PEORIA, Ariz. — Pick your adage — never let them see how the sausage is made, or never let them see behind the curtain — or any other oft-used phrase about oversharing private or sensitive information on decision-making processes.
Regardless of what you land upon, Mariners president and CEO Kevin Mather didn’t follow them when he recently spoke to the Bellevue Breakfast Rotary Club via a video call.
His speech Feb. 5, which was uploaded to YouTube on Friday and made its way to Twitter on Sunday morning, offered information and opinions on a variety of topics the Mariners’ front office likely would not share publicly with the media or fan base. The video was removed by Sunday afternoon.
It’s not so much that Mather stuck his foot in his mouth during the session. It’s that he somehow kept making it worse without thinking to remove it.
Speaking to this group of Rotarians and answering questions after his initial opening statement, Mather offered background and sensitive information on subjects that confirmed reports, including:
• The team’s financial situation, reduced payroll and frugality in free agency.
• The decision not to call up prospects Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert last year due to service-time constraints.
• An offer of a contract extension to Kelenic and some mildly insulting remarks to a few players.
He also came off as obtuse, indifferent, callous and petty toward some current and former Mariners players, situations facing the team and Major League Baseball’s expected upcoming labor strife.
The number of people that will take offense to his comments, including those within the Mariners organization, likely grew Sunday with each replay of the video or social-media post of his quotes.
It’s difficult to know where to begin.
Mather opened by discussing the Mariners’ financial situation after a 2020 season that was disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic and was limited to 60 regular-season games without fans in attendance.
“A terrible year financially,” he said. “We played 60 games, no fans. We actually had forest fire smoke so bad that we ended up playing five of our 30 home games on the road. But I’m reminded of two things. One, no one cares if wealthy sports team owners lose money. You know, shut up and move on.”
Mather then referenced a Tiger Woods commercial for an upcoming golf tournament in which the announcer says, “Better than most” after a miraculous 60-foot putt by Woods.
“Why do I think of that ‘better than most’ commercial?” he said. “It’s because for the Mariners, as bad as our year was financially in 2020, we were better than most. And I attribute that to luck — better to be lucky than good. We were at the very bottom of our rebuild ‘step back’ cycle, so our payroll was as low as it was going to get, thank goodness.”
Mather referenced dollars made on the game broadcasts on regional TV network ROOT Sports, in which the Mariners have owned the controlling interest since 2013.
“We also have a television deal with ROOT Sports, and we punch well above our weight on the television deal,” he said. “We had 60 games, and we per game got a lot more than we probably deserved as compared to other similar-sized markets. So it was terrible year financially, but we did better than most of the other professional sports teams.”
This will not sit well with fans who are frustrated by the Mariners’ unwillingness to expand their payroll budget to field a more competitive team in 2021.
Mather then addressed the decision to bring 15 of the Mariners’ top prospects to summer camp in July and put them in the 60-player pool. He said those prospects, including Kelenic, were not going to be called up under any circumstances.
“The risk was, if our major-league team had a COVID-19 outbreak, or injuries, and we had to call people up from the taxi squad, we were a little short on players,” he said. “Because there was no chance you were going to see these young players at T-Mobile Park. We weren’t going to put them on the 40-man roster. We weren’t going to start the service-time clock. ... The risk paid off.”
Speaking of Kelenic and service time, Mather confirmed reports the team had offered him a contract extension and added it was rebuffed by Klutch Sports Management.
“Jarred Kelenic, we’ve been talking about him for a year and a half now, he will be in left field in April,” Mather said. “He’s a 21-year-old player who is quite confident. We offered him a long-term deal — a six-year deal for substantial money with options to go farther. After pondering it for several days and talking to the union, he has turned us down. And in his words, he’s going to bet on himself. He thinks after six years he’s going to be such a star player that the seventh-, eighth-, ninth-year options will be undervalued. He might be right. We offered, and he turned us down.”
During the question and answer period, there was more conversation about Kelenic.
“He’s a very good player, and quite frankly we think he’s going to be a superstar,” Mather said. “We would like him to get a few more at-bats in the minor leagues, probably Triple-A Tacoma for a month. Then he will likely be in left field at T-Mobile Park for the next six or seven years, and then he’ll be a free agent. He won’t commit beyond his free-agent years. I wouldn’t say he’s unhappy. He appreciates the offer, he just refused to sign it. He thinks he’s going to be that good. And he thinks he will be a very well-paid player after six years, and I think he might be right. Hopefully it’s with us, but we’ll see where we end up.”
Mather acknowledged that Kelenic was frustrated about not being called up last season.
“I guess I would say he’s unhappy that he hasn’t played at T-Mobile Park, but he thought he should have been in left field at T-Mobile Park, three years ago,” Mather said. “I mean, he does not lack confidence.”
