With an enviable group of high-end prospects fast approaching the Majors, we could see the Mariners begin to add some pieces in a shift back to a win-now mindset.
- Marco Gonzales, LHP: $29MM through 2023
- Evan White, 1B: $22.7MM through 2025 (includes buyout of 2026 option; contract also contains options for 2027, 2028)
- Kyle Seager, 3B: $18MM through 2021
- Yusei Kikuchi, LHP: $15MM through 2021 (club must decide on four-year, $56MM extension after 2021; Kikuchi can otherwise exercise $13MM player option)
- Kendall Graveman, RHP: $1.25MM through 2021
Note on arb-eligible players: this year’s arbitration projections are more volatile than ever, given the unprecedented revenue losses felt by clubs and the shortened 2020 schedule. MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz, who developed our arbitration projection model, used three different methods to calculate different projection numbers. You can see the full projections and an explanation of each if you click here, but for the purposes of our Outlook series, we’ll be using Matt’s 37-percent method — extrapolating what degree of raise a player’s 2020 rate of play would have earned him in a full 162-game slate and then awarding him 37 percent of that raise.
- Declined $3.5MM buyout on RHP Kendall Graveman (paid $500K buyout, re-signed Graveman to one-year, $1.25MM deal the next day)
- Yoshihisa Hirano, Matt Magill (outrighted, re-signed), Gerson Bautista (outrighted, re-signed), Mallex Smith (already signed minor league deal with Mets)
We’re only two years removed from Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto’s pledge to step back and “reimagine” his roster, and the organizational turnaround has been remarkable. The Mariners have gone from one of the game’s oldest teams to one if its youngest, and what was once a barren farm system has been rapidly built into one of the game’s more enviable collections of young talent. Interesting young players have bubbled up to the MLB level, and reinforcements are on the horizon in droves.
It’s a promising enough outlook that Dipoto said following a near-miss of the final Wild Card spot in 2020’s expanded playoff format that he doesn’t believe a postseason bid next year is unrealistic. It’ll take some additions, of course, but the Mariners are surely more focused on whether their young core will take continued steps forward, so we’ll start with a look around the roster.
Former first-rounder Evan White batted just .176/.252/.346 in his debut effort, but he skipped Triple-A entirely en route to the Majors and showed some pop (eight homers) while also securing the first of what is expected to be many Gold Gloves at first base. Shed Long Jr. struggled while playing through a stress fracture in his leg, but he’ll be healthy next year and the Mariners picked up another second base option at the trade deadline in Ty France. Utilityman Dylan Moore turned in a .255/.358/.496 slash and could push for a bigger role. J.P. Crawford remains a work in progress at the plate but joined White in being named an AL Gold Glover. Kyle Seager, the elder statesman at the hot corner, enjoyed a resurgent 2020 season.
The outfield is the area of greatest hope for the M’s, with Kyle Lewis a favorite to be named 2020 Rookie of the Year. The club expects Mitch Haniger back after a grueling series of fluke injuries wiped out most of 2019 and his entire 2020 season. There’s no shortage of options to keep the seat warm in left field until uber-prospect Jarred Kelenic arrives on the scene — which should happen no later than next June. Fellow top prospect Julio Rodriguez won’t be far behind, and the club added well-regarded outfield prospect Taylor Trammell in the same trade that netted France.
Also in that trade, which sent Austin Nola to San Diego, was young catcher Luis Torrens, who impressed in his Mariners debut. Veteran Tom Murphy should be healthy in ’21, giving the club an experience complement. Should either falter, 23-year-old prospect Cal Raleigh is on the cusp of MLB readiness himself.
With all that in mind, the Mariners don’t need to make much of a push to add a bat this winter, although there could certainly be some value plays that present themselves. And if Dipoto is indeed serious about his hope to push for a playoff bid in 2021, it’s fun to think about the Mariners as a dark-horse candidate for a reunion with DH Nelson Cruz. If not him, the M’s certainly look like a viable landing spot for Marcell Ozuna, although lucrative multi-year deals for free agents are something Dipoto has tended to avoid in recent years.
If there’s one place the Mariners will look to add, the bullpen is the best bet. The Mariners already struck a deal to keep Graveman, who struggled as a starter and then hit the IL when a benign bone tumor was discovered in his neck. He returned as a reliever and impressed with a 95 mph sinker that netted him his new deal. Dipoto is on record as saying he wants to add as many as four relievers this winter, although he cautioned that he might not chase marquee names.
