SEATTLE — Mariners manager Eric Wedge closed out a 75-win season for his team by talking tough about being playoff-ready as early as next year.
Wedge said his young Mariners showed nightly toughness throughout a brutal September schedule filled with playoff contenders. With the right additions, he added, especially a veteran offensive presence in the lineup, the Mariners could become one of those contenders next season.
But then, somebody asked Wedge about the team’s higher-ups and what “resources” he needed them to deliver to fill his wish list. All of a sudden, the tough talk subsided.
“That’s a slippery slope, there,” Wedge cautioned, half-jokingly.
Slippery indeed, but a huge caveat to any rebuilding plan, especially one asking fans to maintain faith as last-place seasons accumulate. The Mariners in 2012 found themselves in baseball’s toughest division, where they lost ground to an upstart, first-place Oakland Athletics squad, as well as lagging well behind the $120 million payroll second-place Texas Rangers and the $160 million payroll third-place Los Angeles Angels.
After starting with a reduced payroll of $82 million, the Mariners shipped off Ichiro and Brandon League in July trades and finished with a roster worth about $60 million.
While an optimist will point out that the division-winning A’s had an opening payroll of $53 million, the standings show the Mariners 19 wins behind them and in a different area code record-wise than the rest of the American League West.
Safeco Field attendance fell from 1.9 million last year to just more than 1.7 million.
The Mariners typically base payroll increases off revenue from previous years, and they just lost 175,000 paying customers. But analysts agree the squad is poised to score huge — likely beyond $1 billion — with an upcoming renegotiation of their television deal with ROOT Sports.
That will be finalized within two years, but the estimated value of the franchise keeps growing because of it. The recent $800 million sale of the San Diego Padres should make the Mariners worth even more on paper. Analysts have long valued them higher than the Padres.
The Rangers and Dodgers recently made high-priced free-agent and trade acquisitions based on anticipated revenues from forthcoming TV deals either finalized or soon-to-be.
The question is whether the Mariners will spend to upgrade a 2012 lineup that saw progression from Michael Saunders and Kyle Seager, but regression from Dustin Ackley, Justin Smoak, Brendan Ryan and Mike Carp, along with more injuries to Franklin Gutierrez and rookie struggles by Jesus Montero.
For now, the Mariners have begun to tackle their offensive problems by moving in fences at Safeco Field for next season.
The team also announced Thursday that hitting coach Chris Chambliss would not be returning in 2013 — the rest of the coaching staff will — and that a replacement is being sought.
The Mariners also announced that Ackley and shortstop Ryan had undergone successful arthroscopic surgery Thursday for bone spurs, Ackley in his ankle and Ryan his elbow. The impact that their conditions had on their hitting is unclear.
Wedge, however, was clear in outlining his needs for 2013.
“The first thing that comes to mind, obviously, is to continue to get better offensively,” he said. “That would be ideal. But without breaking it down — looking at the free-agent market, looking at potential trade possibilities — you really can’t dive too deep into it right now.
“But I think that a veteran presence in our lineup, particularly in the middle of our lineup, would be great. Easier said than done.”
Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik said this week he’d like to add “a bat,” but that a thin free-agent market might force him to “get creative” via trades.
Zduriencik has made similar comments about needing hitters before, but has not made a major free-agent signing since the ill-fated four-year, $36 million Chone Figgins deal in December 2009.
Figgins now takes up 14 percent of the remaining payroll for a team that refuses to use him or get rid of him.
The Angels have the AL West’s biggest payroll, but have been able to both compete and develop prime players like Mike Trout, Mark Trumbo and Peter Bourjos.
The NL West-champion San Francisco Giants did the same thing, taking their payroll to $131 million this year and $118 million in 2011, overcoming the $19 million annual wage still owed pitcher Barry Zito from a disastrous deal.
But the Mariners have allowed payroll to decline and wait for pricier contracts to expire while the team languishes in last place. The Ichiro and League money is the latest to go, coming after $22 million worth of contracts for Milton Bradley, David Aardsma and Jack Wilson ran out in 2011.
Next season will shave off a $8.5 million more for Figgins and $7.3 million for Franklin Gutierrez, leaving only Felix Hernandez as a hefty commitment.
Hernandez is owed $42 million through 2014.
Payroll has been a hotly-contested topic in baseball, especially in the pricier AL. Despite those who accurately claim money doesn’t guarantee championships, two AL division titles and one wild-card were captured by three of the top-five spending teams while a fourth — the Angels — stayed alive until the final two days.
But another division title and wild-card were won by the smaller budget A’s and Orioles.
In theory, all that waiting for contracts to expire should finally allow the Mariners to field a competitive team for much less money than the Rangers, Giants or Angels. Seattle could now take its reduced roster and spend $35 million on new players and be at the same place it stood on payroll in 2011.
Such spending two winters ago would have taken payroll to the same $130 million range the Giants, Rangers, Angels and others have resided in. The big difference is, those teams competed for playoff spots in 2011 and 2012 while the last-place Mariners lost 95 and 87 games with the worst offense in baseball.
The lack of significant long-term money committed by Seattle, growing franchise value and the upcoming TV deal are the reasons analysts continue to cite the team as a sale candidate. Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln has stated the team is not for sale. But the club’s bylaws do not allow for an open sale before minority owners are first given a crack at expanding their own holdings.
Among those owners, Bellevue resident John Stanton — believed to own roughly 10 percent — recently tried to buy 10 percent more from fellow owner Chris Larson in 2009. Larson’s financial troubles and divorce would likely keep him from expanding his 30.6-percent stake, but sources say Stanton is capable of leading a local ownership takeover of the team that would not require any formal sale to be held.
The team’s majority owner, Hiroshi Yamauchi, transferred his 55 percent holding in the Mariners to Redmond-based Nintendo of America for estate planning in 2004. Yamauchi retains “titular control” of the team, though at age 85, it remains to be seen how much longer that arrangement will hold.
The big question now is whether the Mariners will finally spend more. Or will they wait for more contracts to expire and a new TV deal first?
Wedge knows about the perils of rebuilding when ownership doesn’t deliver. He talked the same talk his last job in Cleveland, where he lost 94 games his first year, won 93 his third season, then got to the playoffs in his fifth year — only to tumble back below .500 as ownership avoided major spending increases.
But Wedge said he firmly believes the Mariners will step up when the time is right.
“That’s the reason I came here,” he said.
But nobody knows when that “right time” will be. And until that happens, all he — and the fans who follow the team — can do is wait.