not today.

The Mariners have signed two free agents in their history that could be considered top drawer and one more who mushroomed to being top drawer. John Olerud and Adrian Beltre are in the first category and the third was Brett Boone, who came off an injury and middling career to dominate here for about four years.

Olerud was a magnificent player through age 33 and then fell off.

Richie Sexson falls into the Boone category, badly injured, once here two good years and then father time caught up with him.

But again, I’m off point.

The implied question is should the Mariners spend like drunken sailors and will it result in playoff or World Series baseball.

As a statement of record, the Mariners have not spent cheaply in this century. Since 2009, though, the Mariners payroll as run off significantly. Is that a signal that the Mariners are following the path of Tampa Bay?

The Mariners made financial commitments to players that could not perform here or got old too fast, and they have let their contracts run off or traded them. The list includes Ichiro, Chone Figgins, Franklin Gutierrez, Jose Lopez, Jack Wilson, Jarrod Washburn and Erik Bedard to name a few. Figgins and Gutie account for $16 million. Felix will get a raise. Since 2008 and $118 million the base payroll has dropped to $84 million ‑ $68 million pre-raises.

Still you have Oakland winning a lot and their payroll is $61 million. And you have St. Louis, which over the last 14 seasons has spent about the same as the Mariners, except they’re trending up a bit at $116 million. Here is the entire mind numbing detail around their payroll: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/compensation/cots/national-league-central/st-louis-cardinals/

Why is St. Louis relevant? They pay seven guys a lot, i.e. Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Adam Wainright, Yadia Molina, Allen Craig, and David Friese etc. The other eighteen guys make $.5 million or less per year and all of them were drafted by St. Louis.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports says this is the real Moneyball.

Well is he right?

Moneyball was about Billy Beane and the A’s and on base percentage etc., which is still largely true.

Well, there is the A’s roster, payroll and provenance. Provenance means where they came from and mostly it was not the draft. It would seem that Mr. Beane does not trust his scout’s eyes when looking at amateurs.

Since 2000 the Cardinals have been in the playoffs 10 of the 14 years. They have won two of the three World Series they played in, with another still a possibility.

The A’s on the other hand have participated in seven playoffs since 2000 and lost six ALDS and one ALCS. Their opportunities persist yet, this year.

Since 2000 Toronto has had seven seasons above .500, but no playoff appearances. This past season Toronto added $35 million in payroll and won 74 games, one more than last year.

I’m sure there are some owners and accountants with pinched- brows saying the return on $35 million spent on the margin was one win. Mix in some heartburn and I would hate to be Toronto’s GM right now.

Some more you ask?

Boston went from $175 million to $154 million this year and jumped in wins from 69 to 97. So the math is shrink the payroll and get better?

I promise you I could do this for every team and for each of the last 14 years. I won’t do that to you.

Instead let me suggest the answer does not lie in measuring expenditures with salary. I could do the exercise with Tampa Bay, which just concluded a great season and just spent $61 million, down from $63 million the year before.  Tampa Bay has won over 90 games five of the last six years and have won in six straight years.

Money does matter, but only in the context of how well you can value and project player’s performance and how willing are guys to play for a team such as Oakland that plays in an effluent-covered club house.

As long as they get paid they’ll play almost anywhere.

Here is the deal, the real deal. St. Louis has won largely with players it drafted, frosted with a few free agents. Oakland has acquired players that other team’s do not value and been very successful. Tampa Bay is similar to St. Louis, without the free agents.

It is about players. It is about drafting good players, it is about trading for good players and it is about signing free agent players that are good. When the Mariners do two of three of those they will be better.

It could be a while.