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Perception is reality—and reality is reality—for the Mariners and their spending
One last post on spending for a good while. And the only post, this year, specifically on it.
On a cold afternoon in Baltimore, on New Years Eve of 2017, the 6-9 Cincinnati Bengals upset the 9-6 Ravens. The key play took place on fourth-and-12 with 59 seconds on the clock and the ball at midfield. Andy Dalton hit Taj Boyd on a deep seam route that found the soft spot in the zone—and Boyd took it to the house to knock the Ravens out of the playoffs and put the 9-7 Buffalo Bills in.
It was a pleasant 64 degree October evening in our nation’s capital when the Washington Nationals finished off their sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2019 National League Championship Series. The Nats rolled. Absolutely rolled. They never trailed at any point in the series and saw Max Scherzer and Steven Strasburg dominate the heart of the series, fanning 11 and 12 apiece in games three and four respectively.
The Bills gave the Mariners the longest playoff drought in major professional sports. The Nats made the Mariners the only Major League team to never appear in a World Series.
The M’s weren’t any worse on the evenings of December 31st, 2017 or October 15th, 2019 than they were those very mornings. Nothing materially changed.
But there, on both of those days, a very salient and quotable factoid was created. And whew, when you are the Mariners, those will getcha.
You already know this, but a couple months ago Forbes released their annual report on MLB franchises and a few financials around them. Longtime Seattle sports columnist Art Thiel wrote a piece on report just last week for the otherwise NextDoor neocon Post Alley.
For the first time I can remember, Forbes ranked teams not only by their valuations—which continue to climb from what as recently as the ‘90s were hundreds of millions to now, multiple billions—but also by their most recent profit margin.
The Mariners, for once, were in first place.
Inside the world of sports business, there’s much chatter about Forbes’s annual work. The valuations have always been thought to be a bit off and there’s a reason why you haven’t seen mainstream reporters really run with the supposed profit margins.
To the fans though, “most profitable team in Major League Baseball” sticks like Spider Tack.
The thing is, while questions can be raised on the specifics of this and other financials reporting, if the Mariners didn’t want their fans to think they’re being cheap, they shouldn’t have been cheap.
By the numbers
There are so many different ways to look at MLB payroll—what to include, what not to include, how they change over a season and so on. But really, all that matters is the context for how your number lines up, both in specific seasons and over time, with that of your competitors.
As simple as we can possibly look at it, something you’ve seen from me on Twitter before, is where the Mariners rank among other clubs in Opening Day payroll. I’ve used Cot’s Contracts (now a Baseball Prospectus entity) and however they report payroll.
Ignore specific numbers. Here’s how the Seattle Mariners have ranked over the years compared to the rest of the league by one consistent way to measure them.
They signed Robbie Ray. They gave Luís Castillo and Julio Rodríguez longterm contract extensions. Nobody is saying those don’t count as spending. They absolutely do. But not enough.
The Mariners are still not there. They’re still not allocating as many resources to their Major League team as the average ball club. And they’re not anywhere close to where they were the last time they hosted an All-Star Game, in the heart of the winningest era in franchise history.
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The 2001 Mariners had four starters and eight players total representing them in the summer classic at then-Safeco Field. Five of eight were acquired through free agency.
Things will look different a month from next Tuesday, when the Mariners may be fortunate to have even a couple players in the All-Star Game itself.
I’ll be there, thanks to the Flex Plan my wife and I got this year. I’d bet the organization moved quite a few of those and other season ticket plans because of that All-Star Game and access to its and potential playoff games’ presales.
It’ll be a fun day, a fun weekend—but bittersweet for M’s fans because the playoff games we’d been hoping for, invested financially and otherwise for, may not be coming.
The side-, less thought-of financials for the Mariners are a big part of this. They moved a lot of tickets—not just for the specific games, either—on the backs of the All-Star Game and the Postseason. That isn’t to mention next New Years Day’s NHL Winter Classic.
