For three days, it was about baseball and not bobbleheads.
For three days, the roar returned to a building that hadn’t felt such intensity and emotion since it was still named Safeco Field.
For three days, T-Mobile Park was the place to be in the city of Seattle and the Mariners returned to the forefront of the sports scene — a place they hadn’t been since Edgar Martinez was still smacking baseballs into the right-center gap.
Those three magical days of sold-out games, of meaningful baseball, offered a reminder of all that it once was and an understanding of what it could be again.
And even though the Mariners prevailed just once in those three games, failing to make the postseason for the 20th straight season, an expectation of something better than it has been was also set with this season’s unexpected success.
“It was an unbelievable experience for all of our players,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “Seeing what happened in the final series of the season at home was just fantastic. I guess I can go back to the line: ‘If you build it, they will come.’ A year ago, I really felt at that time that we’d laid the foundation of what we were trying to do here, and we talked about taking another step. I think we’re starting to put the frame up, and it’s going to be a pretty big house when it’s all said and done.”
Yet Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto both understand that the success of 2021 doesn’t mean improvement in 2022. It isn’t so much about believing in what they did, which was an accomplishment, but believing they could be more.
“This was always our plan,” Dipoto said. “In 2019 to 2020 was to provide our players with extended auditions, giving them an opportunity to gain experience. We thought we would start to turn a corner right about now, and I think we did that. We achieved that goal. Now it’s incumbent on us to go add where we can add, and improve where we can improve. We’ll visit every avenue to do that, whether it’s the free agent market or it’s the potential for trade. But we do have payroll flexibility, and we’re going to use it to go out and make the team better.”
Dipoto had a similar belief after the 2020 season, but former president and CEO Kevin Mather stymied it with a philosophy of taking advantage of the shortened season and the lost revenues of COVID-19 to sign free agents, “holding hat in hand,” for cheaper deals.
With Mather now resigned and an energized fan base that believes “baseball is back in Seattle,” as Servais said, there is no reason for frugality. Given the success of 2021, a 90-72 record and the expectations building, this is the biggest offseason in Dipoto’s regime, which started before the 2016 season.
Mariners chairman John Stanton and the ownership group have told Dipoto that his payroll budget will increase significantly this offseason.
“In 2018, we had those assurances from ownership,” Dipoto said, referencing the rebuild plan put in place. “Recently, it’s been doubled down. We are definitely committed to making this team better. John and our ownership group understand what that means. That’s an exciting thing for us because we did a lot of work over these last couple of years to create this opportunity, and we want to take advantage of it.”
In years past, Dipoto was always quite clear when addressing needs. But with the base of talent in place in the organization, he just wants to add talent to the roster. The Mariners need to add offense in some way, likely at two positions, and at least one (if not two) starting pitchers.
“We would like to add offense wherever the offense comes from, and it would be hard to imagine one of those players not manning some infield position,” Dipoto said. “We are going to be one of 30 teams that want to continue to build a more robust pitching staff, and the likelihood for us is it’s going to come as a starter, but our primary objective is to increase or improve the depth of our lineup so that’ll be focus No. 1.”
While Dipoto wouldn’t say if they would decline Kyle Seager’s $20 million club option for 2022, it is expected that they will move on based on those comments. The Mariners also likely won’t exercise Yusei Kikuchi’s four-year, $66 million club option. If Seattle does decline Kikuchi’s club option, it will turn into a $13 million player option for 2022. Sources indicate that Kikuchi would exercise that option and try to salvage what has largely been a disappointing transition to Major League Baseball from Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball.
If Kikuchi returns, Seattle would have approximately $30 million in committed MLB payroll and another $25 million expected to go to club controlled and arbitration-eligible players. Seattle once carried a $171 million payroll commitment in 2018.
And with the addition of the Seattle Kraken and the Portland Trailblazers to ROOT Sports Network, which the Mariners own, there are increased revenue streams that don’t have to be shared with other MLB teams.
The thinking has always been that the Mariners have to pay above market value to bring in free agents. They’ve always had the financial ability to do it. Do they have the will?
“It’s a very talented group of free agents,” Dipoto said. “We want to make our lineup longer, and there’s chances to do that on the free agent market. We will look under every stone like we always have. We have such a good foundation in place, and we know that there’s a tipping point for this team. I do think that with the way our season ended, the fact that we did get to 90 wins and this place was electric for the final three days, this has to be a more appealing place to a major league free agent than it has been in many years. That’s going to help us a lot.”
The biggest unknown is the upcoming collective bargaining agreement between the MLB owners and the MLB Players Association.
“It’s definitely going to play a factor in our offseason,” Dipoto said. ”That goes for everybody leaguewide. All we can do is follow the rules and the market as it exists right now. And our expectation is that the week after the World Series, the market will open and we are going to be very aggressive going, we always are. We tend to move pretty quickly. We’re going to go out and we are going to be heavy in recruiting the free agents that we think make sense for us, and we’re going to approach it like it’s any other offseason until we find out otherwise. That’s really all we can do.”
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