The Mariners big league roster is all but set. We know who the positions players will be, with minor exception. The rotation is ready to go. The vast and growing assembled multitudes in the bullpen have yet to be sorted out, but even that is taking shape with the signing of closer-in-waiting Steve Cishek.
So Cot’s Baseball Contracts estimate Mariners payroll obligations at $116.5 million in contracts for 13 players on the 40-man roster. It ranges from Felix Hernandez’s $25.8 million to Justin De Fratus at $750K. In addition, and not included in this number are four arbitration-eligible players: CF Leonys Martin, and relief pitchers Charlie Furbush, Anthony Bass and Evan Scribner. Based on their seasons last year, you can tack another eight million on that $116.5 M figure. Everybody else on a major league contract will make the major league minimum or $507K a head. That’s another four million. That pencils out to about $128 M or about five million more than the Mariners paid out in opening day salaries in 2015.
However, the vast majority of those dollars are going to fewer than half the players:
Felix Hernandez $25.8 million
Robinson Cano $24.0 million
Nelson Cruz $14.25 million
Adam Lind $8.0 million
Kyle Seager $8.0 million
Joaquin Benoit $7.5 million
Seth Smith $6.75 million
Wade Miley $6.2 million
Nori Aoki $5.5 million
Chris Ianetta $ 4.25 million
Steve Cishek $4.0 million
So that’s 11 players, consuming $114.25 million of Mariners salaries or nearly 90% of all salaries for 25 players. Sure, DiPoto may have a slush fund for players at the Break or a little bit more to work with. The M’s budget looks to be somewhere in the $130-140 million range. That’s a number that has steadily grown each year since 2013.
It’s the distribution that is troubling. Next year the distribution gets worse, as Lind, Smith, Gutierrez and Benoit come off the books. Today, the M’s are on the hook for seven players with contracts totaling $91.7 million, Iannetta has an option, and twelve players on today’s 40-man roster qualify for arbitration.
This is why DiPoto didn’t opt for a big free agent-no Chris Davis, no pitcher, even a mid tier guy like Iwakuma or Scott Kazmir, whose salaries will likely range in the $15-20 million range for 3-5 year. The Mariners signed their big guys-Cano and Cruz-and extended their own-Hernandez and Seager-and now they’re starting to choke a bit on the residual effects. A case of back-loaded contract reflux.
The Mariners are like many teams. They are a stars and scrubs team, with a lot of money going to a handful players with superior talent, or at least consistently above average production at a major league level, that suck up a huge proportion of the budget, while the rest of the roster spots have to be filled with affordable players. Often that means young affordable guys the farm system has developed like Ketel Marte or Tai Walker. Or maybe they are chancy guys who have regressed or suffered an injury like Steve Cishek or Leonys Martin.
This works well if a team’s farm system is productive, if players are young, athletic and controllable and are major league ready. That keeps salaries lower and allows a team like the Cubs to sign John Lackey, Ben Zobrist and Justin Heyward and still stay within budget. But, as you know, the M’s have not had a particularly productive farm system. Let me count the ways-Jeff Clement, Brandon Morrow, Philippe Aumont, Matt Mangini, Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Steve Baron, Danny Hultzen and Mike Zunino are all first round draft choices taken since 2005. None has done much at the major league level. An effective minor leagues system is what keeps an organization young, cheap, and fresh.
When a farm system isn’t productive, it has two effects. It means a team has fewer cheap options, and it deprives a team of trading chips. a number of Mariners fans commented that they were glad to see the M’s didn’t trade D.J. Peterson, the M’s first round draft choice from 2013. Honestly he’s probably not very desirable. He sucked last year in AA, and as a lousy fielding first baseman, he probably isn’t in high demand.
DiPoto is between a rock and a hard place. The budget most assuredly went up-maybe as much as 10%-but the long term deals to the four stars-Seager, Cruz, Cano and Felix-suck up a tremendous amount of those dollars. He committed to a win now strategy, and had to make over to a team that he thinks suits the ballpark and his philosophy.
But honestly he just didn’t have a lot to work with. He traded the fungible pieces of the 2015 team he could get a return for. So Carson Smith, Brad Miller, Tom Wilhelmsen, Logan Morrison, Roenis Elias, a host of A-ball pitchers all gone, mostly for players still under team control-Miley, Lind, Karns, Aro, Scribner, Powell.
But he avoided the trap of another big contract. These will, as time goes on, strangle the Mariners budget flexibility and the return on them will likely wane as Cano and Cruz move into their late 30’s. Imagine if DiPoto had done what I wanted and coughed up the $15 million for Iwakuma and its effect on the budget. Would he have been able to snag Lind? Or Cishek?
An alternative is to simply spend more and buy what you need at market rates. That works for a few teams-Dodgers, Red Sox, Yankees. But usually the M’s have to pay above market rates and let’s face it, with the luxury tax, the dollars can’t be endless. And how well has it worked for them? The Yankees are slowly winding down their obligations and avoiding new ones as their team ages. The Dodgers really haven’t had that much success despite astronomical salaries. It’s not my money, but it’s likely if the Mariners really want additional big-time talent, they’ll have to pay for it, and the budget will have to increase or the stars will have to be traded-likely for pennies on the dollar.
Nope, stars and scrubs it is. That is the choice this team has made and that’s what DiPoto has willingly nherited. He’s done a remarkable job of turning over the 40-man roster. Now his challenge will be to remake the minor leagues into a productive factory of major league players. But that is a longer term goal.