Another big move needs approval? So what?

As we inch closer and closer to Spring Training 2014, many of us are still anxiously awaiting the Seattle Mariners next big move after they agreed to terms with superstar Robinson Cano. The David Price chatter has quieted for the time being, as have the Matt Kemp rumors. Ken Rosenthal of FOXSports reports that the M’s are still weighing both players as options, but need to, as he says, “persuade” ownership to allow another big move. That shouldn’t be a surprise.

While there’s undoubtedly an arduous process an organization goes through to make a high profile move, there’s likely a point when all teams require ownership approval to pass a certain salary threshold even if it’s by a small amount. The Mariners are no different from any other club in that regard. We knew that ownership was very much involved in the Cano signing, as they should be considering the quarter billion dollar investment, and it should come as no surprise that the higher ups would once again need to consent any relatively large deal that may occur.

So what needs to be made out of Rosenthal’s latest report? Practically nothing. We know that in 2013 the M’s opening payroll was a little over $84 million, and they’ve already committed $67 million for seven players for 2014. Add in three arbitration estimates and pre-arbitration players, and the payroll looks like it’ll fall around $81 million. Since the Mariners are already close to last years’ payroll and it was another down year for attendance and conceivably profit, it’s reasonable to suggest Seattle is in all likelihood, close to the top of their budget for the coming year.

Without going into specific revenue details and whatnot, and by factoring something along the lines of an inflation raise, we could take a shot in the dark and say that the Mariners have a budget of about $90 million. This is by no means accurate, but considering the team was willing to spend on Cano and would have to pay several players raises in the upcoming season, it’s within reason to suggest the M’s planned for a slight increase in their payroll compared to last year.

The Mariners don’t really have any obvious non-tender candidates, and the $81 million figure includes 15 players making approximately the MLB minimum. While that number of players could be close to the truth considering the youth of the team, it’s likely that a couple youngsters will be displaced by veteran acquisitions that are still yet to come. If $81 million gives the M’s a 25-man roster, that $9 million difference from our estimated budget ($90 million) would essentially be available for a few possible upgrades. As it stands, three of the five rotation spots could be going to players making half a million each in 2014, and some of that surplus would be well spent on adding a veteran starter or two.

When we start looking at upgrades who come with significant salaries such as a Price or a Kemp, barring the removal equivalent salary, payroll would be pushed at least to the $90 million mark, so ownership approval would  probably be necessary at that point anyways. Rosenthal’s report is simply telling us what we already know; ownership will have to approval a budget increase. Perhaps they aren’t too keen on spending much more than last year’s payroll at the moment and that’s why the process has been so slow. Can you blame them though? If history is as good a teacher as they say it is, there’s a very recent example of how spending big doesn’t always equal results.

The Toronto Blue Jays entered 2013 as World Series favourites after acquiring Jose Reyes, Josh Johnson, and Mark Buerhle from the Miami Marlins, as well as RA Dickey from the New York Mets. The Jays had a 2012 payroll just under $84 million, and began 2013 with a payroll of nearly $120 million after the acquisitions. That’s a $35 million increase in one offseason. How were the end results for the club? Not very good.

Toronto managed to be exactly one win better in 2013 than they were in 2012 and find themselves in a difficult position this offseason as they try to make upgrades. Reports suggested that the Jays pushed their payroll to their absolute limits to get to the $120 million mark, and they wouldn’t have much more available in 2014. Perhaps this example is unfair because the Jays’ suffered a host of injuries to practically all of their key parts, and maybe had too lofty expectations. But it does show how difficult improving an under performing squad can be when payroll is stretched to begin with.

If you tried telling that to the 2009 New York Yankees and 2013 Los Angeles Dodgers they’d beg to differ, but they’re cares of huge market teams with plenty of star power on the roster already. The 2014 Mariners aren’t adding CC Sabathia, Mark Teixiera, and AJ Burnett to Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, and a team that was coming off of an 89 win season like the Yankees were heading into ’09; they’re adding Cano to Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, Kyle Seager, and a team that hasn’t won 89 games since 2003. If the M’s were adding Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Matt Garza to the three, then we’d have a much different story.