Liam Hendriks is the top arm on this winter’s market but could be too lavish an expenditure. Ditto for resurgent closer Trevor Rosenthal and Seattle native Trevor May, although it’s possible that what is expected to be a depressed market for relievers could cause some higher-profile names to fall more into the price range Dipoto had in mind at the time of those comments. He and every other GM passed on Brad Hand at a year and $10MM on waivers, but any of Hand, May, Rosenthal or Blake Treinen makes sense as the primary bullpen splash here. It stands to reason that Dipoto will check in on virtually the entire free-agent bullpen market, and don’t rule out a trade or trades that net some relief help.
In the rotation, the Mariners have already made clear that they plan to continue utilizing a six-man group. Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield more than earned their spots in 2020. Some will raise an eyebrow to see a vote of confidence in left-hander Yusei Kikuchi here, but it should be noted that in addition to a contract that ensures him a spot, he actually pitched better than his ERA would otherwise suggest.
Kikuchi still issued a few too many free passes, but a 47-to-20 K/BB ratio, 0.57 HR/9 and a 52 percent ground-ball rate in 47 innings are all solid. Indeed, he logged a 3.30 FIP and 3.78 xFIP but was done in by a bizarrely low 59.9 percent strand rate. Kikuchi’s heater also ticked upwards markedly in 2020, as did his swinging-strike rate. He looks like a potential breakout candidate in 2021, and his contract alone will ensure he gets a chance to prove it.
Beyond that trio, there’s room for additions here as well. Justin Dunn, acquired alongside Kelenic, is a former top 100 prospect who’s shown flashes of promise but could be better suited for bullpen work. Ljay Newsome and waiver claim Nick Margevicius give Seattle some additional options to start games, and the club has drafted three consecutive big-name college starters with its past three top picks: Logan Gilbert in 2018, George Kirby in 2019 and Emerson Hancock in 2020. All are highly regarded, and Gilbert could debut as soon as 2021.
Still, there’s enough uncertainty in this mix that the Mariners could explore outside additions. Dipoto made clear after trading Taijuan Walker to the Blue Jays that he hoped to discuss another reunion with the 28-year-old righty this winter. Our Top 50 free agent rankings contain a bevy of options we expect to sign one- and two-year deals in free agency this year, and it makes sense for the Mariners to go shopping in that general price range.
It’s certainly arguable that they could be poised to make a bigger splash, although we’ve not seen Dipoto make such a move since coming to Seattle. Still, with just $74MM on next year’s books and a middling $7.15MM on the 2022 payroll, the Mariners are as sensible a dark horse as you could pick to make a significant move. They even have the long-term payroll freedom to sign Trevor Bauer if they see fit, although that would obviously still register as a major surprise. More realistically, Marcus Stroman’s grounder-heavy arsenal would pair well with Seattle’s premium infield defense if the M’s wanted to make a big rotation move.
These are bigger names than Mariners fans should expect, given Dipoto’s track record in Seattle, but the point remains that they could fit just about any contract they want onto the long-term books. That’ll be worth bearing in mind on the trade market, too, and we know that Dipoto is never afraid to jump into that arena.
It’s also interesting to look at the context of the American League West. As the Mariners prepare to emerge from their accelerated rebuild, we see the Rangers looking to pare payroll and striving to get younger (aka — a rebuild). The Astros could lose George Springer, Michael Brantley and others to free agency this winter and will be without Justin Verlander for most or all of the 2021 season. The Angels will reload and take another shot, but they’ve struggled to field a competent pitching staff in support of Mike Trout for years. The A’s look like they’ll be a threat, but in a broad sense, this division isn’t the insurmountable powerhouse it was a few years back when the ’Stros were running roughshod over a series of clearly inferior clubs.
At the end of the day, none of this means that the Mariners are in line for a major spending spree. However, their overwhelming payroll flexibility gives them the opportunity to take advantage of a market that most free agents will find rather harsh.
At minimum, the Mariners should be able to be more aggressive than their peers on the bullpen arms they deem to be the best of the bunch. And if Dipoto & Co. wish to get more aggressive, a club that only has Gonzales’ $5.75MM salary and White’s $1.4MM salary on the 2022 books should be able to outspend rival teams on bigger-ticket items. It’s never a dull offseason for Jerry Dipoto, but this winter has the potential to be a fun one for Mariners fans.