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The Mariners are coming off a season in which they posted their highest win total (89) since 2003. And yet Seattle still didn’t come close to earning a playoff berth in the American League, which featured five teams with at least 97 victories, and has now gone 17 straight years without making the postseason. No North American professional sports franchise owns a longer playoff drought than the Mariners, who want to “re-imagine” their roster this winter, according to general manager Jerry Dipoto. The trade-minded executive got right to work Wednesday, just over a week after the offseason began, making a headline-grabbing deal with the Rays.
- Robinson Cano, 2B: $120MM through 2023
- Jean Segura, SS: $57MM through 2022 (includes buyout of 2023 club option)
- Kyle Seager, 3B: $56MM through 2021
- Mike Leake, SP: $27MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 mutual option)
- Dee Gordon, 2B/OF: $27.5MM through 2020 (includes buyout of 2021 club option)
- Felix Hernandez, SP: $27MM through 2019
- Juan Nicasio, RP: $9MM through 2019
- Wade LeBlanc, SP: $3.35MM through 2019 (includes buyouts of 2020-22 club options)
Arbitration Eligible Players (projections via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)
- Span, Nelson Cruz, David Phelps, Adam Warren, Erasmo Ramirez, Nick Vincent, Justin Grimm, Ryan Cook, Cameron Maybin, Andrew Romine, Gordon Beckham
The Mariners put up a quality record in 2018, but they did so while allowing 34 more runs than they scored – a sign the team may not have been as close to contention as it appeared. The six AL teams that finished ahead of Seattle – including Houston and Oakland, both of which are in the Mariners’ division – posted run differentials ranging from plus-70 to plus-263, perhaps leading Dipoto to say this week that the clubs ahead of his “are not ahead of us by a little.” As a result, the Mariners entered the offseason weighing some significant roster changes. However, indications are that the M’s will neither fully rebuild nor go all in toward breaking their playoff drought, which would require a noteworthy increase over their franchise-record Opening Day payroll from last season ($157.9MM-plus).
Factoring in projected arbitration salaries, Seattle already has upward of $151.5MM going toward next year’s roster, Jason Martinez of MLBTR and Roster Resource estimates. The team may be primed to shave some of that cash prior to next season, as it did when it declined outfielder Denard Span’s option for 2019 and made its deal with the Rays. The swap included five players but featured three experienced major leaguers, with catcher Mike Zunino and outfielder Guillermo Heredia going to Tampa Bay and center fielder Mallex Smith heading to Seattle.
In landing Smith, the Mariners took care of one need but created another, leaving catcher as a position they must address. Compared to the typical offensive player, Zunino registered a less-than-stellar offensive season in 2018, but his wRC+ (84) was exactly average for his position, and he continued to provide plus defense. With that in mind, it’ll be tough for the M’s to find a similarly priced, similarly effective replacement for Zunino in free agency or via trade.
Considering how weak their farm system is, the Mariners won’t be able to swing a deal for Marlins backstop J.T. Realmuto, who’s easily the premier trade candidate at the position. But Greg Johns of MLB.com noted Friday that Dipoto could look to acquire a more attainable major league backstop such as Jorge Alfaro, Yan Gomes, Roberto Perez, Kevin Plawecki, James McCann or Blake Swihart. With the exception of McCann, who’s only arbitration eligible for two more years, all of those players are controllable for the foreseeable future. Any of those non-McCann catchers could be better fits for the Mariners than Realmuto when taking the team’s timeline into account, though needless to say, Realmuto’s vastly superior to each of them.
Looking at the free-agent market, Yasmani Grandal and Wilson Ramos are miles better than their competition, and both should command expensive deals of at least three years. If the Mariners are going to make a splash in free agency, it might be for one of them (though, because Grandal’s a qualifying offer recipient, signing him would also cost a draft pick). Otherwise, Kurt Suzuki, Robinson Chirinos, Martin Maldonado, Jonathan Lucroy, Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters and Brian McCann represent free-agent starting options who are candidates to sign as stopgap starters.
