Mariners are a Top-shelf Financial Success. But on the Field?


Futility has been such a foundational characteristic of the Mariners that it sometimes seems to have its own gravity. Longtime fans are pulled hard to the tradition — driven by the fact that it took the franchise 15 years to reach a winning regular-season record, the slowest matriculation in modern American pro sports history — that the Memorial Day weekend signals the end of the portion of the baseball season in which paying attention is a polite custom.

The calendar’s reliability became a cultural fit. Freed from the daily tension of contention, Seattleites, long said to have more boats per capita than any big U.S. city, could enjoy the world’s best summer undistracted, even if summer really begins only after the next holiday.

But lately, the May benchmark has proven as reliable as a Rudy Giuliani press briefing.

In the 2021 season, they were muddling along around .500 before ascending somewhat preposterously to a conclusion of 90 regular-season wins. In 2022, they were five games below .500 as late as July 1. Then the M’s ran off 14 wins in a row to help prosper again at 90-72, reaching the playoffs for the first time since the Old Testament, then winning a first-round series.

This season, the Mariners have concluded May at 29-27 after a taut 1-0 win in 10 innings Wednesday at T-ball Park over the New York Yankees, who won the first two games of the series by a combined 20-6. The losses were the sort of varsity vs. junior varsity cudgelings that prompt reflexive eyerolls in Seattle, the kind that even bridge cables strain to hold. But Wednesday, eight innings of three-hit shutout ball by prodigy pitcher George Kirby, 25, relieved Scott Servais of the need to explain that the end of May isn’t, well, mayday for the season.

“We obviously got banged around here the last two nights,” the Mariners manager said. “For (Kirby) to go out there and just totally take control of the game — pretty special. Doesn’t get much better than that.

“You don’t want to get swept heading out on the road.”

The Mariners finished the homestand 7-3 (although four wins were over the Oakland A’s, which this season MLB should count as exhibition games). But if the old tradition is drifting toward irrelevance, the void must be filled with something.

So it has:

Expectations. Gah.

The breakthrough into October play changed much around the Mariners. The most important one: The franchise deserves to be taken seriously as a baseball competitor. That concept gained acceleration in March when Forbes came out with its annual valuations and deduced that the Mariners in 2022 were the most profitable team in MLB, clearing $84 million in annual operations. That helped advance the M’s in Forbes’ club overall valuations from 16th to 13th ($2.2 billion), ahead of the teams they met in the playoffs, the Toronto Blue Jays and the defending champion Houston Astros.

For fans around since the Seattle ownerships of George Argyros and Jeff Smulyan, who bleated piteously that baseball would not work in Seattle, there can be no feat more astonishing. This is like Elmer Fudd turning into George Clooney.

Naturally the news inspired the masses into a collective slavering for a player payroll that reflected the financial success. But no. The Mariners’ 2023 payroll is $138 million, according to Spotrac. The New York Mets are first at $345 million, the Yankees second at $278 million. The MLB average is $161 million (Oakland is last at $60 million).

Baseball fans know well the hoary bromide that player payroll does not automatically convey success. But those in Seattle, with considerable justification, ask: We’ve tried it one way for 47 years, and remain the only team in MLB never to have made the World Series; can we try it the other way once?

Ownership never answers such questions. Deeds, however, speak for themselves.

Entering Thursday’s games, the Mariners were 28th in batting average (.228), 25th in slugging (.381) and 25th in OPS (.689). The opening day roster included as starting DH a 34-year-old free agent signee named Tommy La Stella, who fell about 70 points short of his career batting average of .266 and was fired May 4 after 21 games. The other two position-player acquisitions in the off-season, 2B Kolten Wong (terrible) and OF Teoscar Hernandez (mediocre) haven’t worked out either.

Conversely, Mariners pitching has been outstanding. Starters and relievers have combined to lead, or land among the top five teams, in a passel of stat rankings. So the Yankees series was representative of likely 2023 Seattle outcomes against contending (bigger-spending) teams: If any of the young arms falter, as did Logan Gilbert and rookie Bryce Miller the first two games, there’s little counterpunch. The Mariners scored seven runs in the three games, and needed a 10th-inning freebie runner at second base to secure the lone series win.

It is likely to be ever thus. The Mariners rarely can lure veteran free agent hitters to Seattle (too cold, pitcher’s park, too many travel hours, too far away from everything). And when they do — looking at you, Robinson Cano — the typical long-term deal takes him long beyond his prime. So they must rely on homegrown youngsters. Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, Cal Raleigh and J.P Crawford are splendid examples of success, and rookie 2B Jose Caballero may bail them out of the Wong flop.

