Nobody has publicly shredded the ownership of the Seattle Mariners more than yours truly the past, oh, 20 years. But it’s time to give John Stanton and the rest of the current ownership credit where credit is due.
After all, I wrote late last summer the group had yet to show how different they truly were than their predecessors.
The Seattle Mariners have not been to the postseason since 2001 and their current ownership is fine with that. Or at least that’s what they’re proving since taking over in August, 2016. — Jason A. Churchill, October 12, 2018
How We Got to Now
When Nintendo of America bought the Mariners in 1992, the club was a season removed from their first-ever winning campaign. Nothing notably changed in the way the team was run up top as far as the on-field product is concerned, but 1995 altered everything. We know the story. With Ken Griffey Jr. entering his prime, the club came back from 13 games out to win the American League West and then take down the Yankees in the division series.
The city responded early during that run and John Ellis, Howard Lincoln and the rest of the local ownership group, saw an opportunity they only hoped would come to fruition when they took over 51 percent control three years prior. The Mariners became a cash cow. The club did spend money, however, so when fans harken back into the history of the Mariners, any thought the ownership was cheap is simply false The Mariners ranked in the top half of the league in all but three seasons (’12, ”13, 14) from 2000-2016. They ranked in the top 10 four times (2001, 2002, 2007, 2008).
The NoA ownership wanted to win. Lincoln and Armstrong wanted to win. They just didn’t want to win badly enough to place serious risk on their bottom line. They bought the team to profit, to make money, first and foremost. And on the surface and for the interim after they saved the team from big-time threats of moving to Tampa-St. Petersburg, that’s just fine.
First Avenue Entertainment took over in August of 2016, so 2019 is the third full season Stanton has run the business. The first two years, GM Jerry Dipoto risked but a little of the future to take a couple of Wild Card shots while veterans such as Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager were under contract and able to lead the way. Following an 89-win 2018, the club decided it was time to rebuild.
Many, many fans balked at the idea the club should tear it down, often citing the Jack Zduriencik years as the last time the Mariners attempted such a feat, and since that didn’t work, it was a bad idea.
Fact is, the Mariners did not tear it down and rebuild under Zduriencik, and they did not rebuild.
There was nothing to tear down, the club was already one of the very worst in baseball, ‘earning’ the No. 2 pick in the 2009 Draft due to a 2008 season that led to the firing of Bill Bavasi and the eventual hiring of Zduriencik over the offseason.
And the club did not rebuild. They simply re-tooled. After a promising offseason that displayed how creative the new front office could be (the three-way deal that landed Franklin Gutierrez and Jason Vargas in Seattle for J.J. Putz, Jeremy Reed, Sean Green, and Luis Valbuena and the signing of buy-low slugger Russell Branyan.
After winning 85 games that season and one draft, Zduriencik built on the win-loss record rather than the roster and health of his payroll and far system, signing Chone Figgins and trading for Cliff Lee before the 2010 season. Say what you want about those deals individually, but their existence represents transactions made by a team trying to win something, anything now, not one attempting to build a sustainable winner that grows organically with a draft-and-develop philosophy.
The Zduriencik era was not a tear-down rebuild. It was simply a new personnel director and a different way to do what they’d been trying to do for years: Get better on the run without fully committing to a rebuild because that would risk the bottom line.
Since the signs Bavasi wasn’t even pretending to tear it down and build it back up are so strong and obvious (free agent contracts), and Pat Gillick was a hired gun-style GM to get the Mariners from pretty good to great, we know that wasn’t a rebuild, either.
This rebuild is the first of its kind in Seattle.
The lens I’ve been looking through shows me the plan all along, once Dipoto was hired to replace Zduriencik following the 2015 season, was to make the best of what Zduriencik had built and regroup to discuss what was next.
Dipoto inherited a club that won 76 games in 2015. Seattle then won 86, 78 and 89 in Dipoto’s first three seasons, with Stanton and company taking over before the latter two years.
I have no idea when the rebuilding discussions took place, but I can guarantee you they started well before the ’18 season began. General managers are planners. Businessmen are planners. They don’t make decisions on a whim. Four weeks, in baseball terms, is closer to whim than planning. You do the math.
So, when I wrote the story last October about the ownership group wanting to win a World Series — and not wanting to settle for Wild Card contention — but not walking the walk, it appeared at the time Stanton was, by all intents and purposes, all too similar to the Lincoln-led controlling ownership group.