The Zunino-less Mariners clearly have a gaping hole behind the plate, but they did save money and gain at least one potential long-term piece when they said goodbye to him. Zunino’s projected to earn $4.3MM via arbitration in 2019, his second-last year of control, while Smith still has another pre-arb season left and won’t be eligible for free agency until after 2022. For Seattle, the hope is that the breakout the fleet-of-foot Smith experienced in 2018 will carry over. If so, he and star right fielder Mitch Haniger will make for an enviable tandem for the foreseeable future. Left field looks less settled as of now, but the lefty-swinging Ben Gamel did notch adequate production in an 843-plate appearance run from 2017-18. Considering Gamel’s output thus far, Seattle may roll with him as a cheap starter next year, though it could at least a seek a right-handed hitter to platoon with him now that Heredia’s gone.
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Back to Smith, who combined above-average production at the plate (.773 OPS) and on the bases (40 steals, 6.6 BsR) with scratch defense (two DRS, minus-0.5 UZR, zero OAA) en route to a 3.5-win campaign in 2018. Conversely, Seattle’s center fielders offered bottom-of-the-barrel production, as they logged a sub-.650 OPS and the majors’ fifth-worst fWAR (minus-0.2). The main culprits were Heredia and Dee Gordon.
A career-long middle infielder until the Mariners got him from the Marlins last winter, the 30-year-old Gordon was miscast in center, and the speedster also limped through one of his worst seasons at the plate. Should the 30-year-old return to Seattle next season, it seems likely he’ll go back to primarily occupying second base, where he was quite valuable as recently as 2017. It’s unclear if Gordon will stick around, though, as the Mariners have another high-profile second baseman in the big-hitting Robinson Cano, who’s owed $24MM per annum through 2023, has a full no-trade clause and is coming off a PED suspension-shortened season.
With Smith and Cano prominently in the mix, the Mariners could deem Gordon redundant and attempt to move him. The trouble is that there are plenty of veteran second basemen available in free agency who should ink more palatable contracts than Gordon’s, meaning the M’s may have difficulty finding a taker for him at his current rate of pay. If that ends up being the case, the Mariners could ultimately retain Gordon and hope for a bounce-back season at second. In that scenario, there would still be room for Cano, who’d factor in at DH and every infield position but shortstop.
Assuming expensive third baseman Kyle Seager hangs around after a career-worst season, Cano wouldn’t get many reps at third in 2019, though first and DH look wide open at the moment. While the Mariners do have a trio of 20-something first base options on their 40-man roster in Ryon Healy, Daniel Vogelbach and Joey Curletta, both Healy and Vogelbach have fallen flat in the majors, and Curletta hasn’t advanced past the Double-A level. At DH, the Mariners could lose free agent Nelson Cruz, who was one of their offensive centerpieces from 2015-18. Cruz was tremendous during that span, and Dipoto has heaped praise on him on multiple occasions in recent weeks, but the slugger’s age (39 next July) and inability to line up in the field work against the chances of a reunion between the sides.
Shortly after the season ended, Dipoto suggested Seattle may move on from having a DH-only player, and then he revealed while confirming the Smith/Zunino trade the club has a “desire to build a younger, more athletic and exciting roster.” Cruz offers oodles of excitement as a hitter, but he doesn’t exactly check the youth and athleticism boxes – not to mention that re-signing him could mean ponying up around $15MM per year. Of course, Cruz’s departure would be an enormous blow to a Seattle offense which, despite his efforts, finished just 21st in runs last season. Thus, if Seattle plans on staying competitive in the near term, it could look for a hitter who could ease the pain of Cruz’s exit to a degree.
Some potential trade targets who likely wouldn’t come at prohibitive costs (either in terms of the return they’d merit or their salaries) and could divide time between the field and DH include Jose Martinez, Hunter Renfroe, Franmil Reyes, C.J. Cron, Justin Bour, Derek Dietrich, Nicholas Castellanos, and ex-Mariners Justin Smoak and Eric Thames. Admittedly, however, the majority of those fits are imperfect. Martinez is a horrid defender at first and in the outfield; Renfroe owns a .296 on-base percentage in 956 major league plate appearances; and, Reyes aside, the other names are only under control for one or two more years apiece. Dipoto may not be in position to rob from an already barren farm system to trade for a stopgap, especially when there are some capable first base/DH types in free agency who should only be able to find short-term, low-cost contracts. It’s also possible the Mariners will simply give the young and inexpensive Healy and Vogelbach duo another chance to emerge as useful hitters, particularly if they’re not expecting to contend in 2019.
