A new front office has a busy offseason ahead as the Mariners will try to end baseball’s longest postseason drought.
- Robinson Cano, 2B: $192MM through 2023
- Felix Hernandez, SP: $104MM through 2019
- Kyle Seager, 3B: $92.5MM through 2021 ($15-20MM club option for 2022, with buyout between $0-$3MM based on performance)
- Nelson Cruz, RF/DH: $42MM through 2018
- Seth Smith, OF: $7MM through 2016 (includes buyout of $7MM club option for 2017)
Arbitration Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Mark Trumbo (5.027) — $9.1MM
- Charlie Furbush (4.121) — $1.7MM
- Tom Wilhelmsen (4.089) — $3MM
- Non-tender candidates: Trumbo, Furbush
New general manager Jerry Dipoto has wasted little time in reshaping Seattle’s baseball operations, hiring several new faces for the minor league, player development and scouting departments in an effort to upgrade a talent pipeline that faltered under former GM Jack Zduriencik. A lot of changes have been made to the on-field unit as well, most visibly in a revamped coaching staff led by a first-time manager in Scott Servais. It adds up to an organization that will (in theory) be on the same page and use analytical information as a cornerstone, something that wasn’t the case under Zduriencik’s tenure or in Dipoto’s previous GM stint in Anaheim.
While this bodes well for the Mariners over the long term, Dipoto will have to hit the ground running this winter. The M’s fell way short of lofty offseason expectations in 2015, though with so many major stars on board, the feeling definitely still exists in Seattle that the Mariners are closer to contending than they are to a rebuild. It makes sense for the Mariners to go for it while Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager are all still productive, as it’s not known how long the window will be open; after all, Cano and Hernandez showed some warning signs of decline last season.
The Angels signed some major free agents when Dipoto was GM, though it’s well-known that owner Arte Moreno played a huge role in the signings of Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Dipoto himself is a bit more reticent about free agents, telling Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times that “the trade market is always my first alternative. You draft, scout and develop, you trade, and to me free agents augment the roster you have. In a perfect world, you get to a stage where the foundation is strong enough you use free agency as a pure accent move rather than a foundational builder.”
This would seem to imply that the M’s probably won’t be players for Chris Davis, Jason Heyward, Justin Upton or other open-market superstars who could turn roster weak spots into immediate strengths. Further complicating matters is the fact that Seattle fell painfully shy of a protected pick in the first round of the 2016 draft, falling to the 11th overall selection by virtue of a tiebreaker with the White Sox (who had the same 76-86 record). If the Mariners were to sign a free agent who had rejected a qualifying offer, they’d lose that 11th overall pick (the top unprotected pick in next year’s draft), which I highly doubt Dipoto would be willing to do given his quest to rebuild the farm system.
With almost $79MM committed to just five players in 2016, the Mariners also might not have the available payroll to afford another huge salary. While massive contracts may not happen, Seattle could still ink a few lower-cost free agent deals.
For instance, the industry expects that the Mariners will re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma, as both the team and the player have interest in a reunion. This would be a good move for a Seattle team in need of proven starting pitching, and since Iwakuma turns 35 in April and the free agent pitching market is rather deep, the M’s might be able to re-sign him on a two-year deal in the $28-30MM range. If there’s enough demand that a third year is required, then the club is looking at a three-year/$42-45MM contract for the Japanese righty. Things could change on the open market, of course, though at the moment the M’s look like the early favorite for Iwakuma’s services.
Assuming Iwakuma re-signs, he would join Hernandez, Taijuan Walker and new acquisition Nate Karns in Seattle’s rotation. James Paxton is tentatively slotted into a spot as well, though he’s failed to pitch more than 74 innings in either of the last two seasons due to a shoulder injury (in 2014) and an injured finger tendon (in 2015).
Roenis Elias, Vidal Nuno and former top prospect Mike Montgomery are on board as depth options or fifth starter candidates if Iwakuma leaves. A fairly inexpensive veteran could also be added to the mix to fight for that last rotation job, and the M’s have had some good luck with veteran reclamation projects looking to rebuild themselves at pitcher-friendly Safeco Field.
