Win the World Series, repeatedly

DMZ · November 19, 2005 at 12:51 am · Filed Under Mariners 

“I am a patient boy
I wait, I wait, I wait”

In a previous post, I outlined how the M’s could contend for baseball’s championship next year if they’re willing to spend about $100m and tie themselves down to a bunch of free agents for a while. I mentioned, in passing, why that’s not the greatest idea for the franchise’s long-term prospects, but let’s talk about that.

What prevents the Mariners from competing for more than division titles, and for more than just a year?


There aren’t any significant handicaps. The A’s and Twins have a tiny payroll and win, but in general, fielding a good team requires money, and being poor is a barrier to winning. Even as we might bitch that the Mariners are stingy with our money, they’re still a lot more spendy than other teams, and while they’re not investing in the on-field product as much as we might like, they’re pouring money into player development, which makes me happy. And there’s no reason they couldn’t spend a ton of money if they decided to: they’re well-capitalized and if they wanted to spend $200m on this year and this year only, they could do it.

That’s beside the point, though. How’s the window of opportunity look? Let’s look at this in a different way over the next five years. Start with a baseline of “awful” (team wins ~30% of their games) and then tack on contributions of players who aren’t awful.

An example of how to do this: King Felix will be worth +5 games/year every full season, assuming he’s healthy. I think he’s a good bet to have at least one year where he puts up Cy Young numbers in that span, but in fairness, as with any pitcher, he’s a risk to have a down year. Initially, we should crank that back a little assuming the team limits his innings. So:

So, for the next five years:
2006: 53 wins
2007: 54 wins
2008: 55 wins
2009: 55 wins
2010: 55 wins

Now we do that for everyone on the roster, and assume (for now) that everyone not under contract is replaced by someone awful at league minimum (with the team pocketing the money).

Sexson: figure a conservative +4.5 game total contribution through his contract.

Beltre: For a moment, I’m going to use the M’s line that Beltre will be between last year and 2004. At halfway between, that’s +5 games/year (I know, I know, and I’ll get to that).

Ichiro: Again, split the difference between 2004 and 2005, and we’re at +6 for the next two years of his deal.

Ibanez the DH: in his last year, I’m putting him down for +3, which is reasonable.

Bullpen: the M’s have a ton of random, cheap contributors now, and even if the farm system’s starting prospects flame out, they can be an asset here. Losing Guardado’s no big deal, as he can be replaced with a couple of guys on hand now. I’m putting them up for +5 as a group every year, and that’s also conservative.

New guys!
Betancourt develops slowly, so +2, +2.5, +3, and so on. Reed and Lopez too. That’s pessimistic on that group as a whole early, and possibly optimistic late.

Here’s the core-surrounded-by-awfulness chart o’wins, then:
2006: 81 (78 Beltre sucks)
2007: 81 (78… and so forth)
2008: 77
2009: 74
2010: 71

Note, too, that this assumes the M’s make no more moves, ever, that they rely entirely on the farm system to supply bad players for every other roster spot. Ibanez leaves after 2006? Welcome Greg Dobbs, your everyday DH. Ichiro leaves after 2007 and is replaced by Jamal Strong or whoever’s walking by the stadium that day.

A pessimistic Beltre estimate clips a couple wins off there, but you can see (as Dave points out) that this isn’t a bad core — having just one guy as good as Hernandez locked up makes a huge difference in a team’s ability to keep their head above water.

That’s not far off contending in any year, and if player-development pays off, the guys coming up through the system in 2008+ may well be huge talents (and, if it doesn’t, well, we bite down on the hollow tooth).

It also starts to point to some interesting long-term things. A five-year plan isn’t worth the effort it takes to make one, but consider the gaps:

Position-wise, there’s one tough-to-fill position immediately:
C — Jojima may sign, but if not, we’re hoping for Clement in a couple years

And a couple of others that are historically a lot easier to find players at:
1B — Sexson becomes a free agent in a few years
LF — We could use one now, and in the future
DH — Ibanez potentially leaves after next year

RF may be open if Ichiro departs after his current deal runs out.

Then at trouble positions internally, Adam Jones may push Jeremy Reed quickly. There’s a crop of middle infield prospects if Lopez doesn’t develop as we’d hope. Some of those look like they may turn into third basemen (taking over for Beltre) or right fielders (taking over for Ichiro).

For pitching, in the short term the team’s got a batch of guys who should be able to take a rotation spot and, at least, be more effective than the frustrating Meche-and-Pineiro combo. They will need free-agent or trades to patch it now, though — there are too many holes. So splurging on a quality pitcher, even if it’s expensive for a while, makes sense from a roster construction view as well as a win-now one: while it’s possible that every pitcher in the system could push for a rotation spot in the next couple of years, that’s unlikely. And even if does occur, no team has trouble moving quality pitching prospects for good value.

What should be even more interesting is that with Felix and the cheap contributions of the Betancourt-Reed-Lopez (or whoever) youth movement, the team will have a lot of free cash for rent-a-player acquisitions… but the more productive the farm system, the more positions filled on the cheap and the more money they have to spend on fewer spots. If the prospect pipeline starts cranking (and that’s a big if, of course, as even great player development organizations are still rolling dice) which is one of the most important things Bavasi & Co. have been trying to do, a return to contention doesn’t have to be a half-hearted flirtation. They’ve got a couple years before Felix hits free agency. The clock is ticking.


61 Responses to “Win the World Series, repeatedly”

  1. eponymous coward on November 20th, 2005 11:07 am

    DMZ, you mean the second (“continue to make tons of money and flub around”), right?

    The team sees money in the casual fans.

