The Seattle Mariners’ 94 Million Dollar Question

What’s the deal with the Mariners in this free agency period?  Not a whole lot, at the moment.  Aside from some minor deals that have been forgotten as soon as they happened, we’re playing the Waiting Game like a lot of other teams in the Majors not named the Angels or the Marlins.

I got to thinking about the salary cap today – as is often the case when I read a particularly scathing Geoff Baker post about how the owners of the Blue Jays ruined baseball for the city of Toronto this past decade, especially when he talks about these teams in baseball being run by multi-billion dollar corporations who have beyond the means to afford players such as Prince Fielder, if they really wanted to field a competative baseball team – and it got me to wondering about how the Mariners are spending their money.  Of course, I realize there isn’t an enforced “salary cap” in Major League Baseball, but for all intents and purposes, the Seattle Mariners have a self-imposed salary cap, and that cap is anything but impressive.

For the past two seasons, the estimated value of that cap is $94 million.  That’s how much money the Mariners organization has been willing to spend on its roster.  Which is pretty much middle-of-the-road in baseball.  Surely, there are teams spending well under that figure; surely, there are teams spending well over that figure.  $94 million.

I like to think about “worth” when it comes to players and their salaries.  I’ve stated before that I don’t think any single player is WORTH $25 million; but that doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t think the elites should make that kind of money.  If I had my druthers, every Major League team would have at least one $25 million guy (instead of the very best teams having 3 or 4 of them); it would mean that every team would have a guy who can do the impossible.  I refer to the following Comic Book Guy quote as a source of amusement:

Inspired by the most logical race in the universe, the Vulcans, breeding will be permitted once every 7 years.  For many of you, this will mean much less breeding. For me, much, much more.

Since this type of socialist utopia does not exist in baseball, I’ve decided to break things down another way.

All too often, teams will over-spend on certain positions where it doesn’t make sense.  When I speak of these teams, I’m not talking about the Yankees or the Red Sox or the Phillies or any of these other teams with bountiful salaries who are consistently on the cusp of a World Series title and just need that one extra stud to push them over the line.  No, instead I’m talking about these teams who are consistently rebuilding, trotting out mediocre lineup after mediocre lineup, firing GM and field manager after GM and field manager.  These are the teams where, once every five years, they find themselves finally rid of the last batch of oppressive contracts and underperforming players.  Where they have a bunch of money coming off the books and decide to make a big splash or two in Free Agency (only to pay for the wrong guys, starting the cycle of sucktitude all over again).

These are the teams where you always find yourselves saying, “Why did they sign HIM?  And for HOW much?”

If only there was a list, or a set of guidelines to follow when signing players.  Well, I’ve taken it upon myself to be the guy to create this list!  For all those other teams with $94 million payrolls out there.  I’ve assigned the following values to each of the positions for the Mariners.

Catcher:  $3 million
1st Base:  $25 million
2nd Base:  $3 million
3rd Base:  $5 million
Short Stop:  $2 million
Starting Outfield:  $15 million (combined)
Designated Hitter:  $5 million

Starter 1:  $20 million
Starter 2:  $5 million
Starter 3:  $2 million
Starters 4 & 5:  $1 million (combined)

Bullpen (6-7 guys):  $5 million (combined)
Bench (4-5 guys):  $3 million (combined)

Total:  $94 million

Now, for the most part, the Mariners are okay.  The key to this type of roster is finding some value at the back-end of your rotation and a LOT of value in your bullpen.  For a team like the Mariners, who are forced to pinch their pennies, you can’t afford to pay – for instance – your closer upwards of $5 million.  Which means, unfortunately, you can’t afford Brandon League.  He strikes me as the type of guy they should’ve signed to a long-term deal BEFORE last season, before he made an All Star team and his perceived value went through the roof.  In arbitration, League will easily make $5 million this season, which means he shouldn’t be on my team.