Karns, left-hander C.J. Riefenhauser and minor league outfielder Boog Powell came to Seattle in Dipoto’s first notable deal as GM, with Brad Miller, Danny Farquhar and Logan Morrison heading to Tampa Bay in return. Karns posted a 3.67 ERA, 8.9 K/9 and 2.59 K/BB rate over 147 innings with the Rays last season in his first extended taste of Major League action. He’s a bit old for a rookie (Karns turns 28 in November) but he’s controlled through the 2020 season and looks to be a very promising arm in the M’s rotation for years to come.
Riefenhauser hasn’t shown much over his 20 career MLB innings, though he adds a needed left-handed option to a bullpen that Dipoto has openly stated will be an area of focus this winter, and he has a strong Triple-A track record. Tom Wilhelmsen and Carson Smith are basically the only relievers who look to have guaranteed jobs next year. Rookie Tony Zych will get a long look in Spring Training after an impressive late-season callup, while Charlie Furbush will probably return unless the biceps injury that sidelined him for much of the second half continues to be an issue (which could lead to a non-tender).
Wilhelmsen and Smith both saw action at closer in the wake of Fernando Rodney’s implosion, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if the Mariners brought in a more established ninth-inning man given that Wilhelmsen has struggled to keep the closer’s job both in 2015 and in the past, while Smith also lost the gig back to Wilhelmsen late last year. Joakim Soria makes sense as a target, or perhaps someone with past closer experience like Jonathan Broxton if the M’s wanted to at least keep Wilhelmsen/Smith in the mix for the closing job. The Mariners are one of a few teams who have scouted Korean closer Seung-hwan Oh, who could be an intriguing option as he’s planning to make the jump to North American baseball.
Seattle could be very deep or very thin in left-handed relief options depending on Furbush’s health, Riefenhauser’s Spring Training performance and the roles of Nuno/Montgomery (who could be used in the bullpen or kept stretched out in the minors as starters). The Mariners will at least check in on the offseason’s top-tier lefty relief options (Antonio Bastardo, Tony Sipp, etc.) and veteran Joe Beimel could also be re-signed to reinforce the southpaw corps.
Around the diamond, the Mariners are only set at third base (Seager), second base (Cano), and wherever Cruz plays, which is probably more likely to be DH than right field next season. He’s been a defensive liability for years, and Dipoto has spoken of wanting to improve the Mariners’ athleticism and defense, particularly in regards to playing in a spacious ballpark like Safeco Field.
Powell and the recently-claimed Dan Robertson were Dipoto’s first steps towards addressing this outfield need, as both can play all three positions. Robertson may be more of a depth option while Powell is likely on the verge of reaching the bigs after a solid performance in 246 Triple-A PA in 2015. An everyday assignment may be a stretch, but Powell could certainly factor into the Mariners’ wide-open center field spot, if not early in the year then midseason. Powell and left field incumbent Seth Smith are both left-handed hitters, so a right-handed hitting free agent outfielder like Rajai Davis or Chris B. Young could be a fairly inexpensive fits as platoon partners. Robertson could also be an internal option for a right-handed platoon bat, and Franklin Gutierrez is another familiar face the M’s could look to re-sign for a part-time role.
If the Mariners want a full-time option in center, any number of free agent or (further) trade possibilities could be considered. Jackie Bradley, Juan Lagares, Leonys Martin, Marcell Ozuna, Dalton Pompey and Melvin Upton could all conceivably be made available for trade this winter. Denard Span would make sense in free agency, as he wouldn’t cost a draft pick since the Nationals didn’t extend him a qualifying offer. Austin Jackson likely isn’t an option given how he has already under-performed in an Mariners uniform. Dexter Fowler and Colby Rasmus, the other two major center fielders on the market, do have qualifying offers attached so they’re not likely to be targeted.
While I noted earlier that the Mariners probably won’t be big free agent spenders, if they were to make a big splash, Yoenis Cespedes could be a fit. Due to his midseason trade, Cespedes isn’t subject to the qualifying offer and can be signed without draft pick compensation. He certainly matches Dipoto’s preference for an athletic outfielder, though while he’s one of the game’s best defensive left fielders, Cespedes has graded as below-average in center over his career. He could handle center for a year and then move back to his customary left field spot once Smith’s contract is up, or Cespedes could be installed into left immediately and Smith would become trade bait.
