The Mariners entered the 2017 campaign with the realistic goal of ending their major league-worst 15-year playoff drought, but they’re on the verge of adding another season to that ignominious streak. Thanks in part to a rash of injuries to key contributors in James Paxton, Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Jarrod Dyson, Felix Hernandez, Drew Smyly and Hisashi Iwakuma, the Mariners have stumbled to a 75-80 mark with a week left in the season. While 2017 hasn’t gone according to plan, the club’s outlook heading into the offseason isn’t all that bleak. With a productive winter from general manager Jerry Dipoto, who’s never shy about making moves, and better health in 2018, Seattle should find itself in the thick of the American League playoff race a year from now.
1.) Bolster the rotation:
How bad and injury laden has the Mariners’ rotation been this year? Right-hander Mike Leake, whom they acquired from the Cardinals not even four weeks ago and has only thrown 25 1/3 innings since the trade, is already second among M’s starters in fWAR (1.2). Leake is one of 17 hurlers to log at least one start this year for the Mariners, whose rotation sits 20th in ERA and tied for 22nd in fWAR. A reliable innings eater, Leake should be a quality full-season piece for the Mariners in 2018, but the team doesn’t seem to have any rotation locks for next year aside from him, Paxton and Hernandez.
Given the structural damage in his shoulder, the Mariners are highly likely to cut ties with the once-terrific Iwakuma, who has a $10MM club option or a $1MM buyout for next season. They’ll also move on from Yovani Gallardo’s $13MM option in favor of a $2MM buyout and non-tender Smyly, a touted trade acquisition last offseason who didn’t pitch at all this year and will miss 2018 after undergoing Tommy John surgery in June.
The Mariners have several other in-house rotation candidates – including Erasmo Ramirez, Andrew Moore, Andrew Albers, Ariel Miranda and Marco Gonzales – but they’d be hard pressed to guarantee starting spots to any of them. Ramirez and Gonzales figure to at least be part of the Mariners’ bullpen next season, though, as both will be out of minor league options. Even if one of them opens 2018 as a starter, the club would be wise to add another established starter to its staff.
Seattle probably doesn’t have a deep enough farm system to make a run at a high-end, controllable arm (Michael Fulmer, for example), but it still wouldn’t be surprising to see the trade-happy Dipoto swing a deal for a starter. Alternatively, the Mariners could delve into free agency, where there will be no shortage of second-tier starters who shouldn’t have much trouble bettering the subpar production they’ve received from the replacement-level duo of Miranda and Gallardo. Of course, one would be remiss not to mention Japanese star Shohei Otani as a potential option for the Mariners. While international spending limitations in the new collective bargaining agreement will tamp down Otani’s earning power, he’s still expected to immigrate to the majors in the offseason.
It’s anyone’s guess where the right-handed ace/left-handed slugger might sign, but it could help the Mariners’ cause that they’ve had plenty of luck reeling in Japanese-born players in the past (Ichiro Suzuki, Kazuhiro Sasaki and Iwakuma, to name a few). They figure to join the rest of the league in trying for the 23-year-old Otani, who could immediately join Paxton as a second ace-caliber starter in Seattle. The chance to garner at-bats might heavily factor into where Otani goes, but the Mariners probably won’t be able to guarantee him anything more than occasional pinch-hitting duties next season with Nelson Cruz holding down the DH spot. Cruz isn’t under contract past 2018, though, so the club could perhaps offer Otani long-term ABs at DH if it does submit a proposal to him.
2.) Upgrade at first base:
The Mariners planned to platoon the left-handed Dan Vogelbach and the righty-swinging Danny Valencia this year, but they optioned the former to the minors before the season and have barely used him in the bigs. Valencia, meanwhile, has failed to transfer the success he had in Oakland over the previous two years to Seattle. The Mariners seemed to find a solid platoon partner for Valencia in August when they traded for another ex-Athletic, lefty Yonder Alonso, though he has come back to earth after looking like a breakout star early in 2017. Alonso has batted an uninspiring .243/.336/.365 as a Mariner and reverted to the groundball-hitting ways that have sapped him of power and production throughout his career. He and Valencia are scheduled to become free agents at season’s end, and neither look like strong bets to return to Seattle in 2018.
At this point, there’s little reason to expect the Mariners to go into another season counting on Vogelbach, so it seems probable they’ll enter the market searching for an established first baseman. Eric Hosmer and Carlos Santana will receive the lion’s share of attention around the majors over the winter, but Lucas Duda, ex-Mariner Logan Morrison and Mitch Moreland will offer more affordable choices in free agency. Should Dipoto look for a trade, the Braves’ Matt Adams and the Yankees’ Chase Headley could end up on his radar.
While most of those names aren’t particularly exciting, it shouldn’t be tough for the Mariners to find someone capable of outdoing the production they’ve gotten from first this year. The club’s first baggers have posted easily the worst fWAR in the majors (minus-1.4) and have hit a terrible .241/.308/.378.
3.) Decide on multiple outfield spots:
Aside from Haniger, who has more than held his own this year, the Mariners will head into the offseason lacking set starters in the outfield. Dyson has continued his effective speed-and-defense ways this season, his first in Seattle, but he’s set to hit free agency, while rookie Ben Gamel has tailed off badly in the second half after a highly productive, BABIP-fueled few months.
It’s possible the Mariners could stay the course next season, which would mean re-signing the 33-year-old Dyson and continuing to give Gamel and Guillermo Heredia significant playing time. It would be hard to argue against bringing back Dyson, one of the premier defensive center fielders and baserunners in the game who – unlike, say, Lorenzo Cain – shouldn’t exactly break the bank on his next contract.
As for the corner, while the M’s haven’t gotten great production from Gamel and Heredia this year, free agency won’t brim with overly appealing options (aside from J.D. Martinez and, if he opts out of his contract, Justin Upton). Jay Bruce, Curtis Granderson, Carlos Gonzalez and Melky Cabrera are among several soon-to-be free agent outfielders who have had good careers but come with obvious flaws (including age and defensive shortcomings). A trade can’t be ruled out, then, but anyone the Mariners might acquire that way would likely have his fair share of warts. As such, whether to stick with the status quo in the outfield in 2018 or go outside the organization will be among Dipoto’s most intriguing offseason calls.