I like listening to John Stanton talk about his baseball team. You can hear the enthusiasm in his voice. I truly can listen to that kind of passion all day long. It’s real. But it’s not enough.
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.
The Mariners ownership group appears, thus far, to be no different than the previous cast of characters led by Howard Lincoln, which is an aggregation of rich people that want to get richer — or at least stay as rich as they are now — without much risk, and along the way hoping and praying their baseball team does something meaningful on the field, partially in order to, yep, you guessed it, make more money.
Stanton and the rest of the Baseball Club of Seattle have shown they’re running a business, above all else. Again, at least so far, that’s exactly what they’ve proven, and nothing else. They’ve yet to risk profitability by extending their payroll to levels that might allow GM Jerry Dipoto to add the necessary talents to the roster to break the longest playoff drought in U.S. professional team sports.
UPDATED: Seattle Mariners Payroll
If the ownership wanted to win as bad as it suggests it does, they’d be willing to take risks. Risks that include spending more money then they’re entirely comfortable spending, potentially exposing the team to red years — where the P&L comes back in the negative.
Such risks might hand Dipoto payroll flexibility he hasn’t had since taking over the baseball operations in September of 2015.
As I’ve noted on numerous occasions on Baseball Things, there’s no good reason Dipoto shouldn’t be allotted every penny under the luxury tax to build a winner.
WHERE’S THE WANT?
If you know me well enough, you might have learned along the way I have an affinity for going for it. Take your shot. I love those stories.
Is it 4th and 5 on your own 45 yard-line late in the fourth quarter of a playoff game you’re losing by one score? Go for it. Punting is for losers.
Always wanted to be a lawyer but think maybe now you’re too old? Nope, go for it. You can always get the job you have now.
Think you can sing but have never had the guts to let others listen? GET ON STAGE AND GO FOR IT.
You have to WANT it more than just about anything else and you have to TRY for what you want. The same goes for the Seattle Mariners, which is why, using the evidence we have to date, I’m convinced the current Mariners ownership group doesn’t want to win more than they want to NOT lose money.
Side Note: I have zero doubt the owners and upper management would all LIKE to win, maybe they’d even LOVE to win. But until they show their fan base they’re so hellbent on winning they’ll risk significant financial losses to do it, it’s business as usual… and the fans know it.
THE STANTON FACTOR
Since long before Stanton took over, and long before I reported in 2013 Stanton was eventually going to be the guy, I’ve heard through mutual contacts that Stanton was different than Lincoln. And he is. There’s no question the two individuals are as different as can be.
He came across the same exact way in short conversations I’ve had with him the past few years.
I’ve noted this many times before. Stanton loves baseball. He lives it as much as any owner in the game. It’s been a lifelong love for him and has resonated throughout his entire family, including his own children and grandchildren.
Stories I’ve heard include the billionaire being caught redirecting his attention to his phone to check scores and news during conversations with friends and even during meetings. (Giant LOL, right?)
Stanton is NOT a bottom-line individual when it comes to baseball. He’s played the bottom-line game in the business world and won. A lot. It’s why he is where he is. But for two-plus years now, he’s been more of a bottom-line chairman and owner than I expected to see.
So far, the actions of the club’s business-first approach is making me look stupid. What I thought I knew about Stanton hasn’t shown up.
IT’S NOT JUST ABOUT MONEY, THOUGH
First of all, it’s important to note the reports the Mariners actually lost money in 2017 ($2.4 million). It’s also important to mention owners consider a lot of the value in their stake in sports teams by the value of the club, not simply and solely the annual operating income reports.
While the club reportedly generated $288 million in revenue in ’17 and it cost them $290.4 million to operate, their value increased nearly four percent to an estimated $1.45 billion. The Stanton-led group owns 90 percent stake, for which they paid $1.26 billion (exactly 90% of the then-$1.4 billion valuation).
If the Mariners wanted to simply make money and absolutely nothing else, they would have slashed payroll aggressively from Day 1, perhaps following the path of the Miami Marlins.
But the club even spent money during the seasons and at the deadlines both years (Jean Segura extension, Alex Colome, Denard Span, Adam Warren, Zach Duke, Mike Leake, David Phelps). They also added payroll over the offseasons (Drew Smyly, Juan Nicasio, Dee Gordon, etc) when they could have stood pat and entered the ensuing seasons with lower payrolls.
They didn’t. And that does mean something. I’m just not sure it’s enough. I’m pretty sure it’s not, since there’s no evidence to the contrary.
It’s not that the ownership doesn’t want to spend money. They spent over $170 million on 40-man roster payroll in each of their first two full seasons. But it certainly appears as if the limit is perpetually about lining up with profitability, whether it be season-to-season or in terms of overall club value.
The $2.4 million operating loss is indeed pennies to a $1.26 billion business. No, really, do the math. But at what point does it become meaningful?
The Mariners seem to see pennies as meaningful, since extending the financial risk has not been a path they’ve taken despite years of evidence such an approach doesn’t work.
Why? Perhaps it’s the fluctuating attendance and lack of general interest in the club the past several seasons, planting seeds of doubt on future revenues. Perhaps it’s a calculated move to attempt to stay in the black as often as possible.
But none of the clubs that made the postseason in 2017 lost money, and only a small handful of playoff clubs the past 17 seasons have reported losses.
If you win, you’ll make money. But the Mariners seem to be focused on the several clubs that didn’t make the postseason in 2017 (or 2016, 2015, 2014, and so on) that still reported profits. Those clubs include the San Diego Padres at $26 million and Chicago White Sox at $30 million. The proof is in the numbers. I mean dollars.
