Will the Mariners spend big on a free agent? “I’d rather have a Mitch Haniger” than another payroll bust like Richie Sexson, Stanton suggests.
John Stanton was resolute when asked Wednesday what his expectations are for the 2018 season.
“To win. Make the playoffs,’’ he said without hesitation.
But the Mariners’ CEO is also savvy enough to understand that those words, and similar declarations of the team’s commitment to success, can “become hollow” (his phrase) with fans who have been waiting 16 seasons now for it to become a reality again.
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“We’ve got to back those words up with action, both in terms of the decisions that Jerry (Dipoto, the general manager) makes and the decisions Scott (Servais, the manager) makes … but ultimately, it has to be backed up with results.”
You might think that understanding would give Stanton, just one full season into his tenure as the top dog of the organization, an itchy trigger finger to mandate the sort of splashy, big-ticket acquisition that catches the attention of fans. My observation has always been that no one is more aggressive on the free-agent market than new ownership or fresh-on-the-job CEOs, who want to prove to fans that they — perhaps in contrast to their predecessor — are willing to “do what it takes” to win. And the way to show that has traditionally been by opening the wallet for a prominent free agent.
But you would think wrong, it appears. Mind you, this isn’t a statement about Seattle’s future payroll. The Mariners opened the 2017 season with a reported payroll of $154 million, their highest ever, which put them in the middle of the pack in MLB (13th, according to The Associated Press). Stanton said they are still a few weeks away from setting next year’s payroll, but “there’s room for growth.”
It’s more about philosophy. When I asked Stanton whether he felt a need to make a big signing to show fans the team was serious in its commitment, he didn’t see it that way. In fact, he invoked the name of Richie Sexson to illustrate what can be the fallacy of that strategy. The Mariners got two good seasons out of Sexson, signed to a four-year, $50 million contract in 2005, before things turned sour. He could just as easily have said Chone Figgins.
“I guess I think of some of the acquisitions we’ve done in the past of expensive free agents, late in their career,’’ he said. “I don’t know how this would resonate with fans, but bluntly, I’d rather have a Mitch Haniger, where he is in his career, with great confidence that he will be an All-Star and people are going to want 17 on the back of their Little League jersey and the like.”
Stanton’s point, and it’s a valid one, is that the compensation system in MLB is set up so that players typically hit free agency, and big money, in their early 30s, at precisely the time when their skills start to decline. That has led to many a free-agent bust — along with many who were still worth the money.
“You look at Robby (Robinson Cano), as high a profile signing as this club has ever done, and it’s worked out great,’’ Stanton said. “I’m thrilled that Robby’s here, thrilled that Nellie (Nelson Cruz) is here. Bluntly, I’d like to see us be strong in the playoffs for a decade, and I think we need to have the payroll dollars spent on players that can be with us for a long period of time.
“I think the (Jean) Segura extension is a great example. Same thing we did with (Kyle) Seager, to get a guy who can play, demonstrates his ability, and then signed to an extension to get them beyond their arbitration period and into their 30s.”
It’s not the sexiest formula in the world, but that is indeed the foundation for a successful organization. The Mariners are a living testament to the fact that bringing in big-name free agents, without the supporting cast around them, is not a ticket to the playoffs.
Stanton’s way (which he says is backed by Dipoto) only works, however, if you have a steady feeder system of young players to add to the mix. Dipoto did a solid job of bringing in the likes of Haniger, Segura and Ben Gamel, all 27 or younger, to infiltrate the lineup. If you want to irk Dipoto, mention that the Mariners are an old team. He’s worked hard to ensure that’s not the case, and to prop open the proverbial window that’s closing on Cano, Cruz and Felix Hernandez.
Yet this team still finished six games under .500 and 23 games out of first place. You can blame injuries, and that’s certainly valid. Stanton expressed the opinion that they could have been a playoff team without losing so many players to the disabled list.
But they clearly need to do some things to bridge the gap that stands between them and the postseason. Haniger is great, but who is their Haniger on the pitching side? James Paxton has all the ability in the world but still has yet to put together a full season. There are a lot of arms, many brought in this season by Dipoto, but no sure things.
Meanwhile, Seattle’s farm system remains in the lower echelon of MLB by almost everyone’s estimation. It’s too early in Dipoto’s tenure to expect him to have fully restocked the mostly empty shelves he was left with, especially when he gave up a lot of the lowest-level talent, out of necessity, to acquire players closer to the big leagues.
No one asked, but the one move I’d like to see the Mariners pursue is free agent pitcher Yu Darvish. Yes, Darvish is in the previously mentioned danger zone — he turned 31 in August, and missed all of 2015 with Tommy John surgery — but Darvish still is a quality pitcher, one who displayed durability in 2017 (31 starts, 186 innings). And as a bonus, he might help attract likely free agent Shohei Ohtani, who played for the same Japanese team as Darvish (Nippon Ham Fighters) and wears his number in homage.
I truly believe that Stanton understands the anguish of Mariners’ fans. At his core, he still is one. Stanton had faith almost until the end of 2017 that the Mariners would rally for a wild-card berth, especially when Paxton and Hernandez came off the DL.
“At that point, I thought, ‘There’s going to be some magic. It’s going to happen.’ And it didn’t,’’ he said.
And until it does, all talk about how to make it happen will remain hollow.