As the Mariners played utility infielders and players claimed off waivers in the outfield last season, Kelenic’s representatives were frustrated with comments about their client needing development. They felt there was minimal development taking place at the Mariners’ alternate training site in Tacoma.
Mather was also asked about Julio Rodriguez, the Mariners’ other top outfield prospect.
“Julio Rodriguez has got a personality bigger than all of you combined,” Mather said. “He is loud. His English is not tremendous. Everybody says he’ll be here in 2021. He won’t be here till 2022 or 2023. A fantastic kid. We’re really big on social media. He loves to get out in front. He loves the Mariners. And between him and Kelenic, we think we’ve got an outfield that will be as good as any in baseball for the next six or seven years. He’s the real deal. He’s ranked higher than Kelenic. You know I said Kelenic doesn’t lack for confidence. He is not happy that he’s the fifth-highest prospect in Baseball America and Rodriguez is the fourth-highest prospect. But little things like that bother Kelenic.”
Rodriguez took to social media to post two tweets Sunday afternoon. One had the word: Motivation. The other was a meme from “The Last Dance” ESPN documentary on Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Rodriguez photoshopped his face on Jordan’s body with the words “ ... and I took that personally.”
Mather’s speech also went into more detail about long-term contracts. He mentioned the long-term contracts given to starting pitcher Marco Gonzales and first baseman Evan White and his goal to sign four or five players to long-term deals.
Mather said White “took a lot of heat for signing that deal, and the union really pushed back and said, ‘Don’t do it.’ He said, ‘I have $23 million guaranteed. That changes a person’s life. I’m signing the deal. And if I’m good and they pick up my options. I’ll have $55 million guaranteed. That changes my family and my grandkids’ lives.’ I like the young man.”
With this Q&A taking place Feb. 5, about 10 days before starting pitcher James Paxton reached an agreement with the Mariners, Mather was asked about bringing back Paxton or fellow starter Taijuan Walker as free agents. His response was candid and outlined the Mariners’ plan to remain vigilant with their payroll budget.
“Paxton has surprisingly not signed,” he said. “The industry loss, $2.9 billion ... nobody cares that rich owners lost money. But we lost $2.9 billion last year. And we have taken the position that there are 180 free agents still out there on February 5 unsigned. Sooner or later, these players are going to turn their hat over and come with hat in hand looking for a contract. We think Walker is one of them. James Paxton made ($12.5) million dollars last year. His agent has told us that he’s going to make more in 2021. Interestingly, we started a conversation with Paxton yesterday, and it is for substantially less than that. Walker thinks he’s going to get a three-year deal. I don’t think he’s going to get a three-year deal. And there’s a chance he comes back as well.”
Paxton signed for one-year and $8.5 million with the Mariners, and Walker received a two-year, $20 million contract with an option for a third year from the Mets.
But there’s more.
• Mather addressed fans returning to T-Mobile Park in 2021.
“We have worked closely with the city, the county, the health officials,” he said. “The Seahawks tried to get fans for their playoff game. And I told my staff, I said, ‘Let’s just pull on their coat and stay out of this one.’ And they were not able to do it. We have designs, socially distanced T-Mobile Park will hold 9,870 fans. The real question is, do we have to stay away from the field, do we have to be back six rows? And those are pods of four. I’m afraid one of the issues the county is going to have us do, at least in April, and perhaps May, is the pod of four has to be from the same household.
“And how do we enforce that? We’re working closely with the county health officials. Some ballparks will have fans. Texas, Florida, they will have fans, and not as socially distanced as perhaps we will be at T-Mobile Park. The state of California, we don’t think they’re going to have fans all year. So we’re working on it. My best guess is small in April, bigger in May, bigger in June, perhaps big crowds in July, August, and let’s hope in September, we’re pushing for a playoff spot and we have big crowds in September.”
• Mather managed to say that although third baseman Kyle Seager will one day be inducted into the Mariners’ Hall of Fame, he’s also “overpaid.” Seager signed a $100 million contract extension in December 2014 and will make $18 million in 2021.
• And when asked about dealing with Asian pitchers, Mather vented a little:
“For instance, we just rehired (Hisashi) Iwakuma (as a special-assignment coach), he was a pitcher with us for a number of years. Wonderful human being, his English was terrible. He wanted to get back into the game, he came to us, we quite frankly want him as our Asian scout/interpreter, what’s going on with the Japanese league. He’s coming to spring training.
“And I’m going to say, I’m tired of paying his interpreter. When he was a player, we’d pay Iwakuma ‘X,’ but we’d also have to pay $75,000 a year to have an interpreter with him. His English suddenly got better. His English got better when we told him that.”