Ladies and gentlemen, meet the Seattle Mariners — they aren't really championship contenders, but they sure do spend like it.
It's not hard to do when your franchise is owned by Nintendo and your team can generate ungodly amounts of revenue on the Japanese market thanks to Ichiro Suzuki. Over the last three seasons, the Mariners have dished out an average payroll of just over $108 million, and all they've had to show for it is three disappointing seasons — two in which they fell short with 80-something wins, and one in 2008 when they lost 101 and were out of the AL West race by mid-April. This franchise hasn't sniffed the postseason since 2001.
They're on a frustrating middle ground at the moment, spending enough that they shouldn't be content as an also-ran in the West every year, but not spending what it actually takes to put together a playoff team. They're still in need of a big push to get themselves over the hump.
There's a chance that Jason Bay could be that push.
Or at least that's the rumor floating around this week. According to Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times, "the Mariners have made a concerted push to land" Bay, a native of neighboring British Columbia and a local in the greater Seattle area. Bay is the biggest free agent available this winter, and the Mariners are offering up the biggest paychecks around. This could be a good fit.
Bay is exactly what the Mariners need to get to the next level. With Felix Hernandez and Erik Bedard at the front of the rotation, a deep bullpen and one of the game's best defenses, the M's had no problem keeping runs off the opponent's side of the scoreboard. All they needed to make a playoff push was one big bat. Adrian Beltre had an awful year, Ken Griffey, Jr.'s homecoming was a flop, and the Mariners needed a big bopper in the heart of their order.
With Bay's 36 home runs and 119 RBIs in the heart of their order, the Mariners would be contenders. But there are caveats. Three of them, to be exact:
1. What about defense? For as long as general manager Jack Zduriencik has been around, the Mariners have always built their teams around solid defensive players at each position. It's why they got rid of their old left fielder, Raul Ibanez, and didn't mind replacing him with Wladimir Balentien. It's why Franklin Gutierrez still has a job manning center field. It's why Yuniesky Betancourt spent years as the Mariners' everyday shortstop. If Seattle went after Bay, it would mean a shifting mission statement in their front office — it's not about glove work anymore, it's about spending the big bucks on guys that can mash. Perhaps that's a good idea, but it's not an easy shift for the M's front office to put into action.
2. What about the competition? These Bay sweepstakes aren't just going to be a two-horse race. Far from it. The M's will have to do a lot more than just outbid Boston for the rights to stick Bay in their outfield next season — they'll have to stave off the Angels, who have plenty of money to spend on rebuilding their outfield, and the Cubs, who have plenty themselves. And knowing Brian Cashman, there's always the chance he can jump in and disrupt negotiations just enough to drive up the price for everyone else. Getting into a bidding war for Bay won't be cheap, and it will draw the focus (and the cash) away from every other offseason objective on Zduriencik's list. The M's should proceed with caution.
3. What about the future? Remember this June? The Mariners have already made a huge investment in their outfield this year — they sunk the No. 2 overall pick in this spring's draft into UNC superstar Dustin Ackley, and they signed him this summer to a five-year major league deal worth a total of $7.5 million. In the long run, that's not a lot of money for the Mariners. But the big contract indicates a big commitment to Ackley being the future of the franchise. Wouldn't it send mixed signals now to put big money into another left fielder?
There's a lot to think about. The Mariners have the money and the appeal to lure in Jason Bay, but it would be a big step. And for what? Would signing him even guarantee the Mariners a trip to the playoffs? It's a tough question, and there are no easy answers.