Even this year’s Mariners, which won 89 games despite coming up short in its attempts to break the postseason spell, increased attendance by about 164,000 and spent a bit less on payroll. The club probably made money in 2018, depending on other operating costs.
And the club’s revenues aren’t getting smaller, they’re getting more lucrative as time passes, including what will undoubtedly be a raise in annual ballpark naming rights.
If the media guide slip-up over the winter was true, not only does Proliance Park sound pretty good for a corporately-named ballpark, it’ll bring the club more greenbacks than the $1.8 million per season they received from Safeco over the last 20 years.
Yes, the ballpark is a cash cow, but back to the point.
“The goal is to win the World Series here.” — John Stanton, April, 2016.
The Mariners new ownership has done nothing to instill confidence or excitement, let alone build a roster that has a legitimate chance to win the World Series.
And that’s not solely on the top baseball man, and in this case, it’s really not on Dipoto much at all.
SO, NOW WHAT?
When Dipoto took the job less than a year before ownership changed — the Stanton-led group already knew they were taking over at this point, and Dipoto has since been extended, so he’s their guy — the club had a projected Opening Day 25-man payroll of $142 million. That was thanks to long-term deals for Kyle Seager, Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez, plus three years and $42 million left on Nelson Cruz‘s deal.
Barring a change in payroll strategy by the ownership, Dipoto and company weren’t going to have much flexibility anytime soon, and that stands for another year or more moving forward.
What the ownership is essentially saying by not extending significantly payroll beyond the $170 million 40-man or $160ish million 25-man roster, is Dipoto has to perform magic. Over and over.
Neither Hernandez nor Cano were tradeable at any point since Dipoto arrived due to age, decline and guaranteed dollars. Tearing it down was not plausible. And while I will argue 24/7 a full rebuild is in order right now, that’s a discussion for another day because this organization has a rebuild phobia that apparently cannot be cured. Ever.
The Mariners began each of the past three offseasons as a .500 or so ballclub on paper. There has been no reason to believe otherwise. Nobody in baseball believed any of the last three rosters were particularly good. They needed impact assistance from trades and free agent signings, especially since none of that was coming from their farm system beyond Edwin Diaz.
The farm system was the worst in baseball when Dipoto arrived, leaving the GM with limited options — mostly trades involving players the club hoped were on their way up or in a position to bounce back to form after a down year or two.
Not a ton has changed down on the farm (it’s better, but not markedly so in terms of offering trade ammo), and the club still requires impact talent in the starting rotation and outfield.
Without spending significant dollars, Dipoto’s on the hook for a few spells.
Last I checked, championship baseball teams aren’t built by magic or witch craft, they’re built with creativity, forward-thinking baseball personnel and, yes, financial investments.
The Mariners have $122 million committed to eight players for 2019, and arbitration salaries due to eight more, including James Paxton, Mike Zunino and Alex Colome. Nelson Cruz is not one of the eight under contract. In order to generate a semblance of the same roster quality, Cruz’s value needs to be replaced, if not directly, spread across multiple roster spots.
Seattle won 89 games this past year, but the league was, as Keith Law recently termed it, “stratified,” which is a short way of saying the American League sucked this year outside the top six teams, and two of those clubs spent half the season sucking (Seattle, Tampa Bay).
The Mariners don’t get to start 2019 as an 89-win team, however. They have to start over. I know, it’s unfair, but, when the season gets going in April, the M’s will be 0-0 like everyone else. Just like the Houston Astros. Just like the Cincinnati Reds.
In order to truly build a club that can “win a World Series here” the ownership has to be bold and extend the payroll, and Dipoto has to make good decisions with said payroll.
One can make a strong argument, by eyeball tests, numerous projection systems and by simple common sense, that the roster again is about a .500 club as-is, perhaps worse, but almost certainly not significantly better. That’s the safest, most realistic range with which we can start. Assuming more is a dangerous game the club has played for more than a decade. A game they’ve lost.
Every. Single. Time.
Stanton and the other owners want to win a World Series. I don’t doubt that. But their plan to get there is as flawed as any. On separate occasions six months apart, CEO Kevin Mather and Dipoto have noted the goal of a roster that can end up in the mid-80s in wins and hopefully some things break their way (luck? numerous career years? Seven other AL clubs are contracted to the International League?) and they get beyond 90 wins and into the postseason.
Seriously, those words, or something to that effect, have been said multiple times on the club’s radio affiliate by those charged with the responsibility of building a World Series team.
The ownership wants to win a World Series, but their desires and goals don’t match up to any extent, and their actual plan to accomplish their ultimate goal isn’t in any manner one that can reasonably be expected to produce a Fall Classic appearance anytime soon. Or ever, for that matter.
Every year for 15-plus years the same things are said. And even though Stanton and Dipoto have not been running the show but for the last few, the fans have been here the entire time. Heck, Stanton has been here the entire time.
The previous ownership group was all talk.
To date, so is the current one.
If Stanton, the other 16 owners and Mather want to actually threaten to make their own words ring true, their approach to making it happen has to change.
Trying to win 85 games is likely going to end up in about an 85-win team. Intent is everything. If you plan to be mediocre and act mediocre you’re probably going to max out at … well, mediocre.
Stanton wants his club to be a consistent playoff team and win it all. His words, not mine. I say, if that’s what you really want, act like it and stop parading around as business afraid to death of failing. Because in the end, if you don’t try, you can’t succeed.
It’s time to go for it. It’s time to put up or shut up.
And I really don’t want to stop listening to Stanton talk about his baseball team.
Jason spent 4 1/2 years at ESPN and two years at CBS Radio prior to joining HERO Sports in July, 2016.
Find Jason's Mariners podcast, Baseball Things, right here and follow him on Twitter @ProspectInsider.
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