    There’s about 800K casual fans who aren’t going to ballgames these days that were in 2002-2002, and the M’s attendance pattern is pretty clear- when they are at their best (2001), they draw insanely well and make lots of money. When they suck (2003, 2004), they turn into a slightly better version of Texas or Baltimore (my guess is that like those markets, the M’s attendance floor is around 2.4-2.6 million- there’s enough people in those cities who’ll see a ballgame in a nice ballpark even it’s a crap team), and make decent money.

    Doesn’t that imply they need to win to maximize revenue from the casual fans?

  2. DMZ on November 20th, 2005 12:38 pm

    Yes yes yes. I was a little incoherent there.

    My point is that the business side sees this as a situation where there’s no marginal gain from spending more. If a team that might contend but might fail costs $80m, and the failure scenario still makes them tons and tons of money, well, increasing the chances they’ll win and make an unknown amount more doesn’t strike them as a particularly good deal.

    Even if there’s someone in the office who stamps around and says “look, I’ve got numbers and analysis drawn from our own and other team experiences in the playoffs, and it’s worth the investment” (well, first, that’s new-fangled stat-thinking) it would still only be a guess, while they know that their modest teams will make boatloads of money.

  3. ChrisK on November 20th, 2005 12:44 pm

    It’s not about maximizing revenue – it’s about maximizing profits. That’s why they refused to break their self-imposed salary cap in 2002-03 when all their major revenue streams were strong – the additional cost of acquiring an impact bat was not worth it from a bottom-line perspective. The M’s still have a great media deal (people are still watching this team on TV), and while attendance is down, it’s still #3 or 4 in the AL despite fielding a boring, horrible product for 2 years straight. And Lincoln has essentially said that 1 of 20 ticket-buying fans are serious fans, while the rest are there for “other reasons”.

    Yes, the FO wants to get the team back to competitiveness, but if we’re in the hunt at the trade deadline, we’ll see the same conservativeness as in previous years.

  4. LB on November 20th, 2005 2:38 pm

    #43: Aren’t we just parsing words here? Isn’t Championship Play, in fact, the World Series?

    No. ALCS is the acronym for “American League Championship Series.”

  5. LB on November 20th, 2005 2:44 pm

    #14: We already have the top 10 payroll in baseball.

    Why do management (and others) trumpet this factoid, given that there are only 30 teams in MLB? It seems to me that the 66th percentile in payroll is nothing to crow about when Safeco field and the TV and radio contracts are licenses to print money.

  6. roger tang on November 20th, 2005 3:03 pm

    Why do management (and others) trumpet this factoid, given that there are only 30 teams in MLB? It seems to me that the 66th percentile in payroll is nothing to crow about when Safeco field and the TV and radio contracts are licenses to print money.

    Because it’s true and it refutes the obvious canard that the team is not willing to spend money.

    It’s more accurate to say that the team doesn’t know how to spend money WISELY. And it doesn’t know how to take intelligent risks when things are going well. You’re pretty much forced to take risks when you’ve lost 90+ games…these folks are risk averse when you’ve WON 90+ games.

  7. [] on November 20th, 2005 3:50 pm

    [see comment guidelines]

  8. msb on November 20th, 2005 7:22 pm

    and, FWIW, because there are owners (some with more impressive personal bankrolls) & teams that make a tidy sum, who refuse to spend any money (David Glass, Carl Pohlad, Carl Lindner, etc)

  9. eponymous coward on November 20th, 2005 8:55 pm

    The M’s still have a great media deal (people are still watching this team on TV), and while attendance is down, it’s still #3 or 4 in the AL despite fielding a boring, horrible product for 2 years straight.

    That’s a bit deceptive, since there are a number of higher-attendance NL teams (or conversely, more lower-attendance AL teams- consider that the M’s outdrew the World Champion White Sox this year while the Sox led the AL Central wire to wire, but not the terrible but lovable Cubs).

    I submit that if the M’s flub around 75-85 wins for a few years without actually contending (which is basically what Texas and Baltimore have done), they’ll end up with similar attendance, and a decently but not exorbitantly profitable team. If that’s what they want, I suppose…but really, there’s no substitute for winning as far as making money hand over fist, unless you are the Cubs, maybe.

  10. Scraps on November 20th, 2005 9:16 pm

    it refutes the obvious canard that the team is not willing to spend money

    It does not. The criticism of the front office is not that they are unwilling to spend money; it’s that they are unwilling to spend enough money. They may be top ten in spending, but they are certainly not top ten in spending as a percentage of revenue. They could spend much more and still turn a profit, and they choose not to; they put a higher priority on more profit than they do on a championship.

    It’s true that there are teams that win consistently by spending less than the Mariners do. But since the Mariners don’t have to spend less, why cripple themselved just because other teams are forced to? The Mariners have the opportunity to be smart and flex financial muscle; they could have better leverage than all but a few franchises in baseball. Can you imagine Yankee or Red Sox fans excusing their ownership by saying they were top ten in spending if they spent what their Mariners do?

  11. roger tang on November 20th, 2005 10:34 pm

    Scraps, this is getting into the area of spending money just to spend money, using big contracts as a PR device to show the fans “they are doing something.”

    And I disgree; far too many folks DO think the front office is unwilling to spend money. They say it, without stopping to think what that means. I maintain that they are not spending wisely, and they are risk-averse in the wrong situations [which is not really that far from your argument].

    To be the best in baseball, it’s just not enough to spend like the Red Sox and Yankees. You have to bring that financial muscle to bear in the most effective way. That means paying for free agents in a smart way. That means opening the pocketbook when you’re winning as well as when you’re losing. That means building a farm system that provides cheap talent so you aren’t dependent on free agents for all your needs.

    The front office seems to have learned SOME of this; I’m not sure they’ve learned ALL of this