Before signing the whopper deal with the Mariners, the star called a player he knew on the roster for some dish on the club.
“He told me what was great about this organization,” the star recalled. “He said they’re going to make you feel like family. They’ll take care of you. And that played a big role in my situation. You always want to be with people that treat you right.”
Mitch Haniger probably said something like that to Robbie Ray when Ray called his former teammate from their days together playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the quote was from Robinson Cano, about his call to Mariners superstar Felix Hernandez, ahead of the Yankees hero signing in December 2013 his then-MLB-record $240 million, 10-year free agent deal with Seattle.
That deal that rocked baseball was heralded as a breakaway by Mariners ownership from its constipated past. It established that the little guys of MLB could be just as outlandish as the big guys. And the Mariners finally had a marquee player, then 31, to turn around their moribund fortunes and get them to the playoffs.
But the free-agent signing didn’t work out so well.
By the end of his time in Seattle, Hernandez wasn’t so wild about how he himself had been treated. And halfway through his 10-year deal, after the club averaged 83 wins, Cano was on MLB suspension for using PEDs and general manager Jerry Dipoto was exasperated with perpetual mediocrity.
So he traded Cano to the New York Mets and tore down what remained of the Mariners.
Which gets us to this week.
Dipoto’s first dive into the deep end of the free-agent pool during his Seattle tenure brought Ray, at half the cost and half the years of Cano (five years, $115 million), but with some similar swag — the near-unanimous choice as the 2021 Cy Young Award winner in the American League, which he led in starts, innings, ERA, strikeouts and WHIP for the Toronto Blue Jays.
“We thought this was as good an upside investment as we could make,” Dipoto said. “Someone who walks in the door with the kind of gravitas that that we were hoping to attract to Seattle. Someone who could walk in and shift the mindset of a community, to urge a team in the right direction.
“Our our team is ready for these kinds of additions. We felt we owe it to them. This is the right guy for us.”
That’s perhaps the biggest baseball difference between the splashy hires. Ray, 30, is joining a 90-win team with a passel of young talents with considerable upside. The Cano-era Mariners had a lot of players on the downhill side — not terrible, just not playoff-worthy.
As a token of Mariners gratitude, they still owe Cano, 39, $3.75 million in each of the next two years, should he return to the Mets after another 80-game suspension for PEDs.
But that was Jack Zduriencik-then, this is Jerry Dipoto-now.
In the off-season so far — now at a standstill as of Wednesday with the imposition by owners of a lockout following impasse with the players union on a new collective bargaining agreement — Dipoto has added a No. 1 starter and fixed second base, the least-productive position last season.
He traded two prospects, neither in the top 30 of the Seattle system, for Adam Frazier, an All-Star for Pittsburgh last season who spent the final two months in San Diego with the Padres. Frazier, 30, is a career .281 hitter with above average defense who can also play the outfield. He doesn’t strike out much and does get on base, two virtues in short supply last season.
Meanwhile Ray, once he met Friday with Mariners execs after mutual interest was confirmed, put in a call to Haniger.
“I love him as a person and as a player,” Ray said. “He’s a gamer. He had a great year. Just listening to him talk about this city, the fans and the group of guys in that clubhouse, the camaraderie, the brotherhood, it just seemed right. A really good fit.
“I felt like I would be able to bring an element of a veteran presence to help these younger guys come along.”
As Cano before him, Ray was imported to get the franchise to the great beyond of the playoffs. Embroiled with the Blue Jays in the same race for the final AL playoff spot in the final weekend, Ray looked up enough to glimpse his future.
“Seeing the last series here, the fan base showing up, then talking to Jerry and ownership and seeing the vision and direction of this team,” he said, “the way that it was headed . . . man.
“The city is hungry for a for a World Series. To be a part of bringing it, I just wanted to be here.”
As with nearly all these big free agent signings, romance runs deep early. Then comes the hard part.
Maybe this time, the Mariners are ready.