I have an econ midterm in half an hour, so naturally I decided to ditch studying and spend time on the baseball economy.

A team is criticized for the decisions it makes in the off-season at least as much as decisions that its head haunchos make over the course of the 162-games season. Did the GM fill all the right holes? Should he have done more? Did he overpay for player X? All these questions and more are tackled 47 times each in the blogosphere every off-season. Some fans want more grit from their closer, while others want their center fielder to be at least a 4-WAR horse. There’s not one right way to do it–every team is operating on a different budget in a somewhat unique environment–but there are definitely wrong ways to do it. I think the Ms are doing pretty well, and here’s why…

We have witnessed most—and probably all—of the M’s off-season moves at this point. Many wanted the Prince, and many more thanked Jack Z when Fielder signed a 9-year contract with Detroit. Even Dave Cameron, a proponent of avoiding Fielder at such high costs, was disappointed by the M’s lack of improvement this winter. I don’t disagree with Dave’s position, but recent research from Fangraph’s Matt Schwartz sheds some light on potential market inefficiencies, and suggests that perhaps the Ms dodged some bullets.

According to fWAR (Fangraph’s version), the most overpaid position in recent years is the relief pitcher…BY FAR. After that, first basemen, outfielders and designated hitters are earning more than their on-field value merits, while the entire infield (minus first base) is being relatively underpaid. Of the overpaid positions in baseball, the Ms are employing Justin Smoak, Jesus Montero, Franklin Gutierrez, Ichiro Suzuki, and some combination of Mike Carp and Casper Wells. Ichiro is hardly a bargain, but after that the Ms likely won’t spend more than $10M on the rest of them in 2012. Our bullpen includes mostly cost-controlled arms, and then the two recent signees Kuo and Camp (for a combined $1.75M). And there is a lot of potential value in that portion of the roster!

I realize that saving money doesn’t directly translate into wins. It’s not like the team with the most WAR per dollar spent is crowned champion after 162 games. If that were so, the Royals and Pirates would constantly vie for the championship with the Rays. However, if a team is trying to maximize its dollar in this free-agent environment, it seems privy to have cost-controlled players at RP, 1B, OF, and DH, while holes at other positions are filled with relatively less-costly free agents.

In the last 18 months, the Ms have traded for DH Montero and 1B Smoak, and going further into Jackie Z’s history, we can add CF Gutierrez to that list (in the third year of a 4-year deal that pays him about $5M/year). Other notables have included OFs Wells and Trayvon Robinson. It could be an accident, but it seems like the Mariners are attempting to employ the costlier free agent positions using cost-controlled players. While the free agent signees list, including Miguel Olivo and Chone Figgins, has been depressing, the attempt to fill those positions through free agency is seemingly an intelligent process.

The Ms may not win even 80 games this season, but I’m of the opinion that something intelligent is going on upstairs, and I’m willing to see that through a couple more years.