Analysis: We’re about to see if Mariners’ ownership believes in their club

Staff writerJune 28, 2014 

Angels Mariners Baseball

Mariners second baseman Robinson Cano, second from left, stands with general manager Jack Zduriencik, left, team president Kevin Mather, second from right, and CEO Howard Lincoln after Cano was presented with the Silver Slugger Award before Seattle’s home opener April 8. Cano left the New York Yankees this past offseason for a 10-year, $240 million deal with the Mariners.

TED S. WARREN — AP

— It has been 25 years since “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” dominated the box office. Chances are you’ve seen it; it gets regular airings on cable television.

The climactic scene, you’ll recall, has Indiana contemplating an “impossible” leap across a chasm to gain the Holy Grail in an effort to use its healing powers to save his wounded father.

He recognizes the moment as one requiring a leap of faith. Still ringing in his ears is the taunt from “Nazi stooge” Walter Donovan, who had just shot Indy’s father: “It’s time to ask yourself what you believe.”

• • • 

That same figurative challenge now confronts Howard Lincoln and the rest of the Seattle Mariners’ ownership group. And the next month should show whether they believe what they want the public to believe: Their club is worthy of support.

Saturday night against the Cleveland Indians at Safeco Field, the Mariners reached the midpoint of their schedule ensured of a winning record at this juncture for the first time in five years.

They also are in position to reach the postseason for the first time since 2001, largely because they possess one of the game’s best and deepest pitching staffs, an improved defense and a legitimate star at the heart of their lineup.

None of this is by accident.

General manager Jack Zduriencik and his staff spent the last few years – and they were painful at times – building the club’s farm system while paring payroll fat by jettisoning a number of bloated contracts.

Not all moves clicked. Were mulligans available, there are more than a few do-overs Zduriencik would exercise. He readily admits this.

But taken in sum, the standings – and what other measurement matters? – attest the Mariners can, for the first time in a long time, view themselves as contenders as the season hits its solstice.

Sure, that’s due in part to baseball’s growing parity.

Entering the weekend, all but two of the American League’s 15 clubs were within 61/2 games of a postseason berth. The Mariners were tied for the second wild-card spot.

With so many teams so tightly bunched, any club that makes a significant roster addition should logically put itself in far better position to be playing in October.

Also obvious: Guys who can provide that boost come at a cost, often in prospects but, for contenders, almost always in money.

Therein lies the challenge to Lincoln and those who control the Mariners’ finances: Are they willing to pony up the necessary dollars to make an impact addition?

Baseball trading season heats up when the calendar turns to July. Some clubs already are starting to shop players.

Want a few names to chew on?

The Chicago White Sox already are signaling a willingness to deal. Would Alexei Ramirez, Gordon Beckham or Dayan Viciedo put the Mariners over the top?

Or what about versatile Ben Zobrist, whom the Tampa Bay Rays are shopping?

The Los Angeles Dodgers remain overloaded with outfielders.

The Mariners have long liked Matt Kemp, although that would require a blockbuster deal and a massive financial commitment, even if the Dodgers eat a sizable portion of the $107 million remaining on his contract. Or they could choose a cheaper, younger option in Scott Van Slyke.

The Kansas City Royals appear less likely than a month ago to deal Billy Butler, but they remain unlikely to pick up his 2015 option. That means he’ll walk for no return after the season. So he’s probably still available at the right cost.

There are others, but you get the idea.

The Mariners, more than anything, need a right-handed, run-production bat. Club officials have long acknowledged this. And … well, they’re available for a price.

• • • 

Fans everywhere love to characterize their clubs as being cheap while equating dollars spent (or not spent) as evidence of ownership’s desire to win. (Yes, this is often true, too, in the media.)

This criticism often gets levied at Lincoln and the Mariners, although they green-lighted two of the game’s richer contracts in committing $240 million to Robinson Cano and $175 million to Felix Hernandez.

Lincoln et al. also signed off on Zduriencik’s argument that signing free-agent closer Fernando Rodney for $16 million over two years would stabilize a relief corps that had previously failed to meet expectations.

How’s that working out?

But multiple sources contend it was ownership that nixed possible deals with outfielder Nelson Cruz and first baseman/designated hitter Kendrys Morales before they signed elsewhere.

In both cases, those close to the talks say, the player appeared ready to sign with the Mariners for less that he subsequently received, but Zduriencik never presented a formal offer because of ownership concerns over payroll.

Zduriencik declined to address the issue. That’s no surprise; he rarely offers specifics regarding negotiations.

True or not, this much is widely believed throughout the industry: The Mariners were viewed as favorites to sign both players before backing off.

The knee-jerk impulse, upon hearing that, is to rip ownership for shortsighted penny-pinching. Maybe that’s valid. Either Cruz or Morales, let alone both, would have provided some much-needed lineup thump.

But it’s also easy to understand any possible hesitation. Lots of teams hesitated on Cruz and Morales. Both players were on the market a long time.

Plus, it’s one thing for ownership to hesitate in late March or even late May in terms of making additional investments. But evaluations and assessments should change when July arrives.

Clubs tend to separate themselves at this point into buyers and sellers.

What’s needed is a realistic assessment because there is a tendency by some clubs – particularly those, such as the Mariners, that haven’t sniffed the postseason in years – to overreact when on the edge of contention.

The guiding principle often comes back to this cliché: Spending money to go from 75 victories to 80 makes little sense, but spending money to go from 85 to 90 makes all the sense in the world.

The standings say the Mariners are on pace for roughly 85 victories.

There’s no guarantee that adding payroll results in a postseason berth. Heck, there’s no guarantee that Zduriencik can swing a deal even if granted the authority. Lots of other clubs are looking to improve, too.

It’s also possible, of course, the Mariners played over their heads in the first half and that a severe correction to the mean is awaiting in coming weeks. That view would argue against any authorization for an increased payroll.

It’s time for Howard Lincoln to ask himself what he believes.

bob.dutton@thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @TNT_Mariners

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