After narrowly missing the playoffs, will the Mariners even try to make a free agent splash?

click to enlarge Kyle Seager is likely bidding adieu to his Mariners career this off-season. - IAN D'ANDREA/CC BY-SA 2.0 PHOTO
Ian D'Andrea/CC BY-SA 2.0 photo
Kyle Seager is likely bidding adieu to his Mariners career this off-season.

The Seattle Mariners players showed they cared about winning.

Now it’s time for the Seattle Mariners owners to do the same.

On Sunday, the Mariners wrapped up another season in the same way they’ve concluded the past 20 campaigns — without a playoff appearance. The longest playoff drought in North American pro sports continued, though there was an extra twist of the proverbial knife in that the squad was still alive heading into the final game of the season. A 7-3 home loss to the Angels snuffed out any dreams of postseason baseball (though the Yankees and Red Sox both won their Sunday contests, so it would’ve been a moot point anyway).

While the end result was more Mariners misery, it’s hard for Mariners fans to not be optimistic. In many ways, that 2021 season was proof of the old cliché about the journey being more important than the destination. Outfielder Mitch Haniger banged a career high 39 home runs — including a slew of clutch ones during the final week of the season — which should net him the AL Comeback Player of the Year award. Ty France became one of the league’s most consistent hitters. J.P. Crawford found a more consistent stroke at the plate to match his dazzling glove at shortstop. Even top prospect Jarred Kelenic — after being abominable at the start of the year — seemed to rediscover his groove during the last stretch of the season. It feels like the Mariners have a stable core of good-to-great players for the first time since the early 2000s.

But now comes the important question: Will ownership actually spend to become a real perennial contender?

The one image I couldn’t shake from Sunday’s finale was Kyle Seager getting removed from the game in the 9th so that the fans could give him a farewell standing ovation. It was an emotional moment for Seager and the fans, and teammates like Crawford broke down in tears talking about it after the game. As an All-Star, Gold Glove-winning third baseman, and legitimately the only homegrown position player star the Mariners have had since Alex frickin’ Rodriguez, his final game as a Mariner should be a sentimental scene.

Here’s the thing though: There is absolutely no reason why that should’ve been his final game.

He’s not retiring. Heck, his contract isn’t even totally closed. The team just basically has said, "Okay we’re done with our franchise’s best position player post-Ichiro."

Seager just posted career highs in home runs and runs batted in while posting an OPS+ of 100 (essentially that advanced stat says he’s a league average hitter). He also has a team option for 2022 for $20 million. Considering Fangraphs’ wins above replacement stat had him as a 2.5 WAR player this season, and Fangraphs estimated 1 WAR costs around $9 million in free agency, $20 million is actually a fair price (if not a bargain) for a veteran who also doubles as a beloved clubhouse leader.

Not re-signing Seager might make sense if the Mariners had an overabundance of young talent to come fill the third base hole, but that’s not the case. Abraham Toro — acquired mid-season in the clubhouse-deflating Kendall Graveman trade — could slide over to third, but he’s really the only option in the entire organization and has yet to prove himself as a consistently above-average starter.

My fear is that the Seager situation is an indication of something bigger that has hung over my Mariners fandom the past few years…

I’m afraid the new Mariners owners are cheapskates.

As the one major American sport without a salary cap, Major League Baseball is at its core the most capitalistic sport when it comes to team building. If you spend more, you generally win more.

Granted, it’s not a pure one-to-one. Some Mariners teams in the mid-2000s had top 10 payrolls without playoff berths. Outlier teams like the "Moneyball" Oakland A’s and current Tampa Bay Rays can get by nickel-and-diming thanks to their general managers making shrewd trades and building a stacked farm system. But year in and year out it’s the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals, and Astros (with the help of some trash cans) who shill out the big bucks to always remain playoff-relevant.