With Miller now in Tampa Bay, that solidifies Ketel Marte as the top choice at shortstop. Marte played well enough last year to crack Baseball America’s midseason top 50 prospects list and earn his first call-up, then fit right in to the tune of a .283/.351/.402 slash line over 247 PA. Marte has the inside track on the everyday job, with Chris Taylor on board as the middle infield backup.
Mike Zunino is still too young (24) to be considered a bust, especially given his top prospect pedigree and his already-outstanding defensive ability. At the plate, however, Zunino posted a miserable .174/.230/.300 line over 386 PA last season, so Seattle certainly needs a catcher to pick up some of the offensive slack. While Chris Iannetta himself struggled at the plate in 2015, I’m guessing Dipoto might be interested in his former Angels backstop as a veteran mentor to Zunino who can still contribute on the field. If not Iannetta, Geovany Soto or Alex Avila make sense among free agent catchers, though if the Mariners weren’t committed to Zunino at least half the playing time, they could aim for Dioner Navarro or A.J. Pierzynski.
The first base situation became clearer when Morrison was sent to the Rays, and his departure probably saves the M’s from having to non-tender him to avoid a projected $4.1MM arbitration salary. Mark Trumbo delivered some pop after joining the club from the Diamondbacks, though his lousy defense resulted in only 0.4 fWAR in 361 PA as a Mariner. Trumbo’s limited skill set and projected $9.1MM salary combine to make him a non-tender candidate as well, though my guess is that the M’s would explore trading Trumbo rather than simply cutting him for no return.
With so much uncertainty at first, any number of interesting bats like Adam Lind, Ryan Howard, Brandon Moss, Adam LaRoche, Yonder Alonso or Pedro Alvarez being available in trades (or free agency, in the case of non-tenders). While none are guaranteed to be big offensive powerhouses, they could at least be part of a platoon that could do more at a lesser cost than Trumbo’s $9.1MM, especially since some of the teams making those deals would have to eat some money, i.e. the Phillies and Howard or the White Sox and LaRoche. A huge signing like Chris Davis can’t be completely ruled out simply because he’d be such a big upgrade, though as mentioned earlier, giving up another first-round draft pick and adding another huge salary would seem counter to what Dipoto is trying to do with the team. A trade could be the likelier route to a first base upgrade.
With all this talk of trades, however, it’s well worth looking at what exactly the Mariners have to offer in return. Further trades from the Major League roster could be a bit difficult, though, since the M’s were already lacking in depth. As noted earlier, Trumbo or Smith could be trade bait. If another catcher is acquired, Jesus Sucre, John Hicks or Steve Baron could be dealt. One of Elias, Nuno or Montgomery could be moved if Iwakuma re-signs and Paxton proves he’s healthy. These small pieces won’t combine for any blockbusters, but Seattle could help their own depth problems by moving expendable pieces for bench parts that are more likely to contribute in 2016. Case in point, that deal with the Rays looks like a strong one on paper for Dipoto, as Morrison and Farquhar might have outlived their usefulness in Seattle.
Baseball America ranked the Mariners’ farm system 25th of 30 teams prior to the season, and that was before top prospects Alex Jackson and D.J. Peterson both suffered through rough 2015 campaigns. While both (Jackson, in particular) are still well-regarded, Dipoto and his new minor league staff may not have the same attachment to Zduriencik’s prospects and could see them as trade chips while they still have value. On the other hand, the reason for the player development overhaul was to better develop prospects both in the future and in the present, not to write off the current batch of young talent. Given how thin Seattle’s system is, you’re probably only going to see a notable prospect traded if Dipoto and his staff have already decided against the player.
In a way, Dipoto finds himself in something of the same position that he was in as the Angels general manager — a few superstars on huge contracts, a few regulars best suited to platoon duty, little minor league depth, and some payroll limitations. In Anaheim, however, those limitations were Moreno not wanting to exceed the $189MM luxury tax threshold, while in Seattle, Dipoto will have at least $130MM to work with. While that’s a healthy number, if you count Iwakuma’s projected salary with the five players under contract, that leaves roughly $33MM for 19 members of the 25-man roster.
Dipoto won’t be judged entirely on his first offseason, of course, especially given the less-than-great shape the organization was in when he inherited the job and the sweeping changes he’s already trying to implement. Many of the players from the Mariners’ 87-75 season in 2014, however, are still around, so a return to contention shouldn’t be out of the question as long as at least some of the major question mark positions are resolved.