The skepticism normally surrounding the Seattle Mariners has been slowly devolving into pessimism. Any potential excitement feels diluted with doubt as the disconnect between the team’s leadership and fan base continues to grow. Confidence in something big, let alone monumental, happening to make the team better is slowly eroding into indifference about the offseason and the upcoming season.
The annual Major League Baseball winter meetings unofficially begin Sunday in Nashville with massive groups of personnel from each of the 30 teams arriving at the Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center.
In this winter of their discontent, fans’ anticipation for this traditional time of transaction action feels, well, hmm … what is the opposite of palpable?
Perhaps guarded is the best way to describe it.
Given what the Mariners’ leadership has said and done, and not said or done, in the days after the 2023 season ended with their American League rivals — the Texas Rangers — raising a World Series trophy, it’s fair for fans to feel suspicious about the remainder of the offseason.
Their hopes — realistic or not — of the spending promises often made by the Mariners finally becoming promises kept have grown hollow from inaction or underwhelming additions in offseasons past.
With rumors and reports about financial restraint and spending hesitancy because of payroll limitations — yet again — leading to lukewarm interest on the best available players either via free agency or trade, optimism is lacking.
So what should fans realistically expect from the Mariners at the winter meetings and the rest of the offseason?
Perhaps it’s better to start with what they shouldn’t anticipate happening: Signing Shohei Ohtani or trading for Juan Soto.
Were they ever real possibilities?
The Mariners were going to have to thread a small needle to convince Ohtani to sign a free-agent contract. They couldn’t, or perhaps more accurately wouldn’t, compete with the mega-contract offers of more than $500 million that the Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs and Giants were expected to offer. They could offer a shorter contract, high salary, flexibility and an organization with a strong nucleus and a tradition of success with Japanese players. Basically, Ohtani had to want to come to the Mariners more than taking the biggest offer with richer organizations.
When Ohtani’s representatives met with various teams at the GM meetings for initial offers and asks, and the contract numbers began to circulate from those meetings, the Mariners, according to ESPN’s Jeff Passan, “blanched” at the contracts offered and the bidding war in the weeks ahead.
The Mariners realized they were shopping at Nordstrom and not the Rack. The already slim chances of signing baseball’s two-way unicorn dwindled to microscopic.
So what about Soto, a hitter the Mariners sort of pursued at the MLB trade deadline in 2022 when he was being shopped by the Washington Nationals?
With the Padres, the darlings of last offseason, in financial distress after investing $250 million in a lackluster 82-80 team and Soto expected to earn $30 million in his final year of arbitration before becoming a free agent, Padres GM A.J. Preller is looking to recoup some of the prospect capital lost and gain some salary relief by trading the All-Star outfielder.
Soto, who turned 25 in October, played in all 162 games last season, posting a .275/.410/.519 slash line with 32 doubles, 35 homers, 109 RBI, a league-leading 132 walks and 129 strikeouts. He finished sixth in a loaded National League MVP race.
While some fans and analysts looked at the Mariners as a perfect trade match, particularly given their stable of young starting pitchers and power relievers, the Soto deal never seemed realistic. Dipoto is loathe to overspend on “rental” players that are going into free agency. He doesn’t want to give up prospect capital for one season, unless it’s a dire need or a finishing piece.
Giving up a young starting pitcher and a top prospect, or possibly two, while also paying $30 million for a player isn’t an equation most teams find beneficial.
Soto makes any team better, but he doesn’t necessarily make the Mariners, a team with multiple needs, better than the Astros and Rangers. Seattle’s odds of signing Soto to a contract extension are basically nonexistent. He’s poised to get $400 million in free agency next season.
So what will the Mariners do at the winter meetings?
Well, let’s be clear: The meetings don’t necessarily translate to activity as they did 10 years ago. Text messaging, Zoom meetings, larger emphasis on the GM meetings and two years without the winter meetings because of the COVID pandemic have diminished the winter meeting’s value as a hot-stove igniter.
A year ago, Mariners president Jerry Dipoto irritated fans by saying they had “no live meetings” and spent the days white boarding possible scenarios on “think-tank” type sessions. The Mariners had made trades for Teoscar Hernandez and Kolten Wong before the winter meetings started.
This season, they’ve traded for infielder Luis Urias and traded away third baseman Eugenio Suarez, essentially giving themselves an extra $7 million this season in payroll budget.
The moves were curious at the time. Rumblings that they speak to a larger concern continue to grow louder.
“We will have a higher payroll next year than we had this year,” Dipoto said at the end-of-season news conference.
But how much higher?
Per FanGraphs, the Mariners estimated payroll finished at $140 million in 2023. It currently projects to $133 million for 2024.
Similar to the past few offseasons, it appears that an increase to the team’s payroll budget will be marginally above the typical inflation. Dipoto and GM Justin Hollander will likely be working with less money than hoped for.
Estimating a budget of $150 million might be fair.
But after a season where they drew just under 2.7 millions fans — the most since 2005 — why the frugality?
The financial instability of the regional sports networks and their television deals with teams, which are a prime contributor to team revenue, have become a glaring issue. Diamond Sports Group, the parent company of 19 Bally regional sports network across the country, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy relief. MLB was forced to take over the TV deals of the Padres, a reason for their financial issues, and Diamondbacks. The Twins, who have an agreement with Bally, have decided to trim payroll by $15-20 million.
The Mariners took over their longtime regional sports network, ROOT Sports Northwest, in April of 2013. By holding that controlling interest, their situation seemed to be less fraught with financial failure.
That stability took a gut punch on Oct. 10 when Comcast Xfinity announced that it was moving ROOT to its highest tier of subscribing, meaning it would cost subscribers an extra $18.50 month to receive the network’s programming that included the Mariners, Kraken, Trail Blazers and a handful of Gonzaga men’s basketball games.
With Xfinity as the largest distributor of ROOT Sports NW in the Puget Sound, there is a concern that the cost to move up a tier is simply too much for fans who were already considering cutting the cable cord.
It’s a concerning development for the Mariners. Less subscribers and less viewers means less revenue generated from broadcasts from all three teams. The television deals with the Blazers and Kraken are also based on subscriber projections at the previous level.
“I don’t think we’re resource deprived,” Hollander said at the end of the season. “I think we have plenty of resources, both player resources; avenues to trade for players. And I think we have plenty of financial resources to build a championship-level club.”
If financial resources are limited, major free-agent signings would seem off the table. Blake Snell’s hometown discount would have to be measurable. One-year contracts for bounce-back candidates seem possible.
Those player resources will likely need to be tapped for hitting help. The Mariners will have to move a young starting pitcher such as Bryce Miller or Bryan Woo to get a young position player with multiple years of club control. It’s something that has always seemed inevitable.
The Mariners have a history of making moves under Dipoto and that’s unlikely to change. It just may not be the deals that fans hope, expect or want.