It’s debatable whether Healy and Vogelbach should have key roles next year, but that’s not the case with Haniger, who may be the Mariners’ franchise player at this point. Considering his excellent on-field performance and four remaining years of control – including another pre-arb season – no Mariner would bring back more in a trade than the 27-year-old Haniger. However, Dipoto has expressed a desire to “build around” the likes of Haniger, left-handed starter Marco Gonzales (five years of control) and closer Edwin Diaz (four years), indicating that trio is unlikely to go anywhere. On the other hand, the Mariners’ No. 1 starter, southpaw James Paxton, is seemingly on the outs as he enters his penultimate winter of arbitration eligibility.
Among realistic trade chips, Paxton looks like the Mariners’ most enticing player, and multiple sources have told Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times that they will indeed part with him this offseason. Obviously, though, it would be tricky for the M’s to both trade Paxton and hang around the playoff race next year. After all, even if the Mariners keep Paxton, their rotation would be in need of upgrades. The unit finished 2018 subpar in ERA (21st) and middle of the pack in fWAR (13th), and as of now, only Paxton, Gonzales and Mike Leake look like good bets to offer average or better production next season. Of their other major league options, the once-great Felix Hernandez’s career has gone in the tank; Wade LeBlanc was good as a starter in 2018, but judging by his career, he’s hardly a lock to replicate that performance; and Roenis Elias has typically been a back-end starter, though he did excel as a reliever last season. Moreover, unlike the division-rival Astros (Forrest Whitley) and A’s (Jesus Luzardo, A.J. Puk), the Mariners don’t have any big-time starting prospects knocking on the door of the bigs. That could change if they acquire one in a Paxton package.
Paxton aside, surely the M’s would entertain removing Leake or Hernandez from their staff via trade. However, a deal may be hard to come by in the case of Leake – who, despite being a respectable innings eater, is costly and has a full no-trade clause – and jettisoning Hernandez would be close to impossible. At the very least, Hernandez will remain a Mariner in 2019. The same likely applies to shortstop Jean Segura, though he’d be among the Mariners’ most valuable trade pieces if they were to shop him. There are “growing” concerns in Seattle about Segura’s attitude, according to Divish, so perhaps the team will seriously consider moving him. Segura did get into a clubhouse altercation with Gordon last season, but on the field, he managed to post 3.0 or more fWAR for the third straight season. He’s also relatively young (29 in March) and affordable (four years, $58MM). Aside from Manny Machado, who will be out of most teams’ price ranges, free agency doesn’t have a better shortstop than Segura. Adding all of that up, it’s likely he’ll draw plenty of interest this offseason. However, bidding adieu to Segura would send Dipoto scrambling for a satisfactory replacement, which wouldn’t be easy to find.
Moving to Seattle’s bullpen, right-handers Alex Colome and Juan Nicasio jump out as pricey arms who aren’t under control for much longer and could find themselves on the block. The 29-year-old Colome, whom the Mariners acquired from the Rays last May, is coming off his third season as a full-time reliever. He was successful in each of those seasons, as his combined 2.78 ERA and 96 saves help illustrate. With two arb-eligible years left, Colome would have value on the market. Nicasio wouldn’t be as appealing, on the other hand, as he’s owed $9MM in 2019 (his final year of control) and coming off an injury-shortened season in which he managed a 6.00 ERA in 42 innings. However, ERA estimators were bullish on Nicasio, in part because he recorded exemplary strikeout and walk numbers (11.36 K/9, 1.07 BB/9).
While the bullpen is one of many areas that could see significant changes for the Mariners prior to the 2019 campaign, it’s difficult to envision the team accomplishing enough this offseason to break its playoff drought next year. However, from a big-picture standpoint, Dipoto could still put the Mariners in a better place if he finds legitimate long-term pieces this winter and improves a farm system which was toward the bottom of the majors when he took over in September 2015 and remains among the league’s dregs today.