I’m Over The Huge Mega-Deal In Free Agency For The Mariners

Being a fan of the Mariners from 2005-2018 is the baseball fan equivalent of being a Vietnam War veteran. I’m still having flashbacks. There are any number of terrible free agent signings both within that period and outside of that period (for the purposes of this post, when I talk about free agents, I’m talking exclusively about the outside free agents we’ve signed to come to Seattle, not the guys who were Mariners that we then re-signed once they hit free agency), but from 2005-2018, I think the four biggest marquee free agent signings we all know and love are Adrian Beltre, Richie Sexson, Robinson Cano, and Nelson Cruz.

Cruz, admittedly, is an absolute success story, the likes of which is rare and beautiful. On the opposite end of the spectrum, hearing the name Richie Sexson again makes me want to shut my eyes and never look at the Seattle Mariners ever again. When in reality, it was more of a mixed bag, with his power numbers holding up for two seasons, before he fell off a cliff.

Beltre, I feel like, gets more kudos than … whatever the opposite of kudos are, because his defense was elite, because he was best friends with King Felix, and because he settled into a role that was fairly reliable. However, he came here off of a 2004 season with the Dodgers where he finished 2nd in MVP voting. We came into it expecting 48 homers per year, and got far FAR less. As for Cano, I think we all had fair expectations for what that was. 10 years, $24 million per year. We expected about half of those years to be good, and half of those years to be in severe overpaid decline. And that’s pretty much what we got (with the silver lining that maybe we got a good trade out of the whole thing, depending on what Kelenic ends up turning into). But, regardless, it sucks that you’re investing in someone for a decade, knowing full well that half of those years will be miserable failures (only able to get out from under it by taking advantage of a know-nothing GM).

The point of my bringing those players up in this context is the fact that paying huge sums in free agency doesn’t come with a great success rate. You can say that about trades, you can say that about drafts, you can say that about lower-priced free agents. But, obviously, the cost is far less for everything else. But, when you make a huge splash in free agency, the expectation is that those players will not only come in and make an immediate impact, but they’ll be the cornerstones of your franchise. They’ll put you over the top. If you were a losing organization, they’ll turn you into playoff contenders; if you were already playoff contenders, then they’ll turn you into championship contenders.

Every year in the baseball offseason, the biggest storylines revolve around the Hot Stove. Those elite players who’ve hit free agency are the most talked-about. And, teams like the Mariners – who have relatively low payrolls, who are also coming off of a playoff run – are often expected to be big players in those sweepstakes. And the fans ALWAYS get mad when the Mariners opt to sit out the top tiers of free agency.

It doesn’t make sense, for a variety of reasons. For starters, if you just look at the history of the Seattle Mariners, they don’t make huge splashes in free agency in these situations. If you think about the four players I discussed above, those were all situations where we were trying to bail out a sinking ship. We were never in a position to bolster a team from good to great in that period. The last time the Mariners were great, they largely built up the roster in response to losing other major stars (Randy, Griffey, A-Rod), going with less-heralded all stars over those supernovas.

The other big reason why free agency doesn’t make sense is that it really ties you down to one or two major decisions. The reason why building from within is preferred over the alternative is because you have more information. You’re extending guys who have already had success here. For a team playing half its games in Seattle, that means everything. We see over and over again players come here and struggle, with the ballpark, the climate, the distance away from their offseason homes, whathaveyou. It doesn’t matter if they’re power hitters, line drive hitters, or speedy bloop hitters. So, literally anyone you bring here is a coin flip at best; why would you want to tie yourself down for 5-10 years on someone if you don’t even know if they can succeed here? If you trade for someone and they stink, you can get out of it in a year or two without major financial repercussions. Free agents have their money fully guaranteed.

I would also argue – even with the very best players – there’s a reason why they reached free agency. Aaron Judge was your 2022 American League MVP. He broke the A.L. record for home runs. He’s one of the top three most popular players in all of baseball. The Yankees have all the money and revenue in the world. If they REALLY wanted to avoid all this, if they REALLY wanted him to stick around long term, they would’ve already worked out an extension. As we saw with Julio Rodriguez, as the Angels did with Mike Trout, as countless other teams have done with their super-duper-stars, when you want someone to stick around, you figure out how to get it done before they hit free agency.

I’d be curious to know the success rate of players who sign the top 5-10 free agent contracts every year. How often are those players just as good or better than they were prior to signing? And how long before they decline? How often do those players decline right away, or within a season or two? I remember lots of horror stories from the first half of 2022, when the bulk of the uber-free agents were all struggling with their new teams. There’s a chance Aaron Judge signs a contract somewhere else and is just as good as he was with the Yankees. But, there’s a much BETTER chance he signs somewhere and is worse. But that team is stuck paying him an insane amount of money, and guaranteeing him a spot in their everyday lineup, which is the ultimate double whammy.

I don’t need that. Honestly, I don’t need that ever again. I’d rather the Mariners pay their home-grown guys. I’d rather we trade for players nearing the end of their initial contract, who are incentivized to play hard to try to earn more money. I like the way this team has been built. I don’t want them to suddenly change course and start chasing the huge names, only to have those players struggle and waste all of our time.

Frankly, I’m glad that’s the plan. It’s hard enough to get everything right with your own guys. Evan White’s contract looks like a mini-disaster at the moment. J.P. Crawford seems to have more value as a team leader and chemistry guy than he does with his bat. So, I don’t understand how we EVER get things right with outside free agency. That just seems like the crapshoot to end all crapshoots.

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