A Month Later
At that point, the world knew the club was ‘re-imagining’ their roster. In non-PR speak, that’s rebuilding.
Two weeks later came the mega-deal with the New York Mets that defined the Mariners winter and to this day defines their success in Phase 1 of the rebuild. In came Jarred Kelenic, Justin Dunn, Gerson Bautista, Jay Bruce, and Anthony Swarzak, salaries and all, and out went Edwin Diaz, Robinson Cano (salaries and all) and $20 million cash.
This trade all by itself accomplishes a lot. It brought back young talent and cleared salary for Seattle. But it also served as notice the 2019 club wasn’t going to be good — if you didn’t see that with the first two significant trades of the winter.
With Dipoto speaking publicly on the rebuild, most fans knew what was going on. The deal with the Mets was proof the full tear-down was not just on, but going well.
Stanton Walking the Walk, Part 1
In putting their trust in Dipoto and the plan the front office and ownership put together, Stanton and crew proved they aren’t happy with the ‘let’s shoot for 85-86 wins and hope the baseball gods shine down on us’ approach and wanted more. A lot more.
Losing seasons don’t go over well. Awful seasons are typically met with anger, sadness or worse, indifference. Attendance drops the second half of the season, usually dipping further than it has in previous sorta-competitive seasons (like 2014-2018), and general interest falls through the earth’s crust. Sometimes the biggest attendance hit comes the following year in the form of season-ticket renewals and sponsorships.
This year’s Mariners home attendance is down nearly 5,700 per game.
Rebuilding years are not just a risk to the bottom line, they run right through it. Rebuilds tend to dip into the owner’s profits from the get-go and can last multiple seasons.
Committing to that is a big step for the Mariners. Fans have never seen this particular kind of risk. The one that benefits the on-field product, and ultimately the fans, before it pays off for the owners.
And while it’s a small risk for stakeholders in a business worth well over $1 billion — because the increase in value more than takes care of any year-to-year ‘losses’ — it’s still one the city hasn’t experience from its baseball team.
Stanton continues to prove he’s different. Stanton continues to prove he’s better.
Better as a fan of baseball and particularly his hometown team. Better as an owner of said team. And better as a businessman, too, because in the end, a winning team, one with a chance to do real damage into October and remain highly competitive for years, provides returns any business would like.
This isn’t to suggest we should start a GoFundMe to bankroll a parade for a bunch of wealthy people that made a decision that makes as much business sense as anything. But this isn’t the ‘same old Mariners,’ and Stanton’s willingness to take a multi-year step back — in every way — and trust his baseball guy to succeed at his job is the single greatest reason why.
It’s time to give credit where credit is due, and I am suggesting there’s reason to be confident the club is in good hands with Stanton.
Stanton Walking the Walk, Part 2
There will come a time in the next 2-6 years, perhaps on multiple occasions, when Stanton and his group have to talk with their money.
Building mostly from within is great, it’s the only effective way to rebuild from scratch. But the Mariners aren’t going to get really good and stay really good without spending money.
And pretty big money, too.
Check the Houston Astros for a good example. They built from within. They built a championship team. And now they’re starting to spend money to keep as much fo the team together as possible and mitigate free-agent departures. After spending $26 million in 2013, the Astros won the World Series in 2017 with a $124-million Opening Day payroll.
They started 2019 having committed nearly $160 million and since then re-signed Justin Verlander and acquired Zack Greinke in a trade. Jose Altuve‘s contract goes from $9.5 million to $29 million next season and the Astros have committed $156 million for 2020 on just eight players. There’s a chance Houston starts next season over $180 million, and they’re only three years into their winning window.
But that’s the cost of winning championships.
Is Stanton and First Avenue Entertainment willing to do something similar?
The Benefit of the Little Remaining Doubt
I’ll answer my own trailing question by saying the Seattle Mariners organization has done nothing the past year to suggest they are anything but committed to putting a sustainable, highly-competitive product on the field.
My only — I’ll call it ‘question’ because doubt suggests potential specific evidence to the contrary — is ‘what lengths will the new owners spend money in order to put the Mariners’ homegrown roster over the top, and to keep the winning window open?’
I don’t know the answer to that question, of course, and I don’t know much more about Stanton than anyone else. But what we do know about him is he’s never done anything half-assed, and there’s no reason to expect him to start anytime soon.