M’s still have financial flexibility for a big move

 As the calendar turns into January, the hot stove typically cools until pitchers and catchers report in February. Although in recent years, including this one, a high-profile Scott Boras client has remained unsigned and figures to be a talking point for the next couple weeks. James Shields is also available, but Max Scherzer is the big fish that has yet to find a home.

The Detroit Tigers and New York Yankees are the most discussed landing spots for Scherzer, and one can’t count out the Boston Red Sox or Los Angeles Dodgers. Any of those four clubs, as well as the San Francisco Giants, could be potential fits for Shields too. One team that hasn’t been connected to either of the aces, for a myriad of sensible reasons, is the Seattle Mariners.

A rotation topped with Felix Hernandez doesn’t require the addition of a true No. 1 in the same way the rotation of the Red Sox or Toronto Blue Jays do. Hisashi Iwakuma in the No. 2 slot gives the club one of the best one-two punches in the game. If James Paxton and Taijuan Walker are able to pitch up to their top-of-the-rotation stuff, the M’s could easily have the best rotation in the American League.

For a team that’s already boosted payroll beyond $110 million for the upcoming season, including a pair of players earning north of $24 million annually, spending big on a starter doesn’t make much sense. The addition of Nelson Cruz already marks a significant expenditure this winter.

Realistically, if there’s a sizeable hole on this ball club it’s that the lineup could use one more significant addition, not the rotation.

That’s probably why we haven’t seen the Mariners involved with Scherzer and Shields or Jon Lester before he signed with the Chicago Cubs. The need for frontline pitching really isn’t there. However the goal for the M’s this winter was to improve the roster. Arguably that can be done at any position not held by Felix, Robinson Cano, or Kyle Seager.

And the M’s have the resources to do so.

I don’t want to suggest investing heavily in Scherzer or Shields is the right thing for Seattle to do right now. Safeco Field could set Happ up for a career year, Paxton was excellent when healthy last season, and Elias has another season of professional ball under his belt. Walker is a bit more of a wild card given his struggles last year with injury and effectiveness but showed flashes of brilliance at the end of the season.

There’s strength in the rotation with some significant upside. Even if Elias shows some signs of regression, perhaps this is the year Walker puts it all together.

This is more an exercise to show that the Mariners do have the financial flexibility to make another big move, should they choose to. Acquiring another starter over the next calendar year may become necessity given the uncertainty that will eventually come. The following is a glance at the contract situations for the Mariners starting pitchers.

Salaries for pre-arbitration players typically fall between $500,000 and $600,000 but I was purposely generous with the amounts — $500,000 for first year, $600,000 for second, and $700,000 for third. It’s also not exactly clear how much cash the Blue Jays will be including to complete the Michael Saunders trade. Reportedly it will amount to the difference between Happ and Saunders’ salary. The outfielder is arbitration-eligible and is projected to earn around $4 million in 2015.

The part that stands out most in that chart is the $13.7 million set to come off the books with the impending free agency of Iwakuma and Happ. It’s too early to speculate on Iwakuma’s future with the club. He is an extension candidate but there have been no reported talks this winter. Same goes for Happ, though the former seems to be the one more likely to be extended of the two.

For example’s sake, let’s assume that the two will depart as free agents. Another $7 million will be taken off the books as closer Fernando Rodney’s contract will expire after the 2015 season as well. That’s approximately $20 million that will be freed up on the pitching side of things alone.

Shields figures to command an annual salary around the $20 million mark for his next deal and Scherzer is aiming to top the $25 million Lester will earn over the course of his new deal. Seattle could add a $25 million salary to the books in 2016 given the payroll that figures to be shed. Add in the influx of television money and holding three and eventually four salaries — remember the Seager extension — in the $20 million range in 2017 and beyond is feasible.

As it has been noted before, the incoming television money is significant. A future payroll in the $150 million range is palpable. Whether or not ownership is willing to earmark that much to player salary remains to be seen, however. The one thing we do know is that these financial resources will be used in some capacity or another; for example, significant upgrades to the Spring Training facility in Peoria.

[pullquote]Earlier in the winter, Prospect Insider profiled the pair of free agent starters. Scherzer’s profile can be seen here, and Shields’ here.[/pullquote]

The problem with adding one of these starters may be in the present. Payroll is already set to increase for the upcoming season and it’s unclear exactly how much more ownership is open to spending. The club was willing to pay Melky Cabrera $14 million or so in each of the next three seasons, but that was before acquiring Seth Smith. The left-hander will earn $6 million in 2015.

Justin Ruggiano, previously acquired from the Cubs, is projected to earn between $2 and 3 million through arbitration as well. Between the two outfielder most of the Cabrera money has already been eaten up.

GM Jack Zduriencik has gone on record saying that ownership is willing to give the green light to the right payroll-adding transaction. But adding another $20 million to the 2015 payroll doesn’t seem likely. Of course the club could backload a deal to make the cost palatable in the short-term, but there’s no evidence to suggest Shields or Scherzer are willing to do that right now.

Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports reports that Shields may in fact have a five-year contract worth more than $100 million in hand right now and is seeking a higher guarantee. If the dollars get crazy like that then obviously the M’s would be wiser to abstain. Just because there is money to spend doesn’t mean that it should be spent haphazardly. Zduriencik and company obviously have some sort of plan in place, and Shields isn’t the type of pitcher worth blowing it up for.

Prospect Insider’s Jason A. Churchill and Alex Carson addressed the Mariners payroll situation and potential interest in Shields and Scherzer on this past week’s edition of The Hot Stove Report. The conclusion drawn was that a fit between the two sides is unlikely at this point in time. Adding significant payroll also doesn’t appear imminent given the sizeable increase from Opening Day 2014.

Right now the bulk of what will be the 2015 Seattle Mariners roster appears to be in place. The addition of a back-up catcher and some pitching depth are the most likely tasks to be perpetrated over the coming weeks.

The Mariners aren’t likely to make another big splash this winter, but at least it’s nice to know that they could if they wanted to.

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Tyler Carmont

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