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Why Shohei Ohtani likely will break Mariners fans' hearts

The Mariners are among the teams best positioned to land the superstar, but is the front office willing to make an offer upwards of $500 million?
Credit: AP
American League's Shohei Ohtani during the MLB All-Star baseball game in Seattle, Tuesday, July 11, 2023. (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

SEATTLE — Ever since the 2023 MLB All-Star Game came to Seattle, Mariners fans have been doing their best to court the most prized free agent in some time: Japanese superstar Shohei Ohtani.

The Mariners are positioned better than most other MLB teams to land Ohtani's remarkable dueling skillset as a position player and a pitcher, but all signs at this point indicate the reigning American League MVP will sign elsewhere.

None of the most reputable newsbreakers in the sport have indicated the Mariners remain in the Ohtani sweepstakes, with the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers emerging as the seemingly leading candidates. Of course, a lot of reports and rumors pop up every baseball offseason, so it is entirely likely Ohtani might sign with a different team than the two previously mentioned. He even could defy the odds and come to Seattle.

However, a different rumor that has popped up in recent days has made the pursuit of Ohtani, or really any major free agent, extremely unlikely.

MLB.com's Daniel Kramer reported on Wednesday that the Mariners have run into financial challenges with ROOT Sports Northwest, the regional sports network that it also owns 71% of. Regional Sports Networks, or RSNs, have taken a hit in recent years as more and more sports fans cut the cord from traditional cable networks.

Kramer asked Mariners President of Baseball Operations Jerry Dipoto whether issues at ROOT would impact the team's offseason and he said: “I’m just going to focus on the baseball part of it. We’re here to try to build the best 26-man roster we can build with the short- and long-term. I’m not ever going to talk about our budget.”

Seattle Times Mariners beat writer Ryan Divish also reported before this week's winter meetings about the impact of the choice by Xfinity to make a ROOT Sports subscription around $18 a month more expensive. Xfinity has more subscribers than any other cable company in the Pacific Northwest, and fewer subscribers could hurt ROOT's revenue and therefore the Mariners' revenue as well.

Many Mariners fans assumed the recent cost-cutting moves -- trading Eugenio Suarez, Marco Gonzales and Evan White among others -- were to free up money to spend on a high-value free agent like Ohtani or star pitcher Blake Snell, who grew up in Shoreline.

Kramer's reporting indicates that the Mariners might have made the above moves to limit the team's budget obligations with revenues trending down. 

All this isn't to say the Mariners won't be signing any free agents this offseason if money is indeed tighter. Just don't expect to see a player like Ohtani to be holding up a Mariners jersey at a press conference.

We've discussed the reasons why Ohtani could become a Mariner before, but here's a quick refresher for those less familiar. Ohtani was serenaded with chants of "Come to Seattle" during the All-Star Game in the city and while he and his former team were playing games at T-Mobile Park.

Seattle has the fifth-largest Japanese population of any major metro area in the U.S. per 2019 data from the Pew Research Center. Ohtani also grew up idolizing former Mariner Ichiro Suzuki, and the two have been seen chatting pre-game at T-Mobile Park. Seattle's proximity to Ohtani's home country, where he reportedly spends much of his time in the offseason, is also better than most other MLB teams.

Ohtani is expected to command a contract worth no less than $500 million, and many expect it to be higher than that. The Mariners already have a contract that could end up being worth north of $400 million with incentives to Julio Rodriguez and have never been the organization to target the biggest fish on the free-agent market.

Especially if the Mariners indeed expect to see fewer dollars coming in from television contracts in coming years, a contract of that size will not be affordable for the team. 

Take the San Diego Padres, one of the organizations that saw its RSN fold after parent company Diamond Sports Group filed for bankruptcy. The Padres had to trade rising star Juan Soto to the New York Yankees this offseason, as the team would have had a hard time paying for what is expected to be a contract in a similar realm to Rodriguez and perhaps even more expensive. It doesn't sound like ROOT is in anywhere close to the financial trouble that the Bally's RSNs were, but teams build their projected payrolls based heavily on how much TV revenue can be generated. With less TV revenue, comes less of an ability to increase the payroll.

As it stands Friday, the Mariners rank 18th in MLB with a $75 million payroll for the 2024 season. Trades are also a possibility to improve the roster, and the team does have a group of extremely valuable prospects who could fetch an impressive return.

Regardless of what happens this offseason, the Mariners have a solid roster that was a few bad bounces and mistakes away from the playoffs in 2023. All hope isn't lost by any means, but it seems highly unlikely at this stage that Ohtani will be choosing Seattle as his new home city this offseason.

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