Heading into free agency the Mariners find themselves, yet again, at an organizational crossroads. Last offseason I wrote many words about the team’s options,to buy, sell, or stay the course. Already this offseason my good friend, excellent baseball mind, and substantially better writer Brendan Gawlowski has penned a similar series for The Athletic (subscription required). I highly recommend reading it, as it lays an excellent framework to talk around.
There are substantial, in depth things to consider where this organization is at, where it is headed, whether its current leadership is the one to take it there, and on and on. For the common fan however, and for anyone who has been around long enough to endure a sizable portion of this historically long playoff absence, the primary concern is doing what is needed to get the 2019 Mariners to a Game 163, at long last.
In his time here Jerry Dipoto has proven a certain level of competency as it pertains to finding undervalued assets. His identification, pursuit, and acquisition of Marco Gonzales, Mitch Haniger, and to a lesser extent Wade LeBlanc among others are commendable, quality moves. These are moves that help a franchise be more “sustainable” (more on that later). However, given the landscape of the American League as a whole, and the AL West in particular, it’s hard to argue that the Mariners are a clever move or two away from building a team that seriously contends, even in a best case scenario, for anything but the Second Wild Card. If you choose to disagree with that statement after watching the level of unsustainable good fortune it took for the team to finish ten games out of a playoff spot last year, you’ve made up your mind in a way that my words and math won’t change. Being an irrational, blind optimist in sports fandom is largely harmless, and I hope you enjoy that.
The true facts were, are, and will continue to be these: The Mariners as currently constructed are not good enough to realistically expect a contending year in 2019. At minimum they have needs at catcher, first base, center field, left field, and starting pitching. They cannot trade for that needed talent from a surplus of depth at the big league roster, because no such surplus exists. Similarly, the state of the farm limits the talent that can be acquired through trade, and offers scant hope of any graduating prospects able to move the needle to a degree that it matters.
With the departure of Nick Vincent, Chris Herrmann, and Denard Span, Cots estimates the Mariners 2019 payroll at ~$152 milion. Last year the team’s payroll was ~$158 million. The luxury tax for next year is going to be $206 million. If the Mariners see next year as a serious year of contention the question, the only question, is whether the team’s ownership will authorize Dipoto to increase payroll significantly. As the organization stands today, November 5th, 2018 there is no other way to acquire the talent necessary to make statements of World Series aspirations anything other than more of the same empty lip service.
There are other, significant questions that would follow should ownership pursue this course: Which players should be targeted? What do the contract structures look like? Is Jerry Dipoto a good enough GM to pull off a spending spree makeover in a single offseason, or will the thrill of a multi-year reliever contract prove too tantalizing to ignore? These and many other issues would need to be faced and overcome in order to build a championship-caliber roster out of the current Good Ship .500. Without the first, foundational commitment from ownership, however, they are just empty, offseason-filling, content-quota-meeting hypotheticals.
The Mariners current leadership is many things, and chief among them is they are excellent, excellent salespeople. I have heard Jerry Dipoto and other front office employees speak, and spoken to them, enough to know this. Hearing them talk I want to believe in the gospel they continue to proselytize, because it always sounds so damn good and believable. But we have been here before, and we have seen that while the team may be fractionally healthier overall than it was when the Dipoto regime started its work, there is no sensational, overnight rebirth on the horizon. If the Mariners are “building a sustainable winner” as they often say is their intent, then they aren’t planning on doing so prior to the next presidential election at the very earliest.
If the Mariners are serious about winning; not getting close to winning, or Maybe Winning If It All Breaks Right By the Way We Have the Fifth Best AL Record Since 2016, but real, honest to god, cry my tears out rooting for this team in late October winning, the discussion starts with one question, and one question only:
Are they willing to pay the price?