As position players join pitchers and catchers to begin Mariners spring training, it is a worthy time to look at the Mariners’ AL West predicament in 2018 a different way — from the bottom up instead of the top down.
The top, meaning the World Series champion Houston Astros and their 101 wins. The bottom was a four-team mash of mediocrity: The Angels won 80, the Mariners and Rangers each 78 and the A’s 75.
Among the five, the Mariners have the second-highest committed team payroll for 2018 — $159 million, up about $5 million from their 2017 opening-day total, according to the current list at spotrac.com. The Angels top the AL West and are sixth in MLB with a committed payroll of $171 million, $11 million more than opening day a year ago.
The Rangers have $138 million committed (down from $175 million on opening day), the Astros are at $151 million (up from $124 million — hello, Justin Verlander) and the A’s $50 million (down from $82 million).
The Angels, who added inexpensively the player Seattle most wanted in the off-season, Japanese two-way star Shohei Otani, and the Mariners likely have the most set rosters. Doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t add salary. But it also means that the Rangers and Astros have even more capability to make additions in spring training or later, as remaining free agents on an unusually long list get increasingly desperate to join teams for fewer dollars and shorter contracts.
The A’s have plenty of room, but alas, they remain stuck in their dump of a stadium with perhaps the lowest local-revenue dollars in MLB. In addition, the man in charge of the A’s, Billy Beane, has lost the strategic edge he once had.
Long heralded as an agent of change in baseball, Beane’s Moneyball concepts were a breakthrough in the use of data to find value in previously overlooked virtues, and helped find young, inexpensive players capable of producing that value largely undetected by traditional scouting methods.
But Michael Lewis’s book, Moneyball, was published 15 years ago, and the movie of the same name came out in 2011. Even then, Beane’s understandings of how to exploit the business of the game were being adopted slowly around MLB, even though Brad Pitt played none of the idea thieves on film.
Now assimilation is virtually complete. And the result, at least for moment, is unpleasant for the game’s competitive welfare.
Beane gave an intriguing interview to Dave Sheinin of the Washington Post Friday, in which explained how MLB has caught up to him.
Because the big-market, big-revenue teams are now run by guys as smart as him, the opportunity for Beane to work the dark corners has vanished. His fellow general managers copied his methods. On an even playing field for talent, the A’s revenues won’t allow the franchise to keep up.
“Eventually, it was going to happen,” Beane said. “Fifteen years ago, we valued young players. You’d say, ‘Everyone values young players.’ But no. The reason young players were important to the A’s is they were cheap. (Now) teams are valuing the same things. When the Yankees value their young players as much as the A’s or the (Tampa Bay) Rays do — wow. That’s what we have now.
“There was a time when we wanted young players, and big-market teams wanted proven players and could afford the cost. But now, we’re all valuing the same things.”
The upshot is that draft choices are taking on more importance, the signing of veteran players to long, expensive contracts mid-career is taking on less importance, and the analytics-driven front offices are less inclined to trade prospects their data suggests can eventually be successful.
To get well, some MLB teams are set to borrow from the NBA, where tanking entire seasons to get top picks has gone on long enough to be a ghastly tradition. The Astros’ 2017 championship payoff via a cabal of quality young veterans, while not exclusively attributable to four consecutive seasons of 90 or more losses from 2011 to 2014, is Exhibit A in going bad to get good.
“The Achilles’ heel with some of those clubs,” Beane said, referring to the slower-witted big markets, “was (their) players would get older on these contracts, and would be saddled with debt and depreciating value on these players.”
The mass adoption of Beane’s ways has created tension between the owners and players union. It is said to be growing toward the levels of the bad old days of the 1980s and 1990s where work stoppages were as much a painful part of baseball as a foul ball off the instep. This season’s luxury tax, imposed on payrolls over $197 million, seems to be acting as a self-imposed, de facto salary cap.
As for the Mariners specifically, they appear for the moment to be caught between the old world and the new.
The years of drafts from GMs Bill Bavasi (2003-2008) and Jack Zduriencik (2009-15) have produced a single No. 1 pick, C Mike Zunino, who has survived to populate the 25-man roster, and it took a patient, heavy lift to get him there.
That’s a small sample size of entire drafts, and some No. 1s (Adam Jones, Taijuan Walker) have been traded. Current GM Jerry Dipoto’s first two choices, OF Kyle Lewis and 1B Evan White, are still in the minors.
But the drought at the top is symptomatic of the inability to select and/or develop premier talent. As a partial result, the Mariners fell victim to throwing giant cash at players (Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano) whose high production years will fade before the contracts run out. Just as Beane said.
Meanwhile Dipoto, who is well-versed in analytics and evangelical when it comes to player development, has to try to win the pot with a farm system that is the equivalent of a pair of treys. In the off-season, he had to trade five prospects to get CF Dee Gordon and 1B Ryon Healy, neither of whom addressed the more urgent need for starting pitching.
The result of this is almost cruel, but you’re entitled to know.
The last time the Mariners were in the playoffs after a 116-win season, the A’s the same year won 102 and made the playoffs. Tempting as it may be to weep piteously for the plight of Beane in Oakland, his teams have made the playoff six times since 2001, the Mariners none.
In the same span, the Angels have been to the postseason seven times, winning one World Series. The Rangers have been five times, including two World Series appearances. Even the Astros, who moved from the AL Central to the AL West in 2013, twice have been to the playoffs in four years and, as you may have heard, won the most recent World Series.
Dipoto and his staff, along with owner John Stanton, are likely the best baseball operations group the Mariners have had in their often tragi-comic history. At the outset of spring training, I believe this team, health permitting, is better than .500.
But after four playoff seasons in 41 years, that is not enough. Not nearly enough. The front office knows the bad history here, but most have neither lived nor felt it, except for Stanton. If and when it comes time to bust a player move for 2018, they should feel free to consider that they are closer to the A’s on the AL West spectrum than the Astros, and act accordingly.