On the First Avenue side of T-Mobile Park are giant pictures of various Mariners. There’s pitcher Felix Hernandez, third baseman Kyle Seager and designated hitter Daniel Vogelbach. There’s shortstop Tim Beckham, outfielder Domingo Santana and second baseman Dee Gordon. There’s outfielder Mitch Haniger. There’s catcher Omar Narvaez. And there’s former Mariner first baseman Edwin Encarnacion, who was traded to the Yankees on Saturday.
Encarnacion is the only player on that wall no longer with the team. His image likely will be taken down sometime around the All-Star break. But when M’s fans return to T-Mobile after the Midsummer Classic, they should hope several more players’ stickers will have been removed as well.
Wins might be sparse for the Mariners, who have lost 43 of their past 61 games — but that doesn’t mean there can’t be victories on the trading block. Seattle might have trouble gaining momentum and cutting down margins of defeat, but that doesn’t mean it can’t gain prospects and cut down payroll.
You want to maximize the chances of this “step back” season yielding sustained success? Then hope every veteran on this team plays well enough to be dealt away.
There are two primary components to the Mariners evolving into a playoff contender. The first is the 24-and-under crowd blossoming into legitimate Major League contributors. Whether it’s wunderkind Jarred Kelenic in Class A Modesto, prospects Jake Fraley, Justus Sheffield, Evan White and Kyle Lewis in Class AA Arkansas, second baseman Shed Long in Class AAA Tacoma, or shortstop J.P Crawford in the big leagues — the development of the Mariners’ prized youngsters is essential for long-term success. That’s why it’s disheartening when Sheffield’s minor-league ERA skyrockets to 6.78, but encouraging when Kelenic posts a .993 OPS through 64 games, or Fraley wins Texas League MVP for the month of May.
The second component, however, has zilch to do with development and everything to do with dough. Can the Mariners shed enough salary to lure needle-moving free agents in the next couple years?
Despite complaints you might hear from certain fans, the Mariners haven’t been reluctant to spend over the years. Their payroll has been in the upper half of MLB every season since 2015, in part because of hefty contracts doled out to the likes of Hernandez, Seager and Robinson Cano.
But the goal right now isn’t to spend cash but rather to stack it. And it seems the M’s are doing just that.
At one point in 2019, Seattle had $171 million committed to players on its roster. Currently, it has $141 million. It has $88 million committed for 2020, $43 million for 2021, and less than $4 million for 2022.
Every year that payroll shrinks, the more money Seattle has to try and land a whale. And every time the M’s trade a player, the more financial flexibility they have.
The Yankees will pick up between $8.5 million and $10.5 million on the roughly $25 million Encarnacion was owed, creating more space for the Mariners. The Phillies picked up $3 million on the $21 million DH Jay Bruce was owed, creating more space for the Mariners.
Financially speaking, these deals might seem more like jabs to the body than haymakers to the head. But if you make enough moves, the money adds up.
So who’s next? Can Seattle flip pitcher Mike Leake, who has allowed just three earned runs in 23 innings over his past three starts? Can Dee Gordon’s defense and speed compel another team to take him and at least part of his contract? Santana? Beckham? The volatile Roenis Elias, who’s partially recovered his form after a disastrous May?
None of those guys serve a long-term purpose for this team, so you might as well get as much as you can for them.
Nobody knows for sure whether Mariners chairman John Stanton will be willing to make a heavy financial commitment to this club when the time is right. Would he be willing to hover in the monetary stratosphere that the Red Sox, Dodgers and Yankees do?
We’ll see. But until then, the objective should be to scrap as much salary as possible without sacrificing the up-and-comers.
The Mariners aren’t going to compete for a playoff spot this year. That’s been clear for more than a month. But there is hope for the future.
There is many a fan who become attached to certain players regardless of how long they’ve been on a team. That’s fine. But if those fans want to see the M’s in the playoffs soon, they shouldn’t cringe if certain players are traded — they should pump their fists.