Not only is it time for baseball teams to play games that count, it’s time to count the money.
A list of Major League Baseball salaries released by USA Today Thursday showed the New York Yankees ready to pay $197.96 million to players on their opening day roster. The San Diego Padres pay barely a quarter of that, $55.24 million.
The Mariners rank 18th among the 30 teams with a projected payroll of $81.98 million.
Its a mistake, however, to look at the amount teams will spend this season without looking for context.
Two American League West contenders, the Angels and the Rangers, are among baseballs top six heaviest spenders, the Angels shelling out $154.5 million and the Rangers $120.5 million. The other AL West team, the Oakland A’s, against whom the Mariners resume their season-opening series in the Coliseum at 7 p.m. Friday night, are ranked 29th at $55.4 million, respectively.
Its easy to believe that the Mariners are out-matched. They are, but not just because Seattle is being bludgeoned by wallets of the Angels and the Rangers. Part of the pain is coming from the way the Mariners spread around the money.
Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio said this to USA Today about team payrolls:
When you look at virtually all top teams, the top five players’ compensation is 50 to 55 percent of the total payroll. Teams unlikely to perform well have more like 60-70 percent of payroll in their five highest-paid players. That’s usually the function of a bad signing. You may be able to afford it, but if you make a mistake, it can set you back for several years.”
So how do AL West teams fare under the Attanasio way of thinking?
The Angels are spending 52.8 percent of their payroll on their top five players Vernon Wells, Torii Hunter, Jared Weaver, Dan Haren and Albert Pujols.
The Rangers are spending 52.2 percent on their top five Michael Young, Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, Mike Napoli and Ian Kinsler.
The As are devoting 52.8 percent of their expenditures on their top five Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Kurt Suzuki, Brian Fuentes and Brandon McCarthy.
Then we have the Mariners. Their top five Felix Hernandez ($19.7 million), Ichiro Suzuki ($18 million), Chone Figgins ($9.5 million), Franklin Gutierrez ($5.812 million) and Brandon League ($5 million) are consuming $58.11 million, or 70.8 percent of their $81.98 million payroll.
Under the Attanasio theory, the Mariners payroll is the only one in the AL West that is completely non-competitive. Its top-heavy in the extreme. Simply put, there arent enough good players in the middle of the payroll range to make the Mariners competitive.
One wonders, however, if theres more to the Attanasio theory. Its true, as he says, that one bad signing can crush a teams payroll. The Mariners have traveled that road, including one the club just got out of, spending $48 million over four years to pitcher Carlos Silva, who was never the performer in Seattle that he was with his previous team, Minnesota.
But theres another way to make the payroll top-heavy, one that Attanasio didnt mention. Its done by reducing payroll drastically. That, the Mariners have done. After spending $117.66 million in 2008, the outlay has fallen each year — $98.90 million in 2009, $98.37 million in 2010, $86.42 million in 2011 and now this year, the smallest Seattle payroll since 2004.
If the Mariners were still paying out $98 million as they did two years ago, the percentage going to the top five players would fall from 70.8 percent to 59. 2 percent, which is much closer to being where Attanasio says winning clubs should be.
As part of general manager Jack Zdurienciks rebuilding plan, the Mariners have not brought big-ticket players to Seattle while trying to get the minor league organization in position to produce a steady flow of talent. The Mariners think theyre closer to that now than theyve been in a decade.
When they get there, it will be interesting to see if the club goes out and gets the mid-payroll players needed to bring the top five percentage down and the win total up.
Heres the payroll to start the 2012 season:
RHP Felix Hernandez $19.7M
RF Ichiro Suzuki $18M
3B/OF Chone Figgins $9.5M
CF Franklin Gutierrez $5.1825M
RHP Brandon League $5M
LHP Jason Vargas $4.85M
C Miguel Olivo $3.75M
2B Dustin Ackley $2.1M
SS Brendan Ryan $1.75M
RHP Hisashi Iwakuma $1.5M
LHP George Sherrill $1.1M
RHP Kevin Millwood $1M
INF Munenori Kawasaki $625,000
C John Jaso $495,200
1B Justin Smoak $495,100
OF Michael Saunders $489,100
OF Mike Carp $488,800
OF Casper Wells $488,200
RHP Hector Noesi $488,000
C Jesus Montero $486,900
RHP Blake Beavan $486,500
RHP Kyle Seager $484,300
C Adam Moore $483,600
RHP Tom Wilhelmsen $482,900
3B/1B Alex Liddi $481,300
RHP Steve Delabar $480,700
LHP Lucas Luetge $480,000
RHP Erasmo Ramirez $480,000