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Tribune News Service
Ryan Divish

Ryan Divish: What to make of Mariners’ lack of spending so far in free agency

SEATTLE — “A nickel ain’t worth a dime anymore.”

Could you imagine what Lawrence “Yogi” Berra would say about the current financial state of Major League Baseball?

With a slight pause in the offseason transactions, the current total of guaranteed dollars in MLB contracts handed out to free agents by MLB teams since the World Series ended is now at roughly $3.7 billion on 95 contracts.

Of course, the Mets, under owner Steve Cohen, have committed the largest share of that total in a spending spree that hasn’t quite been seen in MLB.

If the Mets are willing to swallow any concerns about Carlos Correa’s surgically repaired ankle and finalize the agreed-upon 12-year, $315 million contract, something the Giants wouldn’t do at 13 years, $350 million, the “other team” in New York will have committed just over $807 million in 10 new MLB contracts this offseason.

His response: “I can promise you we’re going to act like a major market team. Are we going to act like drunken sailors? No. We want to be thoughtful.”

Two seasons into ownership and getting a taste of the postseason in 2022 has either changed Cohen’s philosophy from thoughtful to carefree, or his initial interpretation of what drunken sailors act like is a little different than the norm.

Per Fangraphs’ model, the Mets’ projected payroll for the 2023 season is roughly $376 million for their 40-man roster with a projected competitive balance tax “CBT” payroll, which is adjusted based on the rules of the recent collective bargaining agreement, at $390 million. Under the CBT, or “luxury tax” rules, the Mets would have to pay $116 million in taxes to MLB based on current projections. Half of that amount would be distributed to the teams that go under the minimum CBT threshold of $233 million in payroll and the rest going to the MLB Players Benefits Plan Agreements.

As of now, there are six teams projected to be above the CBT thresholds of $233 million, $253 million, $273 million, $293 million for 2023: Mets, Yankees ($291 million), Padres ($247 million), Phillies ($251 million), Braves ($239.6 million) and Blue Jays ($233.2 million). The Dodgers are currently projected at $232.9 million for 2023.

In Seattle, there has been a fair amount of consternation among the fan base about the Mariners’ relative absence from the free-agent frenzy. Following a 2022 season where the team won 90 games for the second straight year, ended a 21-year postseason drought and advanced to the American League Division series with a win over the Blue Jays in the wild-card series, much was anticipated from the usually active Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners president of baseball operations, and recently promoted general manager Justin Hollander.

Seattle was active via early offseason trades — a preferred method of transaction for Dipoto in past years — acquiring outfielder Teoscar Hernandez from the Blue Jays and second baseman Kolten Wong from the Brewers. Hernandez effectively replaces Mitch Haniger in right field, who signed with the Giants as a free agent, and Wong replaces Adam Frazier at second base, who signed with the Orioles as a free agent.

As far as adding via free agency, the Mariners, either due to philosophical planning or payroll-budget limits or probably some combination of both, were not part of the frenzy.

Seattle has signed one free agent to supplement the 2023 roster: right-handed reliever Trevor Gott on a one-year, $1.2 million contract. That could obviously change in the coming weeks as spring training nears, and the Mariners try to add a right-handed hitting outfielder or possibly another hitter to supplement a lineup that still seems to be lacking in offensive production.

Thoughtful? Presumably.

Cautious? Absolutely.

Cheap? Well, that’s the current debate among Mariners fans.

The Mariners knew they were never going to be players for outfielder Aaron Judge and recognized early that their interest in shortstop Trea Turner was not mutual, while the rest of the shortstop market featuring Correa, Xander Bogaerts and Dansby Swanson was not shaping up as a possibility due to interest — theirs or from the players — and financial reality.

Asked about payroll and the free-agent market at the MLB winter meetings on multiple occasions and on his weekly radio show on Seattle Sports 710, Dipoto was verbose if not increasingly weary in his explanation. He pushed the idea of drafting, developing, trading and extending players as the method to building a team that can sustain winning vs. the “big splash” moves of free agency.

