After almost half a century, it appeared this fall that the Mariners finally caught up to the top tier of baseball’s clubs. Then what happens? The elites hit the nitrous oxide button, and suddenly become dots on the far horizon.
The guess is here the Mariners are again so far behind, it will take another 20 years to catch up. Of course, by then, Puget Sound will have filled up the dugouts at T-ball Park and saltwater will have reached the baselines, so no one will care much.
The trigger event for forecasting the early sinking of the Mariners came this week when the New York Mets signed free agent shortstop Carlos Correa, 28, to a $315 million, 12-year contract to complete a flabbergasting off-season spending spree. The signing means the Mets likely will spend for 2023 nearly $500 million on their player payroll, luxury tax and benefits. The $113 million projected tax, according to salary tracker Sportrac, would be $70 million higher than the record.
For perspective, the Mariners player payroll for 2022 was $116 million (about what the Mets will pay in the supposedly punitive luxury tax), which bought them a second consecutive 90-win regular season and two rounds of playoffs. The Mets had a $268 million payroll, won 101 in the regular season, but lost the opening round of the playoffs to the San Diego Padres.
The Mets’ owner, Stephen Cohen, is baseball’s wealthiest, with a reported worth of $17.5 billion. He responded to the sudden disappointment of the season by making a shambles of MLB’s much-mocked payroll system — the only major pro U.S. team sport without a salary cap — by treating the luxury tax as Elon Musk would treat $44 billion: With cavalier disregard.
The response by the Mariners’ ownership, led by chairman John Stanton, to the club’s relative success was to stay in the shallow end and avoid splashing. Despite emerging from two decades of doldrums, they declined to participate in this season’s free agent frenzy.
They did spend large coin in-season to extend the contracts of their own top young players such as Julio Rodriguez, Luis Castillo and J.P. Crawford. And in the off-season they traded with Toronto for outfielder Teoscar Hernandez to replace oft-injured Mitch Haniger, and found a new second baseman, Kelton Wong, in a trade with Milwaukee. Both Hernandez and Wong have just a single year left on their contracts, so there is no risk of long-term failure.
The upticks are sensible and modest, evoking a sort of Scandinavian Lutheran reticence typical of old Seattle. But in the modern culture of extravagant indulgences from such as Cohen, Musk, Paul Allen and Jeff Bezos, the Seattle oligarchs look dowdy. Backlash from fans whose expectations were adrenalized by the first playoff games since 2001 was noteworthy.
Jerry Dipoto, chief of Mariners baseball ops, tried to defend the modesty by engaging in lengthy media explanations that used phrases like “mid-market” and “doing things differently.”
In a recent interview on KIRO 710 radio, he said, “Right now, we have more future commitments — 2024 and beyond — than all but two teams in baseball. So we have spent our money, we have built larger payrolls, we’ve just done it in a different way than maybe the front-facing, basic 2023 roster might suggest. That’s where draft and develop and trade comes in . . . we are sometimes looking for shorter-term fits.”
His strategy was endorsed by a prominent national baseball writer, ESPN’s Jeff Passan, who criticized Seattle fans for being foolish.
“There’s this sort of disease that happens to sports fans that’s accompanied by winning, and it’s delusions of grandeur,” he told KIRO 710. “It’s this idea that once you’ve started winning, every single thing you do needs to be focused on perpetuating that winning. I think we can call it, like, San Diego Padre-itis.”
The reference was to the National League champions, who followed their World Series loss to Houston by loading up big talents with big contracts despite being the No. 30 TV market in MLB (the Mariners are 14th).
“I am suggesting that expectations may be a little bit outlandish right now,” Passan said. “It’s easy to forget about the Julio contract or about the Teoscar trade or about the Kolten Wong trade . . .… I think in the context of everything else, frankly, if you’re complaining about the Mariners at this point, you’re spoiled. That’s the reality. You’re just spoiled and greedy right now.”
To call spoiled and greedy a fan base that has never seen the hometown team in a World Series, and which ended a playoff drought of 21 years only three months earlier, is the acme of Trumpian hyperbole. I can’t wait for Passan’s line of digital trading cards.
