The most talented player in baseball history, Shohei Ohtani, has chosen to sign with Los Angeles Dodgers, and the most frustrating offseason in Seattle Mariners history drags on.
To be clear: The Ohtani news does not come as a surprise to anyone in the Mariners’ front office.
The Mariners, realistically, knew the two-way Japanese star and two-time American League MVP wasn’t going to sign here.
Hopes were raised among the local fan base this summer when Ohtani was serenaded with “Come to Seattle!” chants during his two at-bats at the MLB All-Star Game at T-Mobile Park.
Even before that, though, the Mariners’ front office had been preparing for the likelihood that Ohtani would choose to sign a mega free-agent deal elsewhere. Which is exactly what he’s doing, agreeing to a reported $700 million deal over 10 years, the largest contract in North American sports history.
The Mariners were never going to be comfortable swimming in the deep end of that top-of-the-market pool. They’ve proven they’re more comfortable wading in the shallow end.
What’s not clear, at this point, is how involved – if at all – the Mariners were in the courtship of Ohtani early this offseason.
The timing could not have been worse for the Mariners.
Just 10 days into their offseason, on Oct. 10, Comcast-owned Xfinity announced it was moving ROOT Sports NW, the regional sports network that broadcasts Mariners games – and of which the Mariners own a majority stake – into its most expensive subscription package.
How that ultimately affects viewership of M’s games next season remains to be seen, but ownership is bracing for a smaller audience and lower revenue and, as a result, altered the budget plans for 2024.
Three weeks after Xfinity’s announcement, Ohtani officially became a free agent.
In December 2017, the Mariners were generally seen as the runner-up to the Ohtani sweepstakes when he initially moved from Japan and chose to play for the Los Angeles Angels.
Did Ohtani’s camp give the Mariners a chance to make a legitimate pitch this time around?
Did the Mariners make a formal offer, even knowing they weren’t likely to compete with top-of-the-market teams?
Or did they bow out of the Ohtani pursuit early, given ownership’s financial uncertainty?
Important questions still to be answered, indeed.
For Mariners fans, the Ohtani news continues what has to be the most aggravating offseason in franchise history.
Just 14 months ago, the Mariners ended a 21-year playoff drought to much fanfare, clearing a significant hurdle just four years after committing to a complete roster rebuild.
The Mariners did just about everything right in their rebuild. There were missteps along the way, sure. Typical for such an endeavor. No one bats 1.000.
But the development of a young superstar in Julio Rodriguez, along with core up-the-middle pieces in J.P. Crawford and Cal Raleigh, plus one of the best and deepest pitching staffs in all of baseball, opened a window for this team to be a contender for the next several years.
They’ve created a tasty-looking three-layer cake just waiting to be devoured. The icing on top – the final step to make them legitimate World Series contenders – was supposed to be a commitment to free-agent spending, to fill the roster holes in this lineup.
That is now on hold.
So where do the Mariners go from here?
Jerry Dipoto, president of baseball operations, is discount shopping for several new bats to add to the lineup.
And while he said at the MLB winter meetings that the budget is “very likely” to be higher than the club’s 2023 payroll of roughly $140 million, the budget is expected to rise only incrementally, if at all. Dipoto declined to discuss budget specifics.
After shedding some of their larger contracts already this offseason, the Mariners have a current projected payroll between $117-120 million. (That includes the $4.5 million they agreed to send to Atlanta to complete the five-player trade featuring Jarred Kelenic, Marco Gonzales and Evan White.)
They are trying to execute a trade to acquire middle-of-the-order thump.
The Tampa Bay Rays are reportedly open to moving left fielder Randy Arozarena and third baseman Isaac Paredes.
Both sluggers would line up neatly for the Mariners’ needs, both in the lineup and as budget-line items. Arozarena is projected to earn $9 million in arbitration, per MLB Trade Rumors, and Paredes about $3 million.
With those salaries, the Mariners might still be able to afford a free agent such as Jorge Soler, another slugger they’ve been linked to.
Soler hit 36 home runs for Miami this past season – he hit a career-high 48 homers with the Royals in 2019 – and he’s projected to sign a free-agent deal for something in the neighborhood of $15 million per year.
Whether the Mariners can ultimately squeeze all that in their budget is uncertain.
But they do have one big swing to make this offseason.
And they can’t whiff.