HOWARD LINCOLN, Chairman and CEO of the Mariners, hawked season tickets during the off-season by saying the Mariners were committed to fielding a competitive team year after year, although the owners viewed the team as a business and were willing to spend no more than 50 percent of revenue on payroll. Based on projected attendance of 3,150,000, they estimated revenue would be just under $180 million —even though they'd hiked ticket prices and, in 2001, made $184 million after revenue sharing. ESPN.com lists Seattle's 2002 Opening Day payroll at $80.3 million; the Mariners calculated it as somewhat higher. In any event, Lincoln repeatedly said payroll was tied to revenue in an implied deal for fans: Turn out, and we'll be able to spend more on players.
Seattle did. The Mariners didn't.
Unofficially, paid attendance was 3,533,938—a record—and the team's 93-69 season, completed Sept. 29, was the franchise's second-best in terms of wins. But that success was only good enough for third place in the American League West. It illustrates the strategy the Mariners have employed in recent years: Field teams good enough to compete for the division title, and then hope one of them can luck into the World Series. This strategy has won some division titles but no pennants, and this year it got them nothing.
THE MARINERS FACED tough decisions as the July 31 trade deadline approached. The Angels were still close behind, the A's had gotten healthier and were starting to close the gap. Third baseman Jeff Cirillo wasn't hitting. Utility outfielder Ruben Sierra was months cold at the plate, and no one was playing left field well. The bench consisted of poor hitters. The pitching rotation was two men short of a five-man staff. Ace Freddy Garcia had become maddeningly inconsistent.
On the positive side, the team was within its payroll budget and was drawing more than 45,000 fans a game, on a pace to exceed the projection by 400,000—13 percent more than they'd budgeted for. At an average ticket price of $24.60, the Mariners were going to make about $9.8 million more than planned, not counting increases in concessions, merchandise sales, and other revenue. When the books are closed, it appears, the Mariners will at least have matched last year's $204 million, which will be about $190 million after they share revenue with less-fortunate teams. Making the playoffs means making a lot more money, so turning additional regular-season income into a playoff berth, by buying more talent, would have been smart.
The Mariners needed to win 10 games or so more to win the division, or five more to get a wild-card berth. But from the trade deadline through the Awful Road Trip of Sept. 9-15, the Mariners lost seven one-run games and four two-run games.
Who could have helped? Cliff Floyd, a right-handed outfielder, great bat—he hits, he walks, he hits for doubles and the long ball. The Montreal Expos got him from the Florida Marlins for two middling pitching prospects, same as the Boston Red Sox paid the Expos later in the season. The Mariners weren't even rumored to be interested. Adding a 20-steal player who hit over .300, got on base at almost a .400 clip, and hit 44 doubles and 31 home runs in a pitcher's park last year is exactly the upgrade the Mariners needed. Had they acquired him, Floyd would have become the third-best hitter on the team.
For the bench, upgrades would have been easy. The worthless Milwaukee Brewers had managed to collect a bunch of spare parts they didn't need. Right-handed batter Izzy Alcantara, an overlooked ex-Red Sox prospect who's hit at every level of the minors, was on the farm much of the season. There also were useful pinch hitters and spot starters like corner outfielder and first baseman Matt Stairs. The left-handed Stairs was seeing limited duty in Milwaukee, hitting .247 with 15 doubles and 16 home runs and drawing a ton of walks. Alex Ochoa would have been an upgrade as a backup outfielder. Instead, the Anaheim Angels picked him up from the Brewers, along with a backup catcher, in exchange for Jorge Fabergas, a stinky 32-year-old catcher, and two players to be named later. That's what you can pick off one bad team. Useful spare parts to improve your bench are easier to find than scalpers on Occidental Avenue.
IMPROVING THE ROTATION would have been harder. Ace Bartolo Colon, whom Cleveland eventually traded to Montreal, demanded a prospect bounty that makes general managers go pale. The M's didn't need an ace. They had two top-flight pitchers in Jamie Moyer and Joel Pineiro, plus Garcia, who was salvageable. What the M's needed was a No. 3 who would be steady in the rotation the rest of the year and able to take a playoff start if needed.
The Mariners picked up Ismael Valdes but botched even that obvious trade with the Texas Rangers by waiting until Aug. 18. Picking up Valdes even a couple weeks earlier would have saved Seattle from having to endure more of James Baldwin's starts. Valdes was a good move too late.
Manager Lou Piniella cried for a hitter and General Manager Pat Gillick gave him infielder Jose Offerman. Offerman got out of Boston just ahead of a pitchfork-and-torch-wielding populace. Piniella then played Offerman in clutch situations in which he could fail, making Offerman and the front office both look ineffectual.
Derrick Van Dusen of the San Bernardino Stampede, a single-A Mariner farm team, was the pitching prospect traded for Valdes. He was better than either of the pitchers the Red Sox gave up to get Floyd. The Mariners could have traded Van Dusen and someone else to Montreal for Floyd. They still could have scraped up the talent to bring in Valdes.
Baldwin had two disastrous starts before Piniella decided the Moose would take the mound before Baldwin. You can't say for sure that certain players would have resulted in those games turning magically into wins. But trading for Floyd and getting Valdes sooner would have gotten the team into the playoffs. I know it. You know it. Piniella knew it. The players knew it.
I'd trade a couple of 90-loss seasons for a trip to the World Series. If the team's going to be bad anyway the next couple of seasons, what the hell, mortgage the farm—no deal too large, no price too high. Memories and long-term loyalty come from division titles and facing the Yankees for seven games—not from consistent mediocrity.
The Mariner owners apparently disagree. The extra $10 million they could have spent on players but didn't, that's money they're keeping. A half-season of Floyd and Valdes wouldn't have cost half that. They pay $700,000 a year in rent. We spot the Mariners a sweetheart lease for millions below market value.
By patching holes and keeping the farm system productive, the Mariners can continue as a .500 team for years. Maybe they'll luck into contention when the A's catch viral meningitis. But if the Mariners were unwilling to make moves this season with the playoffs so close and the Yankees vulnerable, will they ever invest money to win in the playoffs or take the World Series? Why buy season tickets if you know you might never be cheering late in October?
Derek Zumsteg also writes for the Baseball Prospectus and for ESPN.com.