Dipoto, Passan and many around baseball have become unmoored from three fundamental economic principles that are foundational to the game’s success:
- The industry is a monopoly
- All ownerships are of means sufficient to easily accommodate annual losses from operations, and benefit from tax write-offs
- As with other pro-sports-league monopolies, they are, in the apt words of former NFL general manager Andrew Brandt, able to socialize their biggest costs (stadiums/arenas via public taxes) and privatize the profits.
In addition, the Mariners benefit from a monopoly within a monopoly. The Seattle MLB franchise is the only one in a four-state area, plus British Columbia.
The flip side of that lucrative isolation is that quality free-agent hitters with choices don’t want to come to Seattle because of the hellish in-season travel, and the distance from families, which are almost all in Florida, Texas, Arizona and Southern California, for the obvious reason. Plus, Seattle’s cold springs that last into July retard the flights of well-struck baseballs.
These circumstances dictate that the options for winning a World Series must include at some point massive overspending the MLB average salary. That is not to say their current long-term strategy is bad or wrong, just insufficient to the goal.
Which is why I’ve long been desirous of an MLB team in Portland.
Just to shake up the Seattle oligarchs.
The Mariners have no economic incentive to out-pace nearby baseball competition; there isn’t any. They even have a TV distribution monopoly with their majority-owned regional sports network, Root.
MLB has 30 teams and someday would like two add two more. But there’s nothing substantive in the works for a stadium to host the Portland Nikes (what else could they be called?). So for purposes of this exercise in baseball economics, we draw upon the real-life example of the Padres in San Diego.
The Pads had two winning seasons in the past 12 and share with the Mariners two market limitations: An ocean and an international border. But the Padres are much constrained to the north by two MLB teams less than 100 miles away.
So they must go to extreme lengths to win a title.
Already in possession of three of the game’s top offensive talents in Fernando Tatis Jr., Manny Machado and Juan Soto, they recently added free agent shortstop Xavier Bogaerts by giving him $280 million guaranteed over 11 years. Some think the Pads have the best quartet in the game. Their payroll might start the season north of $400 million.
Like Cohen of the Mets, team owner Peter Seidler has vast resources and an understanding of the virtues of monopoly for oligarchs who are freed from conventional thinking about budgets, risk tolerance and financial propriety.
“I’m financially trained,” Seidler told ESPN. “I have a budget in mind up there somewhere, and I think budgets get better when you win world championships. That’s our goal.”
As shockingly stupefying as MLB contracts have become in one off-season, owners wouldn’t do them if the deals compromised the mission statement. Seidler’s logic simplifies everything for all teams, even if the average MLB salary has gone to the far horizon.
Maybe the dreamy notion of a team in Portland wouldn’t inspire the Mariners to change their approach to financing baseball success. Apparently, nothing about reality of what the Mets and Padres have done to hyper-activate the game has made them move, either. Maybe someday.
I suspect most Seattle baseball fans would like to see inspiration strike a bit ahead of Puget Sound’s signing of free-agent Arctic meltwater to help advance east up Edgar Martinez Drive.
Your column reminded me of the many you have written over the years about NCAA sports and the sham of amateurism. I was thinking of many counterpoints as I read until I got to Portland. Now in total agreement. Portland actually has a site purchased and a detailed plan for a beautiful retractable roof stadium.
That’s news to those of us who live in Portland. Where is this site? All I’ve seen is vague notions and dreams. I love baseball, but there is no groundswell of support for baseball in Portland.
Google Portland Diamond Project.
Nice pictures, but again, they have no site and any ownership group that came in would have their own ideas of what they want. And who they want the money from.
To Will and Al: The idea of Portland in MLB remains a dream, but useful for a columnist making a point about regional monopolies. MLB has not hinted at expansion, and in a post-pandemic world teetering on recession, any public money for a stadium is a non-starter.
Great idea to add competition for the M’s, Art. But over the last five years Portland has had a crime and homelessness apocalypse that makes bombed-out Ukrainian cities look like better candidates for MLB.
Oops! Computer ate this comment so tried again below. Sorry for redundancy.
True. Portland and its electeds are in bad shape. Then again, if Phil Knight wanted to fund the stadium and buy the team, deed is close to done. We do live in the Land of Oligarchia.
Great idea for goading the skinflint Mariner owners by adding a Portland competitor, but an apocalypse of crime and homelessness has taken the bloom off the Rose City. MLB is more likely to consider bombed-out Ukrainian cities due to their superior ambiance.
