SEATTLE — A reported 10-year, $240 million deal between the Mariners and free agent Robinson Cano marks a stunning about-face for a franchise that for years kept overall payroll below past levels.
After a franchise-high $118 million payroll in 2008, the Mariners have avoided surpassing $100 million again. Through most of general manager Jack Zduriencik’s five-year tenure, the Mariners allowed their biggest contracts to expire while completing a regional sports television network purchase analysts say is worth billions.
Other than the ill-fated Chone Figgins signing in 2009 and extensions given marquee pitcher Felix Hernandez, the Mariners have avoided long-term commitments while fielding a string of losing teams as attendance fell. The pending Cano acquisition reverses that trend in dramatic fashion.
Even the Cano deal is no guarantee the team will take payroll back over $100 million again. The Mariners shed so many long-term commitments in recent years — Ichiro and Figgins alone accounting for $27 million annually — that the club entered the winter with only Hernandez and pitcher Hisashi Iwakuma under any sort of sizeable contract.
Hernandez earns $22.5 million and Iwakuma $6.5 million next season. The Mariners also have only Justin Smoak and Michael Saunders entering an arbitration year, meaning they could absorb the annual average of $24 million from Cano’s reported deal and still make plenty of other acquisitions without topping $100 million in payroll.
The Mariners have known for some time they had money to throw around, as evidenced by their pursuit of Prince Fielder two years ago and Josh Hamilton last offseason. They then were in negotiations to assume a controlling share of ROOT Sports — and the financial windfall that comes with it — and knew Ichiro would be off the books after 2012 and Figgins after 2013. The team payroll in 2012 was about $84 million.
The expiration of those deals and completion of the TV acquisition likely enabled the Mariners to finally land a big-time free agent instead of getting outbid as they were on Fielder and Hamilton. Seattle reportedly outbid the Yankees by three years and more than $50 million.
The Mariners didn’t get into this position by accident, but the price of waiting to spend big free-agent money has proved costly. They lost 87 games or more in each of the past four seasons while fielding cheaper squads full of inexperienced players.
The only firmly established position player yielded by the team’s ongoing rebuilding has been third baseman Kyle Seager. Question marks surround the futures of Smoak, Saunders, Dustin Ackley and last season’s rookies. Some of those players could be used in trades for more proven ones as the team tries to jump start its rebuilding process.
The rebuilding process helped the Mariners keep costs down and their yearly books balanced even while attendance fell off dramatically as losses mounted. The franchise’s value climbed as the club eliminated future financial commitments and debt.
A recent Bloomberg analysis pegged the team’s worth at $720 million even without the new TV deal factored in.
Some have estimated the ROOT Sports deal at $2 billion over 17 years, though sources familiar with the agreement say it’s impossible to know exact value until all of the network’s operations are fully integrated under team control.
Either way, most analysts agree the Mariners are close to being at least a $1 billion franchise — double what it was worth when Zduriencik took over and the payroll reductions began.
Spending additional money does not guarantee success unless it is done wisely, though. The Mariners lost 101 games in 2008 even with their $118 million payroll.