The spring training landscape for the Seattle Mariners in the paved-over desert of suburban Phoenix remains largely the same, just more so — strip malls, two-story apartment buildings and shocked visitor faces after seeing car rental taxes, often exceeding the GNP of Canada, which pay for all the cute little ballparks.
But as pitchers and catchers report to Peoria Wednesday, MLB’s economic landscape has changed sufficiently that for many, it renders spring training almost barren of competitive hope and value.
The real season doesn’t start when the schedule says it does, on March 29 — just in time to catch the last of the snow in the Midwest and Northeast.
The real season starts at the July 31 trade deadline, or in the immediate days prior when trade partners strike deals among the seven super teams, the half-dozen or so teams that are kidding themselves and the rest of the teams that are not kidding themselves.
Thanks to changes in the collective bargaining agreement between the clubs and the players signed in 2016, the time around the non-waiver deadline is the new hot-stove league with the (unintended?) side effect of creating competitive imbalance.
The complex rules regarding the luxury tax on player salaries have created a soft salary cap on player payrolls — the lid is $197 million for 2018, up $2 million from 2017 — which is having the effect of discouraging the sort of wild spending on long-term contracts for veterans on the decline that has marked the free-agency period of the past winters.
Some call it collusion, others call it common sense. But the fact is, the wealthiest clubs preserved their ability to have best chances to buy from the top shelf, and afford, if necessary, the tax, while depressing the market for players.
The changes didn’t prevent the Yankees from acquiring Giancarlo Stanton from the Marlins, making their lineup a sort of Megatron in pinstripes.
And the new setup caused the Dodgers in December to unload Adrian Gonzalez, Scott Kazmir, Brandon McCarthy, Charlie Culberson and cash to Atlanta in a salary dump that brought in return only Matt Kemp, whom they dumped three years earlier. At 33 last season, he hit .276 with 19 homers and had a WAR of -1.3.
The Dodgers made the move not for reasons of winning in 2018, but to get under the tax threshold in preparation for the loaded 2019 class of free agents that will presumably include Dodgers target Bryce Harper.
The largest-revenue markets will continue to manipulate the rules to their advantage, and all but the top handful of free agents will lose ground in the marketplace.
The changed market also impacted the Mariners, who are in the kidding-themselves category at the moment. But if their current plans go well, things could change when the real season begins in July.
The Mariners did make some positive winter moves in acquiring Dee Gordon from Miami to play center field and hit leadoff, and Ryon Healy to play first base, creating as substantive a 1-through-9 lineup as they’ve had in more than a decade. They also added two relievers, Juan Nicasio and Shawn Armstrong, who figure to to put Seattle’s bullpen at least in the top half of the American League.
But most fans think the Mariners did little to improve the big weakness of 2017 — starting pitching, a rotation that had more members than the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.
General manager Jerry Dipoto will argue that he did much to bolster the rotation in 2017 with the in-season acquisitions of Mike Leake, 30; Erasmo Ramirez, 27, and Marco Gonzales, 25. Gonzales was acquired July 18 from St. Louis, Ramirez July 28 from Tampa and Leake Aug. 30 from St. Louis.
The three have MLB experience, with WARs around the average, and are under club control. They are the likeliest to follow James Paxton and Felix Hernandez in the rotation. Dipoto claims that none of the three are worth bumping now in favor of any of the top veteran free agents still on the market, including Jake Arrieta, Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb.
Here’s how he explained it at the the spring training luncheon last month.
“We’re doing the best we can to develop our system, not to clog it,” he said. “Could we go out and sign a free agent that would be better than our current fifth starter? Absolutely. Would that be the best thing for the present-day Mariners? Maybe. Would it be the best thing for the wider lens for the present and future of the Mariners? Probably not, no.”
The position is rational for most clubs. But most clubs haven’t missed the playoffs 16 years in a row. In fact, none but the Mariners have. Nevertheless, as with many of his predecessors in Seattle, he seemed to be preaching patience. Cue the eye rolls.
Or was he?
If the rotation performs close to Dipoto’s expectations, the Mariners will be ready to play in the market when the season starts around mid-July. Health permitting, they could be in position to sacrifice some offense, say Nelson Cruz or Kyle Seager, in a trade to another contender for a quality starting pitcher. Or prior to midseason, an unsigned free agent pitcher may be available more cheaply for an emergency hire.
Money, at least according to majority owner John Stanton at the luncheon, will not be an impediment. According to spotrac.com, the Mariners last season spent $171 million on player payroll, 12th in MLB (although they were No. 2 on disabled list salaries), so they were well under the tax threshold. Six clubs, led by the Dodgers at $265 million, were luxury-tax payers (also Yankees, Red Sox, Blue Jays, Tigers, Giants).
In the new CBA, the owners outmaneuvered the players, gradually averting longer-term deals in the offseason, mostly for second- and third-tier free agents, and the haves benefiting more than the have-nots. The change so irked the players that the union has opened a training camp for the unsigned players at the IMG Academy in Florida.
But the Mariners, despite the low-profile offseason, might be in position to take advantage, as long as players and fans understand that significant roster building these days happens around the Fourth of July instead of Christmas.
Art Thiel is co-founder of sportspressnw.com.