LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – While the Washington Nationals seem to be on an epic spending spree, and the New York Yankees never stop spending, the Seattle Mariners are taking a frugal approach this offseason.
Gone are the days of opening the checkbook and signing the likes of Richie Sexson to long-term deals.
The Mariners promised to show financial restraint as baseball’s winter meetings opened Monday.
So as the Nationals finalized the workings of a 7-year, $126 million contract for free agent outfielder Jayson Werth, and other teams bid on the likes of Cliff Lee and Carl Crawford, the Mariners will be shopping in the bargain bin of free agents.
If it sounds depressing, it could be worse. The Mariners could trim payroll.
Mariners president Chuck Armstrong confirmed that the team will not reduce player payroll for the 2011 season. A year ago, Seattle trimmed more than $8 million off the payroll.
“As some of you noted, our player payroll will not be going down from last year,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we are going to spend it all. Most of you have been pretty accurate with what you’ve estimated our costs to be. Last year, our player payroll budget was $94 million, and it won’t be going down from that.”
A payroll budget of $94 million hardly makes the Mariners paupers.
It would still place Seattle in the top 15 teams in baseball.
But with attendance down last season and the effects of having two of the past three seasons with more than 100 losses, Armstrong admitted the Mariners are projecting losses for the 2011 season.
So keeping the payroll at the same level wasn’t a given. The owners needed some convincing.
“We made a presentation – Jack did, I did – to why we didn’t think it would be in our best interest for fan expectations to further reduce our budget,” Armstrong said. “We don’t have much flexibility now. If we had to reduce it, we might have had to do some things that might have been damaging in the long run. We’re not involved in any kind of salary dump. I’m grateful for us having the ownership to do that.”
Of that $94 million, there will be $57 million spent on the contracts of Ichiro Suzuki ($17 million), Felix Hernandez ($10 million), Milton Bradley ($12 million), Chone Figgins ($9 million), Franklin Gutierrez ($4 million) and Jack Wilson ($5 million).
That leaves $37 million, a number that includes the signing bonuses of the No. 2 pick in this year’s draft and other bonuses for draft picks and international signings.
“Unfortunately, because of the contracts we are locked into we don’t have as much flexibility this year,” Armstrong said.
And that means general manager Jack Zduriencik will have to be creative and thrifty if he is going to sign any free agents.
“We have a lot of committed dollars, so we have to be flexible and versatile to do some things,” he said.
“I would hope there’s a way or two we can improve our club. That remains to be seen.”
He’s had preliminary talks with teams and agents leading up to the winter meetings, which he called a “feeling out” process.
But the Mariners will not be in on any marquee free agents. They will have to rely on some of the many young players on the 25-man roster to play, and play every day in 2011.
“I would say we are probably in a position this year where we need get answers to our current crop of players,” he said. “I do think we are going see some young guys on the ballclub this season.”
And free agents?
Well, the Mariners have been linked to some veteran players on the budget rack. Catcher Gregg Zaun and outfielder Matt Diaz have been rumored possibilities.
Zaun, whose name seems to be associated with the Mariners every offseason, would fill the veteran back-up catcher role that Seattle is looking for to help Adam Moore.
Zaun played in 28 games for the Brewers last season, hitting .265 with two homers and 14 RBI. He’s a career .252 hitter who can play first if need be.
If acquired, the right-handed hitting Diaz could work in a platoon with Michael Saunders in left field. Diaz hit .250 with seven homers and 31 RBI in 244 plate appearances with the Braves. For his career, he’s hit .335 against left-handed pitchers in 797 plate appearances with 29 homers and 100 RBI.
The Mariners also have been linked to former A’s designated hitter Jack Cust and Angels outfielder Hideki Matsui. Cust is an all-or-nothing power hitter with a high on-base percentage, while Matsui hit .274 with 21 homers and 74 RBI for Anaheim. The A’s are also courting Matsui.
“It would be nice to bring in some veteran presence if that’s what we are able to do,” Zduriencik said.
The Mariners did make one acquisition on Monday, signing 17-year-old shortstop Esteilon Peguero out of the Dominican Republic to a $2.9 million signing bonus.
The bonus is the highest given to an international amateur this year.
“We are happy to add a multi-tools player at a premium position to our organization,” Zduriencik said.
Peguero stands 6-foot-1 and weighs 185 pounds. He is considered a good hitting prospect and smooth fielder.
In July, the Mariners signed six international players, including hard-hitting outfielder Phillips Castillo, who received a $2.2 million bonus.