As far as the good elements though, we’re paying our catcher just a tick over 3 mil, but we’re paying our 2nd baseman a tick under 3 mil.  Our starting short stop is slightly under 2 mil, and we’ve got Smoak making the league minimum wherever he’s set to play.  Felix is our $20 million man, Vargas is our $5 million man, and Pineda is making the minimum (really, as a #2 starter).  We could sign a veteran for 2-3 million and still get by with another starter making the minimum as our 5th guy.  And everyone besides League will be making the league minimum for our bullpen.

Where you’ll notice we’re struggling is in our bench.  Slated at $3 million in my list above, we’re $6 million OVER budget just by Chone Figgins alone!  Yeah, the rest of the guys on our bench will be making the minimum, but Christ!  $9 million is more than we should be paying our STARTING third baseman!

You’ll also notice we’re paying upwards of $24 million for an outfield consisting of Ichiro, Guti, and League Minimum Guy (Carp, Wells, Robinson, etc.).  That’s too much.  If the Mariners want to be a team that houses a $25 million guy like Fielder, they can’t be spending the same amount in their outfield (unless that $25 million guy IS an outfielder; Ichiro, obviously, is not that guy).

And that’s pretty much why the Mariners have been where they have been these last few years.  We’ve been paying the wrong people TOO much money!  Figgins is making $9 million when he SHOULD be making $0.  Ichiro is making $18 million when he should be making, at most, $3-5 million.  He’s certainly not giving us $18 million worth of Major League production!  Not with his walk rate, his lack of power, his declining bat speed, and his declining defense.  Singles-slapping leadoff hitters aren’t supposed to make $18 million.  We would be wise to send him packing after the 2012 season.

A realistic ideal team for the Mariners in 2011 would look like this:

Olivo:  ~ $3 million
Fielder:  $25 million
Ackley:  ~ $3 million
Seager:  (League Minimum)
Ryan:  ~ $2 million
Starting Outfield:  ~ $19 million (combined)
Smoak:  (League Minimum)

Felix:  $20 million
Vargas:  $5 million
Free Agent:  $2 million
Pineda & Other In-House Young Guy:  $1 million (combined)

Bullpen Without League (6-7 guys):  $5 million (combined)
Bench Without Figgins (4-5 guys):  $8 million

That has us signing Fielder, trading away Guti and replacing him with a league minimum guy, signing a cheap veteran starting pitcher (preferably a lefty who can use the park’s dimensions to his advantage), trading League and implementing Wilhelmsen or some other young buck as our closer, and trading away Figgins while still paying around $6 million of his $9 million salary.  That’s got us somewhere in the ballpark of $94 million, but it still honestly has us with a lot more holes than I would like in our lineup.  Which would look like this:

1. Ichiro
2. Ackley
3. Carp (LF)
4. Fielder
5. Smoak (DH)
6. Olivo
7. Wells (CF)
8. Ryan
9. Seager

To win with that lineup, you have to hope that Ichiro doesn’t fall off the face of the Earth even more than he did in 2011.  You have to hope Ackley reaches near elite status in Season 2.  You have to hope Carp’s 2011 wasn’t a total aberration.  You have to hope Smoak’s struggles in 2011 were legitimately because of his hand injuries and his personal issues.  And you have to hope the bottom of that lineup isn’t totally and completely useless.  Which means Seager HAS to be ready to be an everyday player that doesn’t hit below .200.

Then, of course, there’s the other truly scary aspect of that team:  the bullpen.  We already traded Lueke in this offseason, so there’s a potential impact arm for the back of our ‘pen, gone.  We still have Wilhelmsen, but honestly can we count on him for a full season?  It took him SO long in 2011 to figure his shit out!  And the rest of that bunch leaves me absolutely petrified.  They’re wild, inconsistent, home-run-giving-up machines waiting to happen.  If our starters don’t carry the lion’s share of the innings, I would be expecting a lot of bad endings to games.

But, that’s if THAT happens.  And I truly doubt that’s the team we will end up with.  Either way, though, it’s sure to be a frustrating 2012.  I’m sure by the month of May I’ll be rooting for the End of the World over having to watch another Mariners debacle.

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