Is this crew sufficient to become championship level? Two months in, probably not. But there remain two months before the Aug. 1 trade deadline to add a hitter that might be a tad better than La Stella. The Mariners are hardly in bad shape. In 2019, the Washington Nationals won the World Series despite a 19-31 record on May 23. The Atlanta Braves in 2021 were 52-55 on Aug. 1 and won the Series. Last season, the Phillies were 23-29 when they fired accomplished manager Joe Girardi, and made the Series under his replacement, Rob Thomson.

It’s just that the actionable eagerness for baseball’s most financially successful club (just for fun, read that again) to win it all is not readily apparent among chairman John Standon and president Jerry Dipoto. There remains no tangible reward for exorcising the May holiday tradition.

After the win Wednesday, Servais was asked about the dugout demeanor between innings of Kirby, a native of Rye, N.Y., and a lifetime Yankees fan.

“Everybody who’s ever known George since he’s five years old is watching (him on TV) pitching against the Yankees tonight,” he said.  “George knows that.

“He’s about ready to rip somebody’s head off.”

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at


    • It’s two months out from the deadline, so lots of time for trade candidates to rise and fall. Doutbful that a single bat will resolve most of the deficiency.

  1. Comparing the Mariners’ batting prowess to that of the Yankees is grossly unfair, as New York always has a salary-laden hitting team.
    Since leaving the Kingdome, the Mariners have always scrapped for offense- just as Ichiro would always get on base, then need 2 hits from the next batters to score.
    It’s going to take more than a single trade to help the M’s- maybe a farm club of contact hitters who thrive in 50’ damp conditions.

    • You look at some of the players they were linked with in free agency over the last couple of years (Bryant, Turner), they’ve not exactly thrived. Free agency can be just as much of a crap shoot.

      Wong and Teo on paper should have improved things but haven’t. They have the finances to extend the likes of Kirby, Gilbert and Raleigh due to their healthy bank balance.

      • FA is indeed always a crapshoot, but so is growing your own (Evan White, Kyle Lewis). You need to draw talent from all sources, Nige, not some sources.

    • Comparisons are always fair, Pat, because it’s a 30-team monopoly with no player salary cap, which means there’s no financial limits on owners to fielding winners. And creating a farm club as you describe, well, it would be easier to to turn an aircraft carrier in Green Lake.

  2. You don’t lose a player like Robbie Ray and not feel it. And with a player like Julio in the order I’m surprised Dipoto didn’t make a stronger push for a leadoff hitter. All the M’s playoff teams had an established leadoff hitter. They couldn’t have wanted Julio to remain at leadoff. Player evaluations for trades and free agent signings are not doing much. Granted this season was probably going to be a step back after last season’s success much of this could have been avoided.

  3. Yes, injuries on a thin roster hurt more. Now that he’s regained form, I don’t think there’s a wrong spot for Julio in the top four spots. And you might be the only fan in all Marinerdom to grant these guys another step-back pass.

  4. I agree that there are reasons not to come here, but money talks. If the Mariners overpaid players to come here – which, if the reasons you list are accurate, they will have to do – they’d come.

    Their entire philosophy is to get as far as possible, spending as little as possible, and sell as many bobbleheads as possible. Terrible for fans wanting to follow a winner; great for bobblehead sales.

  5. They have had a few FA sluggers over time — Beltre, Cruz, Cano — but the contemporary data on ballpark effects show the Seattle stadium is heavily a pitcher’s park, not a hitter’s park, and the agents all know that. So yes, overpaying has been done, but the results speak for themselves.

  6. In lieu of a salary cap, how about a salary *floor*?

    If the owners don’t want to salary arms race, they at least have to outlay a reasonable expenditure, say $120 million). Most GMs would have a chance to build a decent roster with that salary room.

    It also avoids roster teardown crap like the ’97 Marlins champions dismantling the next year (a hissy fit over a new stadium veto), the ’95 Expos (a protest over ballooning salaries after the strike), and the current A’s (deliberate tanking to engineer a franchise move). Those are not acting in “the best interest of baseball”.

  7. The idea sounds good, but almost always when a cap is discussed, the union side insists on a floor. Billionaires always hate it when the laborers scold them for being cheap. There are floors in the the CBA agreements with NFL and NBA unions, but so far MLB owners are happy with neither floor or cap, and the top MLB players who drive the union are thrilled with the rewards.


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