The Seattle Mariners consistently say they want to win the World Series. I believe they want to. We’ll see how important it is to them.
While one cannot be sure, signs point to a similar offseason plan as last winter for the Seattle Mariners. Fill some gaps (Danny Valencia, James Pazos, Carlos Ruiz, look for value in players coming off down years and hope. Hope a few young players develop a step further (James Paxton, Taijuan Walker, Mike Zunino) and hope the veterans (Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Hisashi Iwakuma) don’t start playing like their age suggests they should.
This is not the way to build a roster primed for 90 or more victories in order to end a 14-season playoff drought.
The Mariners are not simply a few role players away from competing with and eventually beating out the likes of the Texas Rangers and Houston Astros in the American League West. Nor are they currently equipped to pass on significant impact, yet somehow realistically expect to be among the circuit’s top three teams outside the division. If the club indeed takes the same route as a year ago, it’s the wrong approach. And you know what? I don’t know who to blame.
Is it new CEO John Stanton’s fault? Is it president Kevin Mather’s fault? Is it GM Jerry Dipoto’s fault?
Maybe all of the above to varying degrees. Maybe just the former. Maybe it’s Mather’s pledge to keep payroll in a certain range. Perhaps Dipoto oversold his ability to build a winner right away, even without significant resources.
But this isn’t about the club or its owners being cheap. They aren’t. This is about how committed the new top dawgs truly are to bringing a winner to Seattle.
The Mariners’ farm system is void of the layers of high-upside talent it takes to land big-time proven players on the trade market. Tyler O’Neill is just one player. Kyle Lewis has 30 games of professional experience and is recovering from a serious knee injury that required surgery.
The big club’s most valuable young players include Paxton, Walker and Zunino. All have trade value, particularly the two arms. Problem is, trading one creates yet another empty spot for the roster’s most needy unit.
If the Mariners have plans to do damage while Cruz and Cano are still good enough to be the best two hitters on the team, it’s clear their best chance is to spend money. The free agent market isn’t great, and it’s downright awful for teams looking for starting pitching. But they can take on the risk of bigger contracts for good players for which other organizations may accept mediocre talent in return.
The Astros just took on $34 million guaranteed to land catcher Brian McCann, and added Josh Reddick for $52 million. Houston spent $97 million a year ago and project for at least $110 million in 2017 once arbitration figures are pushed.
The point here isn’t the Astros are spending at least $110 million in 2017, up $13 million, or 13.5 percent, from a year ago. It’s that they’re adding to what they had, upgrading over what they’re shedding and acquiring players of impact.
The Mariners spent $154 million last season — No. 14 in all of baseball, so… middle of the pack — and it was good enough for 86 wins. There’s no evidence to suggest they grossly underperformed; there’s twice as much evidence suggesting they could come up short of 86 wins in 2017 due to natural regression and less random luck with injuries.
|Rank||Team||2016 Payroll (millions)|
|1||Los Angeles Dodgers||$279.107|
|2||New York Yankees||227.365|
|3||Boston Red Sox||215.166|
|6||San Francisco Giants||183.743|
|7||Los Angeles Angels||180.743|
|9||St. Louis Cardinals||167.016|
Separating themselves from the mediocre anytime soon probably means doing so in player payroll, too. It’s not that the best payrolls win — The Chicago Cubs were No. 5 in baseball, the Cleveland Indians No. 21 — it’s that Seattle has few other ways to get better.
A year ago I think it made sense to approach the offseason the way Dipoto did. I no longer see it that way. The key to this change in belief is the aging of the roster and the fall of King Felix Hernandez last season.
Adding Valencia, Ruiz and a couple of non-premium relief arms isn’t good enough to win next season. Even adding a solid shortstop, such as Zack Cozart — oft-rumored to be of interest to Seattle — isn’t enough. The club’s rivals, who already were better than Seattle in 2016, are improving. The Mariners have to do the same, and then some.
Of course it’s possible Hernandez bounces back, at least somewhat. Of course it’s possible the veterans pull a near-repeat of their 2016 production value. It’s even possible a young player or two surprises, steps up and even stars for stretches. And, of course, it’s also possible none of the above comes to fruition.
The Jack Zduriencik era, all seven years, was very much based on hope and luck. That’s not a good place to live.
The current Mariners front office has proven it can be creative, but no executive on the planet is so inventive they could turn the current Mariners roster into club with a winning curve up to 95 games (with a floor in the high-80s that may be Wild Card worthy) without adding significant dollars to payroll. Good teams need good players and the Mariners don’t have enough of them.
So, if the M’s plan to win in 2017, they’ll have to act the part. Acting the part this offseason means increasing a payroll that has nearly $110 million committed to eight players, and that doesn’t include arbitration-eligible players such as Leonys Martin.
Okay, So Who, Then?
Need an elite reliever? Compete for one. Need a starting pitcher and don’t have the chips to land an ace like Chris Sale, Jose Quintana or Chris Archer? Jump into the market for Rich Hill or even Ivan Nova.
Jason Hammel is probably better than Nate Karns and Ariel Miranda.
Want a significant upgrade for one of the outfield corners? Carlos Gomez is available. Take a chance on a player who brings two aspects of the game — defense and baserunning — that don’t struggle and comes with upside at the plate that may have returned after his move from Houston to Arlington last summer.
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Power lefty to complement and set up Edwin Diaz? Mike Dunn and Boone Logan are better bets than James Pazos.
In a year, two at most, Cruz and Cano will fade if not fall of a cliff — Cruz’s contract is up after 2018 — and the club will be without two of its three best players. Any real chance to win with these two as the cornerstones of the offense has to happen now.
Here’s to hoping Dipoto and the Mariners have a few significant moves up their sleeve this winter. They’re going to need them.
Jason A. Churchill
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