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Although the Mariners extended their major league-worst playoff drought to 15 years in 2016, it was still an encouraging campaign for the club. In the Mariners’ first year under general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais, they finished seventh in the American League in winning percentage (.531, 86-76) and a more impressive fourth in run differential (plus-61). Seattle’s record was good enough to keep the team in the wild-race race until the penultimate day of the season, though merely staying in the hunt doesn’t suffice. With that in mind, Dipoto will spend the next several months trying to position the roster to get over the hump in 2017 and put the Mariners in the postseason for the first time since their historic 116-win 2001 campaign.
- Robinson Cano, 2B: $168MM through 2023
- Kyle Seager, 3B: $85MM through 2021 ($15MM club option for 2022)
- Felix Hernandez, SP: $79MM through 2019 ($1MM conditional club option for 2020)
- Nelson Cruz, DH/RF: $32MM through 2018
- Hisashi Iwakuma, SP: $15MM through 2018 ($10MM club option for 2018; $1MM buyout; option will vest at $15MM if Iwakuma throws 324 combined innings between 2016-17 and doesn’t end ’17 season with unspecified injury)
- Steve Cishek, RP: $6MM through 2017
Arbitration-Eligible Players (service time in parentheses; projections via MLB Trade Rumors)
- Charlie Furbush (5.121) – $1.6MM
- Tom Wilhelmsen (5.072) – $3.8MM
- Ryan Cook (4.086) – $1.2MM
- Leonys Martin (4.078) – $6.3MM
- Evan Scribner (3.142) – $1.1MM
- Steve Clevenger (3.123) – $800K
- Nick Vincent (3.067) – $1.5MM
- Vidal Nuno (3.015) – $1.1MM
- James Paxton (2.151) – $2.7MM
- Taijuan Walker (2.127) – $2.8MM
- Jesus Sucre (2.136) – $600K
- Non-tender candidates: Furbush, Wilhelmsen, Cook, Clevenger, Sucre
Earlier in the Mariners’ lengthy skid, there were seasons in which woeful offensive production torpedoed their chances of competing. That wasn’t the case in 2016, however, as the Mariners eclipsed the 700-run plateau (768) for the first time since 2007. All told, Seattle crossed home plate more than 23 of the majors’ other 29 teams and finished second only to Boston’s outstanding offense in wRC+ (107).
The Mariners’ main offensive threats – second baseman Robinson Cano, designated hitter Nelson Cruz and third baseman Kyle Seager – will be back next year, but there are questions about some of the team’s complementary pieces. Ideally for the Mariners, they’ll upgrade their position player group during the offseason with better defenders and baserunners who can also contribute offensively. Defensively, this year’s Mariners ranked 23rd in both Ultimate Zone Rating (minus-24.9) and Defensive Runs Saved (minus-22). On the base paths, they placed 24th in steals (56) and toward the bottom in UBR (23rd) and BsR (26th) – two of FanGraphs’ metrics.
While shortstop Ketel Marte was one of the Mariners’ best baserunners this season, he weighed the club down in other facets and could head to Triple-A Tacoma for further development next year. Seattle already tried to replace Marte over the summer with the Reds’ Zack Cozart, but the teams ran out of time to reach a deal before the Aug. 1 non-waiver trade deadline. As a 31-year-old with one season left on his contract, the rebuilding Reds could shop Cozart again over the winter. Given the dearth of free agent shortstops on the upcoming market, the Mariners renewing their previous pursuit of Cozart seems like a no-brainer. Not only has Cozart has been a terrific defender since breaking in as a full-time major leaguer in 2012, but his most recent production indicates he’d provide the Mariners another respectable bat. Dating back to last season, Cozart has slashed .254/.308/.435 with 25 home runs in 722 plate appearances. In nearly the same amount of PAs (713), Marte has hit .267/.309/.349 with three homers.