What is with all of this Padres in the 2022 World Series talk? It’s more than a typo, it’s a part of the thesis. It was the Phillies, though.
Fixed. Fouled one off my instep.
I like having an MLB team and Portland whining on the injustice of their lack there of. At some point, with a little luck, they’ll get one and their franchise will put a billboard outside of TMobile Park claiming to be Baseball Town USA as they did when they were awarded an MLS franchise. Hopefully the M’s will have won a title before then.
I even recall when the Northwest had rival NBA teams, and even one in Vancouver. The NBA must be a bad business model.
Portland team would no doubt have Seattle ownership, and would probably slip ahead of the M’s, If history would repeat itself.
An attempt to defend the indefensible: During last season’s baseball labor troubles, The Athletic, a national sports publication, published a mind-numbing, sleep-inducing statistical analysis that demonstrated that, taken as a whole, major-league players performed at their best in their late twenties and the first few years of their thirties. Depending on the rookie year of the player these years fell in the final years they were in club control or the first 2-3 years of their first free agent contracts. After that there as a falloff in statistical performance.
Championship teams always seem to comprise a number of the very few baseball unicorns who have extended their careers into their baseball dotage. MLB owners and GMs are falling all over themselves gambling which players have discovered the fountain of youth (egad!) and which are a step away from a PED scandal. There are no guarantees. The cliché: past performance is no guarantee of future results,
In part, the Mariners have been attempting to capitalize on players best years by locking up their youngest players to ridiculously long contracts such as Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert and Evan White. (Oops) We will see how this works out. The Mariners have also quietly indicated they are looking for players who embrace ‘The Mariner Way’ – control the zone, study the opponent and don’t try to smack every ball over the fence in the rain-sodden air in the months of April, May and June. In the last days of the season M’s manager Scott Servais made reference to players who don’t follow suit and former all-star Jesse Winker was gone in a couple of weeks.
Hi Lyt, good to hear from you. Points well taken. These long contracts to mid-career stars are indeed dangerous. But in a sport without a salary cap, there is minimal harm done to the product if the aging-out vet spends his athletic dotage at home on the couch. A few owners (not the M’s) are willing to risk a bad contract for the instant gratification of a Series win. The M’s goal of developing quality youngsters into champs is logical and admirable, but the disruptive force of a few owners changes the game. It’s like Joe Biden walking into a Metallica concert.
Hard to take anything said here seriously since he doesn’t even know who played in the World Series last year.
Do you dismiss JP Crawford when he overthrows first base?
Thanks for the great read, Art! I would love to see a MLB team in Portland, a city I still love. Even if it doesn’t prod the Mariners to “hyper-activate” their team, I would love to drive across a new pair of bridges from Vancouver into the Rose City to watch a new baseball team. (That current Columbia River bridge system may be inadequate but it sure is a beauty; excuse the non sequitur.) The only thing that would have made this story better would be your naming suggestions for the team…
If you didn’t like Nikes, perhaps the Lewisclarks.
I used to enjoy attending a few M’s games a year and watching/listening to many more. That joy stopped when their ownership helped block the SoDo arena, and disappeared entirely after the the John Stanton video leak. I haven’t paid attention to the team in six years, and to be frank, it’s quite liberating to spend my summer leisure time reading books and watching movies instead of seeing this team constantly trip up for whatever reason.
I feel for the fans, and I liked the ideas DiPoto and Servais brought to the team, but I have no sympathy for that selfish ownership group that’s not sharing the wealth from their tax-funded stadium to the baseball operations, or to the community much. I don’t intend to follow the Mariners again unless they sell to a more magnanimous entity.
As for other teams, if Portland doesn’t get a team, I’d like to see baseball return to Montreal. They had a strong local and Canadian fan base, but were ruined by protracted storm of cheap ownership and stadium issues (a combination of the Marlins and Sonics problems). I hear they have a downtown stadium site and an ownership group ready to go.
I understand contempt for owners, long a staple of sports fans everywhere. And this group is well overdue to pay back locals with a title. Nevertheless, the oligarchs have put together an entertaining team. I don’t want to stop you from picking up a book, but sometimes it’s good to put down a grudge.