The Confusing Mariner Off-season

Let’s take a quick break from football to talk about the Mariners.  You may or may not have noticed that the Mariners’ season ended a while ago.  You may or may not care.  The Mariners may not have crossed your mind since about July.  Most likely, you hadn’t thought about them until you noticed one of the playoff games this week and thought, “Playoffs.  The Mariners must be done for the year.”

To sum up quickly, the M’s were bad, and then they were decent.  Some players were disappointing, but some surprised positively.  Felix is the best.  And, in the end, they were pretty much exactly what we expected: a 75 win team.  That’s obviously not great, but it is improvement.

This off-season is one of the more confusing I remember the Mariners facing, at least from my perspective.  The Mariners front office might not be confused at all.  I hope they’re not.  To us on the outside, however, there are three big issues complicating any expectations:

They’re still young. More importantly, most of their young guys haven’t clearly demonstrated their capabilities.  Moving forward, Seager looks like a sure bet to at least be average.  Jaso clearly has a role, but whether it’s at catcher or elsewhere is less clear.  Saunders was a revelation, but if you’re being picky, he’s not a sure thing at all.  Montero was okay and should get better, but again, no guarantees, plus the catcher defense thing lingers.  Ackley and Smoak were huge disappointments, but it seems too early to give up on them, especially Ackley.  Lots of questions, few clear answers.

Will they spend money?  The Mariners’ payroll has dropped like a rock lately.  While it once hovered around $90 million for a long time, it’s dropped lower and lower the last few seasons.  Once options are declined and so forth, the Mariners are likely to have about $60 million on the books before making any moves.  That will surely come up somewhat, but how far is unclear.  Jack Zduriencik is on record as saying that a) he doesn’t know his budget yet, and b) he hopes to make a move for a big bat.  I’m guessing they’ll be back around the $80 million mark.  I would like them to be higher and I think that’s justified.  However, it might not happen this off-season, for two reasons.  Well three reasons.  The first is that they’re likely going to hold some money until some of their non-Felix players warrant long-term contracts, so the payroll might not rise dramatically for another couple of seasons.  I’m not crazy about that plan, but if this group develops like hoped, that’s fairly justifiable.  The second reason is that there might not be enough out there to spend $30 million on this off-season.  There’s Josh Hamilton and not a lot else for really big additions.  Adding three $10 million guys on multi-year deals isn’t often a great idea.  So, unless they go crazy, make some trades for veterans, or sign a lot of 1 year contracts, spending that much this off-season might not be a good use of the money.  The third reason is that…

An ownership change might be looming.  This has been rumored and speculated for a while.  Before I get into this, let me be clear that there is nothing on record that would show this to definitely be happening, or not.  It’s all speculation.  That being said, it seems pretty likely.  I won’t outline all of the reasons (if you want those, read just about any Geoff Baker blog post from the past year), but the way they’ve cleared the payroll of most big contracts, improved Safeco Field, and stayed away from the free agent market are compelling pieces of circumstantial evidence.  Throw in the way they’ve vehemently opposed the new Sonics Arena (against any clear logic) and increasing rumors from multiple sources, and I’m about 90% convinced the Mariners will have new owners within the next three to five years.

Speculation is that current minority owners would likely take over.  Chris Larson still has the right of first refusal, but it’s not thought he has the financial wherewithal to buy the necessary stake.  Jason Churchill at Prospect Insider wrote the other day that 10% owner John Stanton is probably the most likely to put together a team of new owners.  None of that really matters, until it does.  What is slightly more important is the much-discussed TV deal that will arrive no later than 2015.  If you’re wondering why that’s important, consider that the Angels spent about half a billion dollars (not quite, but almost) after getting a new deal last summer.  It should bring a huge influx of money.  The current deal expires in 2015, but when the new one is agreed on/goes into effect depends on whether they stick with Root or start their own network or do something else.

That was a lot of information, but hopefully it’s clear why it’s hard to get a handle on what will happen this off-season.  If they’re planning to sell the team in, say a year or two, do they keep the books clear or do they look to improve performance and sign a couple of big free agents?  Whether the team’s for sale or not, how does spending relate to the TV deal?  Of course, we could all be wrong, and the ownership has no intention of selling anytime soon.  And all of this is before we even get to what needs to happen to the on-field product.

In my mind, the team needs to get the team some help and relevance, or else they run the risk of losing the few fans that are still paying attention.  I’m as big a fan as they probably have, but even I have trouble paying attention much past the all-star break.  In a few days, I’ll look at a few things that I think need to happen before 2013.  I don’t know if they have a chance of happening because I have no idea what the Mariners are going to do.  I hope the Mariners have a plan, for once.

-Matthew

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