BY Art Thiel 04:47PM 02/14/2018

Thiel: Quiet Mariners might have done all right

MLB’s labor agreement reduced the urge for teams to throw long-term deals to older players. By staying fairly quiet, Mariners might have been smart.

Under baseball’s CBA, spring training’s role as a roster builder may be diminished. / Drew McKenzie, Sportspress Northwest

The spring training landscape for the Mariners in the paved-over desert of suburban Phoenix remains largely the same, just more so — strip malls, two-story apartment buildings and shocked visitor faces after seeing car rental taxes, often exceeding the GNP of Canada, which pay for all the cute little ballparks.

But as pitchers and catchers report to Peoria Wednesday, MLB’s economic landscape has changed sufficiently that for many followers, it renders spring training almost barren of competitive hope and value.

The real season doesn’t start when the schedule does says it does, on March 29 — just in time to catch the last of the snow in the Midwest and Northeast.

The real season starts at the July 31 trade deadline, or in the immediate days prior when trade partners strike deals among the seven super teams, the half-dozen or so teams that are kidding themselves and the rest of the teams that are not kidding themselves.

Thanks to changes in the collective bargaining agreement between the clubs and the players signed in 2016, the time around the non-waiver deadline is the new hot-stove league with the (unintended?) side effect of creating competitive imbalance.

The complex rules regarding the luxury tax on player salaries have created a soft salary cap on player payrolls — the lid is $197 million for 2018, up $2 million from 2017 — which is having the effect of discouraging the sort of wild spending on long-term contracts for veterans on the decline that has marked the free-agency period of past winters.

Some call it collusion, others call it common sense. But the fact is, the wealthiest clubs preserved their ability to have best chances to buy from the top shelf, and afford, if necessary, the tax, while depressing the market for players.

The changes didn’t prevent the Yankees from acquiring Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, making their lineup a sort of Megatron in pinstripes.

And the new set-up caused the Dodgers in December to unload Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson and cash to Atlanta in a salary dump that brought in return only Matt Kemp, whom they dumped three years earlier. At 33 last season, he hit .276 with 19 homers and had a WAR of -1.3.

The Dodgers made the move not for reasons of winning in 2018 but to get under the tax threshold in preparation for the loaded 2019 class of free agents, which presumably will include Dodgers target Bryce Harper.

The largest-revenue markets will continue to manipulate the rules to their advantage, and all but the top handful of free agents will lose ground in the marketplace.

The changed market also impacted the Mariners, who are in the kidding-themselves category at the moment. But if their current plans go well, things could change when the real season begins in July.

The Mariners did make some positive winter moves in acquiring Dee Gordon from Miami to play center field and hit leadoff, and Ryon Healy to play first base, creating as substantive a 1-through-9 lineup as they’ve had in more than a decade. They also added two relievers, Juan Nicasio and Shawn Armstrong, who figure to put Seattle’s bullpen at least in the top half of the American League.

But most fans think the Mariners did little to improve the big weakness of 2017 — starting pitching, a rotation that had more members than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

General manager Jerry Dipoto will argue that he did much to bolster the rotation in 2017 with the in-season acquisitions of Mike Leake, 30; Erasmo Ramirez, 27, and Marco Gonzales, 25. Gonzales was acquired July 18 from St. Louis, Ramirez July 28 from Tampa and Leake Aug. 30 from St. Louis.

The three have MLB experience, with WARs around the average, and are under club control. They are the likeliest to follow James Paxton and Felix Hernandez in the rotation. Dipoto claims that none of the three are worth bumping now in favor of any of the top veteran free agents still on the market, including Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb.

Here’s how he explained it at the the spring training luncheon last month.

“We’re doing the best we can to develop our system, not to clog it,” he said. “Could we go out and sign a free agent that would be better than our current fifth starter? Absolutely. Would that be the best thing for the present-day Mariners? Maybe. Would it be the best thing for the wider lens for the present and future of the Mariners? Probably not, no.”

The position is rational for most clubs. But most clubs haven’t missed the playoffs 16 years in a row. In fact, none has but the Mariners. Nevertheless, as with many of his predecessors in Seattle, he seemed to be preaching patience. Cue the eye rolls.

Or was he?

If the rotation performs close to Dipoto’s expectations, the Mariners will be ready to play in the market when the season starts around mid-July. Health permitting, they could be in position to sacrifice some offense, say Nelson Cruz or Kyle Seager, in a trade to another contender for a quality starting pitcher. Or prior to midseason, an unsigned free agent pitcher may be available more cheaply for an emergency hire.

Money, at least according to majority owner John Stanton at the luncheon, will not be an impediment. According to spotrac.com, the Mariners last season spent $171 million on player payroll, 12th in MLB (although they were No. 2 on disabled list salaries), so they were well under the tax threshold. Six clubs, led by the Dodgers at $265 million, were luxury tax payers (also Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Giants).

