Could A-Rod to NY be a double-whammy for M's?

Much has been written about the various reasons why Alex Rodriguez in a Yankee uniform is bad news for baseball. InsidethePark.com's Jared Poppel takes another look at the blockbuster trade, and says it could ultimately play a bigger role in the Mariners' future than most people think.

Well, as I'm sure you've all heard by now, another punch has been thrown in the Yankees-Red Sox Melee, and this one is a haymaker. By the time this column is published, the Yankees will have announced that they have acquired SS Alex Rodriguez from the Texas Rangers in return for All-Star 2B Alfonso Soriano and the infamous minor league player to be named later. In addition to taking the man considered to be the best shortstop in baseball and moving him to 3B, the Yankees are moving A-Rod off one of the worst teams in baseball and into one of the biggest rivalries in all of sports.

But wait a minute. A-Rod is leaving the AL West, and most Seattle fans will rejoice upon hearing that. After all, he was playing for a division rival being with Texas, a team that had acted as a spoiler to the Mariners' playoff chances over the past two seasons. In addition, the Rangers let Mariner-killer Rafael Palmeiro walk away to the Baltimore Orioles. The M's would have had to face these two feared hitters 19 times every season because of the unbalanced schedule. A-Rod and Palmeiro would come into Safeco Field 9 or 10 times a year and tear up the joint, especially Palmeiro. But not anymore.

A-Rod will show up at Safeco with the Yankees six times in 2004, while Palmeiro will only get three chances to blast homers into the right field seats against the Mariners. For most M's fans, that is fantastic news. While the Rangers are getting an All-Star and potential superstar in Soriano, they have given up one of the best players, if not THE best player in all of baseball, in Rodriguez. A-Rod hit .371 at Safeco in 2003, and .324 overall against the Mariners last season. Rafael Palmeiro absolutely slaughtered the Mariners at Safeco Field; he has 16 career home runs at Safeco in its 4.5 year existence. He slammed 6 HR and drove in 18 runs in Seattle in 2003 alone. And all this came off of Mariners pitching, which has been amongst the top of the league for the past few years.

The loss of those two players, along with the failure to acquire any quality starting pitching, would seem to weaken the Rangers considerably when matched up against the Mariners, especially at home. Things appear good for the M's. But are they?

There is one major way that this trade can negatively affect the Mariners in 2004 and beyond: attendance. With A-Rod on the Rangers, and the love/hate relationship that Mariners' fans have had with him because of his perceived "defection" 3 years ago, even if the Rangers were mired in last place (as they probably will be with or without Alex), the Mariners were guaranteed to draw huge crowds to each home game against Texas, regardless of the day of the week or time of year.

Fans either wanted to share their affection for the one-time Mariner phenom, while others wanted to douse the shortstop with Monopoly money from the upper deck. Either way, they came out for him. But now, if the Rangers really are THAT bad without A-Rod, how many fans will show up for a Ranger game on a Tuesday night? The answer is not nearly as many. How many fans show up for the Detroit Tigers or the Cleveland Indians? Not too many. If it looks like the M's will run over a team, people stay home and watch it on TV.

Do you think that as many Mariners fans are as interested in Alfonso Soriano as they are with A-Rod? If you look at the schedule, the Mariners play the Rangers on the first weekend homestand of the season. Those games will probably draw a lot of fans because, if nothing else, it's the first weekend homestand of the season. Hope will still be springing eternal in the mind of the M's faithful, the weather will finally be starting to improve, and quite a few people are jonesing for garlic fries (myself included).

The next time the Rangers pull into town, however, isn't until June 28 for a four-game series. Those four games run from Monday through Thursday, days on which the Mariners traditional do NOT fill the ballpark or even come close to it. In fact, most of the time, the upper deck is quite empty for non-weekend games. If the Rangers are already 10 games out in the AL West, and there's no A-Rod to cheer or boo, what's the incentive for fans to come to the ballpark? In those four games alone, the Mariners could lose anywhere from 30,000 to 50,000 in paid attendance. And as for the Rangers' final trip to Seattle in 2004? It's the final weekend of the season, October 1 though 3. In the last 3 seasons, the division had already been decided by this time.

In addition to the above issues about attendance, the Mariners have yet another factor to consider at that time of year: the Seattle Seahawks. Given their playoff appearance this past year and the overall feeling of optimism the city of Seattle has in its football team (for a change), the fans now have yet another "distraction" that might keep them away from the ballpark, especially on a Sunday afternoon. If the Mariners are still in the playoff hunt, attendance may hold up. If not (and recent history has shown us that they probably won't be), there will probably be a LOT of empty seats at Safeco that weekend. That's a lot of empty seats. Translation? A loss of money for the home-town nine. In short, the loss of A-Rod as an attraction for the Rangers could mean a decrease in paid attendance by as much as 100,000 people for those games at Safeco Field.

But wait, won't the fans still come and see A-Rod for the 6 games that the Yankees play at Safeco? Absolutely, but given the intense rivalry that has developed between the Bronx Bombers and the M's, those games were guaranteed sellouts even before the Yanks got A-Rod. His acquisition will have NO net impact on attendance for those games. So what would this do to the Mariners? Well, the attendance dropped almost 8% from 2002 to 2003, in a season in which the team won 93 games and still had A-Rod coming to Safeco for 9 or 10 games a year, playing for a team that might not bring good attendance otherwise. The team went from filling 93% of the seats in 2004 down to 84.5% in 2003. With A-Rod on the Yanks, and the M's no sure thing to make the playoffs (by any means), the Mariners could see attendance fall below the 3 million mark in 2004, something that hasn't happened since their first full year at Safeco in 2000. Even then, they only missed by about 85,000 fans.

Such a declining trend in attendance could lead to a vicious cycle of slashing payroll to maintain profit margins, given the team's corporate culture. The M's will already pare close to $40 million from the payroll next season with the expected retirements of Edgar Martinez and John Olerud, the return of Kazuhiro Sasaki to Japan, and the free agency of Freddy Garcia, Dan Wilson, Rich Aurilia, Kevin Jarvis, Dave Hansen, Quinton McCracken, possibly Eddie Guardado, and whichever of the non-roster invitees make the team (Ron Villone, Terry Mulholland, Mike Myers, Eric Owens.) Most, if not all, of these free agents will not be back with Seattle in 2005.

With comparatively fewer arbitration-eligible players next season (Ben Davis, Willie Bloomquist, Gil Meche, Rafael Soriano, Julio Mateo) and everyone else locked up for 2005, the M's would seemingly be in a position to make a run for at least one major free agent next off-season. Carlos Beltran, Magglio Ordonez, Geoff Jenkins, Eric Chavez, Edgar Renteria, Nomar Garciaparra, Pedro Martinez or Derek Lowe, to name a few. The talent is out there, for the right price. But, if the M's perceive that attendance will continue to drop, especially for those 10 home games against the Rangers, they may go in a totally different direction and try to do more with less.

ESPN's Buster Olney suggested that the Yankees might try to trade for Bret Boone to fill their 2B hole at the trading deadline this season. If attendance is down at Safeco, and with Boone due close to $9 million in 2005, all of a sudden that idea doesn't seem quite as ludicrous as it might have a week ago. Then the attendance will really start to fall. It's a never-ending cycle.

The bottom line: A-Rod's trade clears the way for the Mariners to have more success on the field in 2004, but could negatively affect the future of the ballclub at the ticket office and on the ballfield.

Jared appreciates reading your feedback at marinersinsider@yahoo.com.

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