That’s not intended to be taken in a derogatory context as I’m as optimistic a Mariners fan as any. It’s simply stating adding a superstar to a 70-ish win team doesn’t equal playoffs. Also, the reality is that a team with a better track record pushing a $150 million payroll to $200 million is a lot easier than a struggling team pushing an $80 million payroll to $100 million. There’s a real possibility that the splurge begins and ends with Cano.

Hopefully ownership will see the benefits of pushing the payroll closer to $100 million and allow Jack Zduriencik to acquire another talented player to accompany Cano et al, but based on what the reports are indicating currently, they aren’t quite ready to do that. Their hesitancy is valid, and it’s not unfair to want to allow the youngsters another year to develop, but on the surface it looks like ownership jumped into the water, but got cold feet.

It’s worth noting that aside from the handful of top rotation arms, there isn’t really much available on the market right now outside of Nelson Cruz and Kendrys Morales. The trade market hasn’t really developed much at this point, but it’s possible there could be more movement as Spring Training nears. The Mariners do have the resources to overwhelm a team to get what they want, or do what the Jays did and acquire several proven talents.

Perhaps it’s not entirely accurate to call Cano the all in move in the first place. Sure there’s an extraordinary financial commitment that could become an albatross down the line, as well as the associated opportunity cost, but in terms of potential talent, the M’s surrendered none.When the Jays made their blockbuster with the Marlins, they still weren’t all in. When they sent top prospects Travis d’Arnaud and Noah Syndergaard to the Mets for Dickey, that was their all in move. Maybe Seattle wants to play it slow and get a better feel for what younger players like Brad MillerTaijuan Walker, and Mike Zunino can do in 2014 and aim to make their all in move prior to to 2015. Who knows, if the M’s are reasonably successful this year, it could be a lot easier to get Price to agree to an extension right away.

As silly as it is to ‘waste’ a year of Cano’s prime, the M’s simply can’t justify making an all in move like the Jays did at this point. Does acquiring Price for a package that’d likely include Walker and Nick Franklin improve the 2014 club? Yes. Are they now a playoff team? Perhaps. Is this deal going to be worth it two or three years down the road? That’s where all the grey matter exists. The Jays felt they were a playoff team without Dickey, and by adding him they’d become World Series contenders. The intentions of the trades were based on Toronto seeing playoff baseball for the first time in twenty years and possibly more by the time 2015-16 rolled around, and watching the dealt prospects blossom wouldn’t hurt so much.

Consider a scenario where Masahiro Tanaka agrees to come to the Emerald City. Would an addition such as that justify a following all in move? Now we got a real debate. First and foremost, getting the approval to sign Tanaka (or an equivalent) may be pushing it as it is. And even if ownership gives the thumbs up and the money is spent, what are the chances the club can further add to what’d likely be a $100 million in 2014? We know the bidding on the Japanese star is going to get crazy, and tacking on an estimated $20 million annually for Tanaka would push that $81 million number into the nine-digit range and past our $90 million estimated budget.

Perhaps it’s all Justin Smoak and mirrors and the M’s are simply trying to underplay their hand and make a convincing argument that they are strapped for cash. If that’s the case, they’re doing all the right things at this point. If Cruz is their target, there’s absolutely no reason play their hand and give him any leverage. Same goes for potential trade target XYZ. After Cano was signed, the assumption was that Seattle was going to go out and make more crazy moves, and naturally other teams would want to take advantage of that.

Whatever the case may be, we’ll likely begin to see much more clarity as it unfolds over the next six weeks. Once February passes by, the plan may still be unclear, but we’ll probably have our answers for 2014.

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Tyler Carmont

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