In the new CBA, the owners outmaneuvered the players, gradually averting longer-term deals in the off-season, mostly for second- and third-tier free agents, and the haves benefiting more than the have-nots. The change so irked the players that the union has opened a training camp for the unsigned players at the IMG Academy in Florida. 

But the Mariners, despite the low-profile off-season, might be in position to take advantage, as long as players and fans understand that significant roster building these days happens around the Fourth of July instead of Christmas.


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YourThoughts

  • Sam Base

    That’s basically what I’ve been thinking. While Seattle sports radio and some fans have been frothing at the mouth over the M’s not singing a pitcher this off-season I’ve been tempted to tell them to R-E-L-A-X. But Art Thiel did it much more clearly and professionally than I could have, so I’m content to let them read this article.

    • art thiel

      I sometimes wonder whether people spend the time to read the column. So thanks, Sam.

  • Theyfinallyfiredcable

    Healy just had hand surgery and may miss all of spring training and possibly the start of the regular season . Gordon is playing center field , a position he’s never played before . Felix and Kuma could put their grandkids on their knees and tell them stories about the horse-and-buggy days . Houston ain’t going anywhere , they’ll be division champs again ; the AL West reminds me a little of the AFC East – there’s the one gorilla at the top of the banana hill and then everyone else . I don’t have a whole lot of ( read ANY ) hope for the playoffs anytime in the foreseeable future …

    Baseball has no salary cap . Until the Mariners find an owner in the mode of a Paul Allen , with deep pockets , local ties and an undying desire to win a World Series , you can forget it . The peeps that own the team see it as a business only , and as long as people show up at the ballpark and spend money then all is well .

    I hate to be Debbie Downer , but at this point some 17 years later , we should probably stop beating a dead horse . Wake me up when Bezos buys the team ..

    • art thiel

      Stanton is the Paul Allen type: Local, deep pockets, baseball first, money second. That is not an issue anymore.

      It’s true that Felix has faded, Healy is hurt, Houston is very good, and baseball has no salary cap, although they’re getting close with the luxury tax. All of which I wrote.

      But it’s the best 1-9 lineup in years. The pen is good. All they need, DD, is major league average starting pitching. A big ask, yes, but they can hire in July, when the season starts.

    • mtblaze

      Do you not enjoy baseball unless your team makes the World Series?

      • Theyfinallyfiredcable

        Well I’ll admit it’s not my favorite sport. I enjoy NFL football and college basketball a lot more . But it’s not even about a World Series ; we’re talking about a team mired in the worst playoff drought in all of professional sports . The Buffalo Bills made the playoffs this year , leaving the Mariners last man standing .Think about that for a moment . NBA , NFL , NHL & every other team in baseball have played a playoff game since the Mariners last did . I think that probably justifies a little scepticism .

  • 2nd place is 1st loser

    After 40 years of mediocre basebal with an astounding 4 playoff appearances, fans should assume the Missiouri state logo. Show Me. Until then we can also resite the great Roger Daltry, meet the new M’s, same as the old M’s. Appear in some playoff games for a change, until then it’s always just false hope of, “hope springs eternal”

    • art thiel

      Won’t get fooled again?

      • 2nd place is 1st loser

        Yes, unfortunately for M’s fans it’s a very fitting song for the last 16 years.

  • Husky73

    The Mariners are exactly where they (almost) always are….hoping to somehow find a side or back door into the postseason because the front door has been slammed shut.

    • art thiel

      Nearly every team has ifs. But the failure to develop their own prospects is the long-term deadener. And Dipoto is now on the threshold of following in the footsteps of Bavasi and Zduriencik.

  • Husky73

    The Mariners need a fast start, and the April competition is tough. If they stumble badly out of the gate, or if they are sitting with the A’s at the all star break…..look for Joe Girardi.

    • art thiel

      They always need a fast start. And Servais has little impact either way on a seasonal outcome.

  • Sonics79

    Not bringing in a proven starting pitcher, when they’re out there to be signed, will bite the M’s in the behind this season. Jerry is basically saying he’d rather have Disastro Ramirez in his rotation over Jake Arietta. Big mistake. Adding one of the three free agent pitchers out there suddenly makes our rotation pretty solid instead of a big question mark.

    • art thiel

      Dipoto has taken a risk with his Felix and his 4-5 guys. But as I tried to point out, a fix in season could be cheaper and easier.

  • Husky73

    The Cubs had the curse of the billy goat. The Red Sox had the curse of the Babe. The Mariners have the curse of Lincecum. They passed on Tim Linceum, the hometown boy coming out of Husky Ballpark. The M’s can shed the curse by signing Lincecum.