Since Nintendo sold the Mariners to a partnership led by John Stanton and the group took over following the 2017 season, the owners have showed no signs of spending what it takes to win consistently on a major league level. Per Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the 2017 Mariners had the 12th highest payroll in MLB at around $155 million committed to their opening day roster. Three seasons later that opening day roster payroll had plummeted to $54 million (23rd in MLB). The 2021 team’s opening day figure was higher — roughly $73 million — but actually was worse by comparison, ranking 25th out of 30 teams in payroll, ranking below notorious penny-pinching squads like the A’s and Royals.

Big picture, it’s not exactly encouraging that since Stanton’s group took over the M’s payroll rank has plummeted like a graph of a stock market crash.

To be fair, there are excuses for the budget slashing which at least have a little bit of merit. During the new owners’ tenure, the team has been in a stripping down and rebuilding stage, which always coincides with cutting salary. Why pay big money when our plan isn’t to try for the playoffs for a few years? Why would free agents want to come to a rebuilding team? Those are totally valid points. It also doesn’t help that Jack Zduriencik’s horrific run as general manager left the franchise and current GM Jerry Dipoto with a mountain of bad contracts (hello, Robinson Cano!) resulting in dead money they had to pay every year to guys no longer on those opening day rosters.

Dipoto has said they haven’t been spending because it’s all part of a great rebuilding plan, but it seemed odd that they did very little last offseason when you could see this 2021 squad had an outside shot at the wild card. Would signing another MLB-level starting pitcher or improving the outfield depth with a veteran have improved the Mariners by the one game they ultimately needed? Probably. But us Mariners fans were told to be patient.

Well, we’ve been patient for 20 years. Time to open up those checkbooks, boys.

While Dipoto has built up the No. 1 farm system in baseball (per the experts at Baseball America), the team can’t just roll out the same roster and hope that all the enticing 2022 rookies — outfielder Julio Rodrigez and starting pitchers George Kirby and Emerson Hancock — are immediately stars (see Kelenic’s early struggles this year as the reason why). The team can’t pass on signing guys for fear of having too much talent. Over the 162-game grind of an MLB season, elite teams need serious depth.

There are clear spots where the Mariners can improve via free agency. If Seager is truly gone, this year’s free agent class is loaded with top-flight infielders. The crop includes former MVPs Kris Bryant (3B) and Freddie Freeman (1B) and a host of All-Star middle infielders (Carlos Correa, Trevor Story, Javier Báez, Christ Taylor, and Marcus Semien). If the Mariners sign a couple of those guys, then forcing Seager out becomes a lot more palatable. (Unfortunately, we can probably cross off Kyle Seager’s more talented younger brother Corey off the list, even though the brothers playing 2B and 3B would’ve been sweet.)

The Mariners rotation could also use bolstering so the 2022 squad doesn’t need the young arms to be great from the jump. The market will include pitchers who were great this year (Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman, and Marcus Stroman), plus an array of former Cy Young winners with injury risks (Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, and Zach Grienke).

The guys are out there to make the Mariners a contender. Will ownership spend to make that a reality? I’m dubious.

In some sense it’s an "I’ll believe it when I see it" situation mixed with a case of "when somebody shows you who they are, believe them the first time." Faith in ownership also isn’t brightened by various management scandals under the new regime's watch, including the team’s former director of high performance Dr. Lorena Martin accusing management of racism against Latino players, followed by then-president/CEO Kevin Mather basically confirming the hostile environment by making racist remarks about Latino and Japanese players during a Rotary Club speech in February 2021. While Nintendo’s ownership tenure was often criticized as being too hands-off, at least they continually spent money and avoided scandal.

It’s inexcusable for the Seattle Mariners’ owners to pretend they are a poverty franchise. If they are not willing to pay for a contender, they should step aside for an ownership group that cares about baseball and ending the Mariners fans’ collective suffering.

I’m afraid the Mariners will sit out another round of free agency and erase all the goodwill and excitement the players built up over the final month of the season.

Please, prove me wrong.