I don’t know how the direct revenue for the All-Star Game and Winter Classic shakes out as it pertains to the Mariners—but I know I and many others bought our tickets through them. I’m sure they make out quite alright.
Of course, when the games do take place, they’ll be ready to capitalize.
That’s thanks to a “reimagined” Diamond Club, the new Press Club, Terrace Club Loge Boxes and a whole new moneymaking complex across the street. The old Pyramid Brewing property was appraised at almost $19 million when the Mariners acquired it, and before the facility’s expansive renovations.
You’ll be able to buy a beer there for almost the price of one inside the ballpark when you’re pregaming the Home Run Derby.
Like, I get it—it’s all more complex than that. But it also isn’t.
If the Mariners didn’t want people to think they were being stingy and prioritizing off-field profits over on-field performance, well, they shouldn’t have bought an expensive piece of property, opened multiple bars and installed a bunch more luxury amenities before making A.J. Pollock this winter’s most valuable free agent acquisition.
It’s a difference-maker
Hey, I know, free agent signings don’t always work out. Or signing every free agent down a long list of good ones was just always outside the Mariners’ control.
But as much as perception is reality in the world of sports fandom, reality is reality for these Mariners.
As Seattle blossomed into a paradise for capital, the M’s haven’t run a top ten payroll since the first year of Barack Obama’s first term—and just got their teeth kicked in by a rival that blew past them in the American League West behind several strong free agent signings.
It’s a crop headlined—when considering positional need—by Marcus Semien, who the Mariners declined to land (and even pursue) in back-to-back offseason when you include the one-year, $18 million deal he signed with the Blue Jays before a 131 wRC+, 6.2 fWAR season in 2021.
The Mariners missed the playoffs by a game that year.
The toughest part of all this is that, by an admittedly raw and fantasy baseball-esque look at this, you can see how far the gap between them and an upper-third payroll would go if they closed it by successfully acquiring elite talent.
If the 2023 Mariners had Semien (142 wRC+, 3.1 fWAR, best position player in baseball so far) on a deal 10 percent above the AAV he receives from the Rangers, they’d have had an Opening Payroll that passed just…one other club, the Twins. They’d still be 17th in the league.
Let’s say J.D. Martinez (146 wRC+) was only gonna take the deal he did from a clear title contender and, unlikely as it is, the Mariners with Semien were not yet one such team. So make his one-year, $10 million contract with the Dodgers—signed less than two weeks before Seattle added Pollock for $7 million—a one-year, $18 million deal with the Mariners.
The 2023 Mariners would still not be top 10 in Opening Day payrolls, above the Cubs and one spot below the San Francisco Giants, at 11th.
So what the hell, while in fantasy land, let’s say the Mariners managed to backchannel their way into being the team Masataka Yoshida (147 wRC+) signed with the second he was permitted to do so, landing him at a premium of a $20 million AAV.
They would then—after adding Semien, Martinez and Yoshida to an über-talented core—have a top ten payroll. They’d still be behind where the Rangers sit now. But they’d be right where they were when the Mariners ran this town.
This exercise isn’t intended to say “Look, they could’ve easily just added all these guys! It’s that simple!”, but instead to note just how far the gap in resources could go.
Add elite players—multiple elite players—to this club, and imagine the summer we’re all having now.
I say in the subhead that this is the last post on spending for a bit because, while this is the only one specifically and exclusively on it, I am aware it’s an undertone in many pieces.
It’s frustrating. It is a pervasive and omnipresent irritant for Mariners fans. But also, it is what it is.
There’s not much more you can say.
Until they show otherwise, this is it. The Mariners, as an organization—as an ownership group—do not spend on their club in line with the good teams in the league nor their own franchise’s best days.
Maybe they do prove otherwise in the coming offseason and years ahead. Hey, could happen.
The Mariners could win the pennant.
But for at least a little while, I’ve written enough on what it could mean.
We have reality to contend with. And that’s plenty enough to worry about on its own.