From Felix to Seager: How the M’s set the stage for success

 The Seattle Mariners entered the offseason with the expectation that significant moves would be made. After all, the club missed the playoffs by a single game in 2014, the first of 10 seasons that Robinson Cano will be paid $24 million. It was also expected that the M’s would pursue contract extensions with a few of their current players, most notably, All-Star third baseman Kyle Seager.

On Monday the Mariners reportedly agreed to terms on an extension that will keep Seager in Seattle for the next seven years with an option for an eighth year. The value of the deal, not including the option, is $100 million, making the third baseman one of three Mariners signed to a nine-figure contract. The other two being Cano and Felix Hernandez.

Seager, 27, had three arbitration years remaining before he would be eligible for free agency, including 2015. Certainly if he continued his pace for the next two years he could have cashed in on a much larger contract. Asking why he agreed to sign now is as simple or complicated as you want to make it. But the process that lead up to that point isn’t as simple as it would appear.

The Mariners weren’t much of a factor in 2013. There were several young players still making adjustments, veterans on the way out, and top prospects ready on the cusp of the big leagues. Seattle has typically been a place where star players depart rather than sign. Alex Rodriguez, Ken Griffey Jr., and Randy Johnson would all agree. When it came out that the M’s were involved in talks with Cano, who was the top available free agent last winter, many were shocked. When reports came flooding in that he was close to signing with Seattle, the baseball world literally froze.

Why the Mariners would want Cano was obvious, but how the team fit the player wasn’t quite so. Obviously the $240 million and ten years were likely the deciding factor that lured the All-Star second baseman away from the New York Yankees. They couldn’t be the only reasons, though. The potential for the spotlight had to be enticing for Cano as well, but perhaps this all stretches back another couple of steps.

At the conclusion of the 2012 season, Seattle had a predicament: Felix would be a free agent in two years time and the club had finished three consecutive seasons in the American League West cellar. Speculation that the M’s could look to move their ace began and the Yankees and Boston Red Sox, among other teams, were lining up their best package of prospects to offer. GM Jack Zduriencik maintained throughout the winter that he would not trade Hernandez, but as of December extension talks hadn’t amounted to much.

Fast-forward to February and the Mariners were holding a press conference to announce that Felix Hernandez would receive the biggest deal in history for a right-handed pitcher, seven years and $175 million.

The alternative to locking up one of the best pitchers in baseball was to trade him, and the club would have been justified in doing so. But unlike previous Seattle-superstars, Felix wanted to stay in the Emerald City, and made that clear in his commitment.

Not only did Felix’s commitment to the team and city speak measures, ownership’s did too. Prior to the extension the biggest contract handed out by the Mariners was five years and $90 million, given to Ichiro Suzuki in 2008. The King will earn almost double that by the end of his deal. Cano will earn nearly three times that number by the time his deal expires.

[pullquote]Seattle began 2014 with the 18th highest payroll at approximately $92 million. The season concluded with more than $106 million in payroll commitments. Including Seager’s contract, payroll sits at roughly $100 million including arbitration cases.[/pullquote]

The commitment to Felix signified a commitment to fielding a winning baseball club. It then becomes imperative that the front office continues to build the club, otherwise that’s just wasted capital. Plus, once you make the first major commitment, the second one tends to be easier. If you are already taking three steps in to the deep end, one or two more doesn’t seem so bad. The motivation is to make those first three steps count.

The Mariners could have dealt the right-hander and ended up being better off long-term, but we’ll never know that for sure. Let’s assume that would not be the case. Maybe one or two of the prospects becomes an everyday player, but that move would have set the team even further away from being in a position to lure a big-name free agent like Cano.

Would Robinson Cano have left the Bronx for Seattle had the Mariners not ponied up the bucks to Felix? It certainly is an interesting question. I don’t know how much Cano loves Starbucks, Pike Place Market, and the tropical Seattle weather but my gut says that he would not be a Mariner. After all, the Yankees were offering seven years and $175 million which is hardly chump change. Factor in the Yankee legacy and a team that’s always in the race and you have a very desirable situation.

Not only did Cano play a significant role in the Mariners’ 87-win season, but he, along with new manager Lloyd McLendon, helped change the dynamic of the team. The clubhouse atmosphere appeared better than it had been in years and the success on the field brought back an energy and excitement. The Mariners were not eliminated from the playoffs until the 2 PM hour on the final day of the season before Felix exited the game to one of the greatest ovations Safeco Field saw all season.

The ship had changed direction and the M’s became relevant again.

In a way the Seager extension really started with the Felix extension. If the club had dealt their ace instead, there’s almost no way they are able to sign Cano. And without either of those two pieces, it’s doubtful the club has the success in 2014 that they did. Say the team finished with a record of 70-92. Does Seager still sign a seven-year extension? Does the team even consider putting out the $100 million? Or is Jack Z shipping off Seager to the highest bidder this winter? All hypotheticals, but not without their merits.

Certainly the chain of events isn’t as simple as the Seager extension not happening without the Cano contract which does not happen without the Felix extension. But if you pay attention, they are all connected.

Typically there are two things that can define a franchise in the eyes of a player: success and a commitment to success. Winning creates a desirable environment and usually a bigger budget for player acquisitions — fans are more willing to pay to watch a winning team. If a team isn’t having success in the standings, they have to make a statement in another way.

Take the Miami Marlins for example. One year after handing out big contracts to Jose Reyes and Mark Buehrle the club dealt the pair and anyone else due a salary north of $2 million. As one can expect, considerable backlash fell upon the organization and the club was black-marked by players. The club refusing to agree to any no-trade provision wasn’t the problem. Signing a player to a long-term deal only to move on one year later? That’s just bad business.

So, after a surprising season in which the Marlins weren’t completely terrible, they made the biggest statement they could by giving superstar outfielder Giancarlo Stanton the largest contract in baseball history: 13 years and $325 million. It can take a long time to shake a bad reputation in this industry, and the Marlins have a long way to go, but in many ways the commitment earns back some credibility for the club. The commitment to Stanton can create a perception in the eyes of a free agent that this is a team committed to winning. In many ways, this is what occurred when Seattle extended Felix Hernandez.

The Mariners are in the perfect position to buy, similar to the winter of 2004 when a combined $114 million was shelled out for Adrian Beltre and Richie Sexson. There’s a strong, young core, elite players locked up to long-term deals, and a fan base that’s energized for a playoff run. Not to mentioned all that RSN money that is about to start filtering in. And it will be a lot.

There’s clearly more motivation for the Mariners’ front office to spend big on payroll in 2015 and in the future. Between Felix, Cano, and Seager a whopping $415 million is committed. The onus isn’t on the club to spend the new TV money, necessarily, but there is urgency. Almost half a billion dollars is being invested into those three salaries alone. If you’re the one writing the cheques, you’re going to want to make sure that the investment is going to pay off. It becomes a lot easier to spend another $20 million when you are already $120 million deep.

Whatever success the Seattle Mariners have over the next several years can be traced back to the 2014 season, and then back to Felix Hernandez’ extension in 2013. Ownership made the commitment and the motivation for ensuring it pays off is evident. All three of the contracts are steps in the right direction: those wondering whether or not the M’s really do have money to spend this winter and are actually committed to winning have an answer. And that answer can be seen in three different nine-figure contracts.

What happens next is all a matter of opportunity and execution.

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Tyler Carmont

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