SEATTLE – If one thing bothers Mariners chairman John Stanton about the whole “step-back” plan, it’s the name “step back.” He’s never liked it, but he also hasn’t been able to come up with a new moniker. He won’t use “rebuild” or “tear down.”
“It’s kind of stuck,” he said.
But he said this process has gone as expected, with decreased attendance and more losses than wins – that’s all accepted collateral damage. Continuing to remove veteran players on guaranteed contracts is part of the plan.
The recent Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion trades didn’t fetch as much of a return as some expected. The Mariners received minimal salary relief ($3 million) and an unheralded prospect in return for Bruce. Encarnacion brought back a prospect they once had in the system and $8 million in salary relief.
Stanton is irritated at the report of money being the ultimate factor in deciding to trade Encarnacion to the Yankees instead of the Rays, who offered less salary relief.
“I will tell you categorically that situation was not about the money,” he said. “It was about the pitching prospect we got. He was a guy that we felt really good about and were really excited to get back. We wanted that kid back.”
If the Mariners do trade veterans Dee Gordon and Mike Leake, both signed through the 2020 season, before the July 31 trade deadline, they will have to eat more money on their contracts. Paying salary for other teams’ players doesn’t bother Stanton – it’s an inevitable part of committing to this rebuild.
“We knew it was a strong possibility,” he said. “I’m probably more academic about that than some other people.”
Part of that outlook is knowing what was paid in the past and the relief gained – specifically long-term commitments to Robinson Cano ($120 million owed) and Jean Segura ($40-plus million owed from 2020-2022).
“We spent money,” he said. “We are paying part of Jay and Encarnacion’s salary for next year, which is fine. I’m fine with that. But the key is, particularly with some other contracts rolling off, the way I view the world – the value of our flexibility is greater than the dollars that we have to pay.”
This whole process would be hindered if they were still carrying Cano and his $120 million owed or the $40 plus million for Segura from 2020-2022 to go with Kyle Seager’s $37 million over 2020-2021.
“I personally love Robbie Cano, but having a 40-year-old second baseman or probably DH by that time isn’t ideal, and even though I think Robbie will be better than any other 40-year-old at that time, we needed to do something,” Stanton said.
Projecting the committed dollars to the 40-man roster, Seattle sits above $80 million in 2020, $43 million in 2021 and not a single dollar in guaranteed MLB contracts for 2022.
“It puts us in a very good position to compete for a championship,” Stanton said. “We had our dollars spread out over a longer period of time. We bunched up some salary dollars now and probably overpaid some salary dollars in some respects, but then we’ve freed ourselves up so that we if he need another starting pitcher – and I’m not saying we will – but if we need an additional starting pitcher in 2021 then we are giving Jerry the budget to be able to get the best guy he can.”
Stanton’s eyes narrow as he thinks about those future rosters and the club-controlled players they’ll have at their disposal.
“Those guys need to compete every day and compete every year,” he said. “And if they don’t, we are going to get guys in here that can compete because we can’t afford to have weak links.”
The Mariners’ home attendance is down, which shouldn’t be surprising. They are averaging just over 21,000 fans per game. They averaged 28,388 fans per game in 81 home games last season.
“I worry about the fans in the ballpark and I worry about the fans that are watching us on TV,” he said. “I want to deliver a quality product to them every game.”
Telling everyone it was going to be a step-back season doesn’t generate preseason excitement or ticket commitments. The recent run of losing hurts impulse buyers and walk-up sales.
“I don’t want to say we expected that, but we certainly knew it was a strong possibility when we announced the step-back policy,” Stanton said. “The alternative was we didn’t say it was a step back, did a bunch of things that were baffling to people and then lost credibility. Credibility is really important to me with our fans.
“Some number of fans are passionate and they will be here through thick and thin and have been for 30 years. But others won’t. I want the fans to believe this is going to be a championship team in the next few years. And to be here or watching it on television when we are.”
Stanton remains relentlessly positive about the situation. A question about what he views as the positives of this season goes unasked because he’s already made them clear.
“I think it’s the development of the young players,” he said. “We’ve gotten younger. And I don’t really like the word controlled, but from a contractual point of view they are players we know will be here for a longer period of time. We’ve gone from being one of the oldest teams in baseball to being middle of the pack in age. Having the quality of players that we have in terms the character as well as the way they play it’s positive.”
He mentions how well J.P. Crawford has been playing since being called up and the recent promotion of Jake Fraley to Tacoma. He references the six prospects in the MLB Pipeline – Jarred Kelenic, Evan White, Justus Sheffield, Julio Rodriguez, Justin Dunn and Logan Gilbert. And then he mentions a favorite of his and the fans.
“Is there anybody in this building that doesn’t love Vogey?” he said, referring to Daniel Vogelbach. “To see him emerge and be able get him more reps. People were concerned about whether he could ever play and label him a Four-A player when in fact he’s proven that he’s a major league player and maybe even an All-Star. He’s brought excitement and energy.”
Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has often referenced the end of 2020 and the 2021 season as a time frame for this plan to come together. That seems a little overly optimistic – and Stanton hedges it a little.
“Jerry keeps on his computer a schedule of what players will be controlled by our team in what years and that projects where players may end up playing,” he said. “We also track pretty carefully in analytics what we think other teams’ performances on the field will be like. Like Houston has a lot of their really good players becoming free agents in the 2021-2022 time frame.
“I think we have said we believe we will be a playoff team in that 2021-2022 time frame,” he said. “But I’m resistant to being too specific on it. I think the intent is for us to get better and be more in control of players. There will be signs that we believe it’s time when you’ll see us step up on a free agent to fill a gap. That’s a pretty good indication.”
Does he have any regrets for making this decision?
“No,” he said flatly and with a quick shake of the head. “I have to confess it’s probably not in my nature to have a lot of regrets. I’m trying to say this poetically. I think of several 90-year-olds that are big fans, including my 95-year-old mother. It’s easier to focus on 2021 and 2022 when you are 63 years old or younger.”
Still, Stanton wants those 90-year-old fans, including his mother, to see some real success in the coming years.
“I’m impatient,” he said. “I’m tired. I’m impatient about getting this team into the playoffs and into the World Series. I will be focused on making sure that everyone in this organization feels the same way. This is about this game being competitive on a sustainable basis and to have that happen as quick as possible.”
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