“We use free agency in a way to augment our roster, not in a way to build it,” Dipoto said.

He also mentioned the long-term contract extensions handed out in-season to precocious star outfielder Julio Rodriguez, which could potentially total $470 million, and right-handed pitcher Luis Castillo, who signed a five-year, $108 million extension, which now seems economical compared to this offseason.

Dipoto will never comment directly on his payroll budget for obvious negotiating reasons. He has maintained that ownership, led by chairman John Stanton, has always given him flexibility to spend, and yet …

But multiple MLB sources have indicated that he isn’t operating with the payroll flexibility that was widely anticipated following a 2022 season that saw the Mariners draw 2.287 million fans in attendance (the second-highest total since 2008) and the emergence of Rodriguez as the organization’s biggest superstar and most beloved player since Ken Griffey Jr.

Think about the number of Rodriguez jerseys you saw this season and the number of newly purchased Mariners gear being worn by fans this season.

The Mariners will also host the All-Star Game at T-Mobile Park in 2023, which should have increased season-ticket commitments for this season beyond last season’s success with season-ticket holders getting priority access to All-Star Game tickets.

It’s perfectly fair for fans to be angry, if not at least skeptical. One postseason appearance doesn’t remove the memories of two decades of mostly ineptitude. Trust is earned with action not promises, particularly ones not kept. Dipoto doesn’t set the budget, but he also can’t criticize it.

Per The Associated Press, which obtains the information sent to teams annually, the Mariners’ payroll finished at $93.7 million in 2022. According to FanGraphs, the Mariners’ payroll for 2023 is projected at $135 million, which currently ranks 17th-highest in MLB.

There are currently 12 teams that have a projected payroll below the $116 million the Mets are paying luxury tax. The rebuilding A’s are projected to have a payroll of $54 million.

Dipoto said the Mariners would like their payroll to be closer to the top third of the 30-team league. The 2018 Mariners carried the highest payroll in team history at $171 million, which was 10th-highest that year. The Mariners went into rebuild mode and the payroll has decreased steadily since then. Sources have indicated that the team is expected to get closer to that 2018 salary figure in future seasons, but with basic inflation of salaries, staying near the top 10-15 might require even more money. They won’t reach that level this season even with each team receiving $30 million from MLB’s sale of its advanced media technology.

Obviously, a top payroll doesn’t guarantee success. The 2008 Mariners became the first team to lose 100 games with a payroll over $100 million. The Rays and the previous version of the A’s have always been the antithesis to that thinking.

The Mariners had the 21st-highest payroll in 2022 when they made the postseason. But of the 12 qualified postseason teams, seven of the top 10 teams in payroll — the Mets (1st), Dodgers (2nd), Yankees (3rd) Phillies (4th), Padres (5th), Astros (8th) and Braves (9th) were in the field. The Blue Jays had the 11th-highest while the Rays (23rd at $98 million) and Guardians (27th at $66.5 million) were below the Mariners.

In 2021, six of the 10 playoff teams carried payrolls in the top 10 of MLB.

In the American League West, the Rangers, who finished 68-94 in 2022, followed up last offseason’s spending of $500 million on Corey Seager and Marcus Semien by spending a total of $244 million on three pitchers, including $185 million on Jacob deGrom. They have a projected payroll of $197 million in 2023, which ranks fifth-highest.

The defending World Series champion Astros added veteran slugger Jose Abreu on a three-year, $58.5 million contract, gave reliever Rafael Montero, a former Mariner, a three-year, $34.5 million contract extension and also brought back Michael Brantley on a one-year, $12 million deal. Houston has a projected payroll of $194 million which is 10th-highest.

Meanwhile the Angels, who are currently for sale and have had seven straight losing seasons, are carrying a projected payroll of $207 million for 2023, which is the sixth-highest.

Spending doesn’t guarantee success in MLB; it’s necessary to add or keep talent and certainly helps reduce the variables of potential failure. For the Mariners and this offseason, perhaps it as Yogi said: “It ain’t over til it’s over.”

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