The Mariners were one of the most talked-about teams in the first half of the 2018 season and finished with an impressive 89 victories on the year, but that total left them an improbably significant nine games back from even obtaining a Wild Card berth in an extremely top-heavy American League. The organization is in somewhat of a tough spot, with an aging roster, a crowded payroll and a thin farm system, but GM Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais made clear at their end-of-year press conference that there are no plans to embark on any sort of significant rebuild (links via TJ Cotterill of the Tacoma News Tribune and Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times).
“The likelihood of ever truly considering a tear-it-down model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Dipoto said. “…That doesn’t make sense because we have so many positive elements with where our teams is, guys like Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and Edwin Diaz. There are the pieces you are trying to build around, not the pieces that you are trying to send away.”
Seattle does have its share of aging veterans and the subsequent payroll issues that one would expect with those aging veterans. Felix Hernandez is owed $27MM this coming season but will be off the books following the 2019 campaign. Robinson Cano is still owed $24MM annually through 2023, however, and Kyle Seager (who took a step back at the plate in 2018) is owed nearly $20MM in each of the next three seasons. Those issues, paired with a thin farm, are certainly problematic, but the Mariners have plenty of silver linings to give them optimism as well.
If there’s one veteran whose status is up in the air, it’s longtime designated hitter Nelson Cruz. The 38-year-old remained a prodigious slugger and a formidable threat in the heart of the Seattle lineup this season, hitting .256/.342/.509 with 37 home runs. But Cruz is a free agent and no longer capable of playing the outfield with any regularity, and the Mariners under Dipoto’s watch have tried to become more athletic and defensively versatile. Much has been made of a possible reunion, but Dipoto hinted that the team has not yet decided if it will have a dedicated designated hitter next season.
While Dipoto said he “never viewed Nelson as holding us back” because of his inability to play defense and noted that “Nelson Cruz is a winning player,” the executive still doesn’t seem sold on re-signing him. Dipoto added: “But clearly if we were committed to going back to the DH-only player, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. We would have taken care of it much earlier this year,” suggesting the Mariners would’ve re-signed Cruz during the season if they were fully committed to bringing him back.
Even though he’s a one-dimensional player, Cruz was still part of the solution for the ’18 Mariners – as his 2.5 fWAR/2.9 rWAR indicates – and determining his future will be one of Dipoto’s key responsibilities during the offseason. Cruz is easily the most important pending free agent for a team which just extended its major league-high playoff drought to 17 years. Despite their ongoing struggles relative to the rest of the league, Dipoto seems encouraged by the overall performance of this year’s club. While Dipoto acknowledged that the Mariners “failed to reach the goal” of snapping their league-worst streak, he noted that “on paper we should feel good about” an 89-win season.
“To be honest, knowing that it would have required us to get to 98 wins to get to the playoffs probably helps you sleep a little bit better, because that’s not a particularly realistic goal,” continued Dipoto, referring to the 97-65 campaign the division-rival A’s posted en route the AL’s last playoff spot.
Both the A’s and the AL West-winning Astros figure to once again serve as major roadblocks for the Mariners in 2019. As such, Dipoto & Co. will have their work cut out for them this winter as they attempt to build a team good enough to break Seattle’s postseason drought next year.