If the Mariners acquire Cozart, he’d team with Cano and Seager to comprise the majority of their infield next season. Elsewhere, there’s no established option at first base, where midseason acquisition Dan Vogelbach could pick up the lion’s share of playing time as a left-handed hitter. The 23-year-old has more than held his own against minor league pitching, and he wouldn’t have a difficult act to follow in soon-to-be free agent Adam Lind (.239/.286/.431 in 2016).
Despite his shortcomings as a baserunner and defender, the big-bodied Vogelbach represents the Mariners’ best in-house option to take the reins at first. If that happens, platooning Vogelbach with a capable right-handed hitter would make sense. The Mariners have an impending free agent who fits the bill in Dae-ho Lee. In his first year in the majors, the longtime star in Korea and Japan slashed an above-average .261/.329/.446 with eight long balls in 157 PAs against southpaws. The 34-year-old Lee likely wouldn’t cost much for the Mariners to re-sign, having made an economical $1MM this season.
While the Mariners could determine that Vogelbach isn’t yet the answer as a primary option and look outside for aid, Dipoto has already made it clear that he wants a younger group of position players in 2017 (via Brent Stecker of 710 ESPN Seattle). Scouring free agency, where there are a slew of potential targets in their mid-30s (Edwin Encarnacion, Mike Napoli and Steve Pearce, to name a few), wouldn’t help Dipoto accomplish that goal. On paper, though, each is a more enticing (and far more expensive) choice than Vogelbach. The trade market probably won’t offer much, though the Brewers might put soon-to-be 30-year-old slugger Chris Carter on the block or even non-tender him.
Behind the plate, the Mariners seem prepared to turn to Mike Zunino again on the heels of an encouraging season that Servais called an “absolute success” (via Stecker). Because he began the year in Tacoma, Zunino only appeared in 55 games with the Mariners. The .195 career hitter batted an unsightly .207 along the way, but his 10.9 percent walk rate and .262 ISO led to .318 on-base and .470 slugging percentages. His overall batting line was easily above average, but it’s up in the air whether the third overall pick in the 2012 draft will continue drawing walks or hitting for power at such high clips. Nevertheless, he’s an asset as a defender, and Servais feels “really good about where he’s at and the strides he’s made to kinda be a front-line, everyday catcher.”
Even if the Mariners are confident enough in Zunino to avoid spending on one the market’s best available catchers – Wilson Ramos, Matt Wieters, Jason Castro and Nick Hundley – they could still use a decent complement at the position. Unfortunately, pickings will be slim outside of that quartet. Current backup Chris Iannetta has fallen off both offensively and defensively over the past two seasons, which could convince the Mariners to decline his $4.25MM option, but it’s debatable whether anyone from the group of A.J. Ellis, Kurt Suzuki, Geovany Soto and Alex Avila is superior to him. The Mariners also have Jesus Sucre on hand, though it’s difficult to trust a 28-year-old with a .209/.246/.276 line in 264 major league PAs. Meanwhile, Steve Clevenger is a non-tender waiting to happen.
In the outfield, the Mariners only have one starter – center fielder Leonys Martin – under control for 2017. The team relied heavily on Seth Smith, Nori Aoki and Franklin Gutierrez in the corners this year, and there are now decisions to make with all three. Bob Dutton of the Tacoma News Tribune reported last month that the Mariners plan to exercise Smith’s $7MM option, adding that Gutierrez will probably return in lieu of departing as a free agent. If true, the left-handed Smith and the right-handed Gutierrez would make for a useful platoon in right field. That would still leave one open spot, but Aoki is unlikely to occupy it if the club retains Smith, per Dutton.
Aside from Martin, Smith, Aoki and Gutierrez, the Mariners’ outfield candidates include relative unknowns in Guillermo Heredia and August acquisition Ben Gamel. Those two weren’t especially impressive in late-season auditions, which could lead the Mariners to look for an upgrade in the offseason. FanRag Sports’ Jon Heyman reported last month that Seattle might make a splash on a “complementary piece” during the winter. The outfield would be a sensible place to spend in that type of scenario.
Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler would be a particularly intriguing target if he gets to free agency. Fowler has long been a solid contributor at the plate and on the bases, and he’s coming off a respectable defensive year thanks to a change in alignment. The switch-hitting 30-year-old also got on base nearly 40 percent of the time this season and has done so at a .366 career clip, which should intrigue an OBP proponent like Dipoto. Potential drawbacks: Fowler would require a pricey multiyear commitment, signing him would cost the Mariners a first-round pick (currently No. 18 overall) if the Cubs tender him a qualifying offer, and either Fowler or Martin would have to be receptive to playing a corner.
Like Fowler, the Rangers’ Ian Desmond would also cost the Mariners significant money and a top pick. His versatility is interesting, though, as Desmond lined up at both left and center this year after spending the first several seasons of his career at shortstop. It’s unclear whether Desmond would consider moving back to short, but if he markets himself as an infielder/outfielder, a team in need in both areas (the Mariners, for instance) could enter the bidding.
As is the case with Desmond, fellow Ranger Carlos Gomez is an impending free agent who has played multiple outfield spots. While Gomez wouldn’t cost a pick and would bring a history of speed and defense to the Mariners, there’s considerable risk with him after he flamed out with the Astros from 2015-16. Gomez returned to his previous All-Star form at the plate with the Rangers in September, however, and will be on many teams’ radars as a result.
Shifting to their rotation, the Mariners have almost an entire starting five seemingly locked in with Felix Hernandez, Hisashi Iwakuma, James Paxton and Taijuan Walker, but it’s an unspectacular group. Hernandez and Iwakuma no longer look like front-line options, and Walker has been somewhat of a letdown in the majors since his days as an elite prospect. The Mariners possess other rotation possibilities in Nate Karns, who performed much better as a starter than as a reliever in 2016, and Ariel Miranda. Otherwise, the open market will feature plenty of flawed alternatives. Dipoto hasn’t been shy about making trades, so he could certainly explore that route, too.
Adding a productive innings eater would seem logical, as Hernandez is coming off his lowest mark since 2005 (153 1/3), Iwakuma has durability questions, Paxton has never thrown more than 171 2/3 frames in any professional season, and Walker just had ankle surgery and hasn’t exceeded 169 2/3 in any year. However, having a consistent track record of taking the ball every fifth day wasn’t enough for the Mariners to retain Wade Miley, whom they traded to Baltimore in July for Miranda. Miley was ineffective for Seattle and would have cost the club $8.75MM in 2017. Durable free agents like Edinson Volquez and former Mariner R.A. Dickey should carry similar (perhaps higher) per-year price tags to Miley, but it’s not a lock either would be part of the solution. While Bartolo Colon is better than Miley, Volquez and Dickey, signing the soon-to-be 44-year-old would require him to leave the Mets and switch coasts.
If Karns and Miranda don’t end up as starters, they could factor into the bullpen, where Seattle will be in fine shape even if it non-tenders Tom Wilhelmsen, Charlie Furbush and/or Ryan Cook. The Mariners got great rookie performances this year from closer Edwin Diaz and Dan Altavilla. Evan Scribner, Nick Vincent and Vidal Nuno also look like shoo-ins to occupy spots. Steve Cishek and Tony Zych should figure heavily into the equation in theory, but there are notable health issues with the pair. Regardless, the Mariners clearly have a righty-heavy bullpen and could use a late-game lefty. They’ll be able to find solid and affordable southpaws on the market, where Jerry Blevins, Brett Cecil, Boone Logan, J.P. Howell, Mike Dunn and Marc Rzepczynski will be among the possibilities not named Aroldis Chapman.
Since 2014, a year after they signed a $2 billion television deal, the Mariners’ payroll has risen exponentially. Seattle opened 2016 with a franchise-record $142MM-plus in 25-man roster commitments (up more than $50MM from 2014) and should surpass that mark next season. The club was on the cusp of the playoffs this year, and with new owner John Stanton motivated to win, Dipoto should have the resources available to put the Mariners in contention for an AL West title in 2017.