The Mariners added some recognizable veterans to a roster that will soon see some of baseball’s top prospects surface in the Majors. The “reimagining” phase appears to be nearing its conclusion.
Major League Signings
- James Paxton, LHP: One year, $8.5MM
- Ken Giles, RHP: Two years, $7MM
- Chris Flexen, RHP: Two years, $4.75MM
- Kendall Graveman, RHP: One year, $1.25MM
- Keynan Middleton, RHP: One year, $800K
- Total spend: $22.3MM
Trades and Claims
- Acquired RHP Rafael Montero from the Rangers in exchange for RHP Jose Corniell and a PTBNL
- Claimed RHP Domingo Tapia off waivers from the Red Sox
- Claimed RHP Robert Dugger off waivers from the Marlins (later outrighted to Triple-A after clearing waivers)
- Selected RHP Will Vest from the Tigers in the Rule 5 Draft
Notable Minor League Signings
- Drew Steckenrider (made roster), Matt Magill, Roenis Elias (since released), Paul Sewald, JT Chargois, Gerson Bautista (released), Taylor Guerrieri, Jimmy Yacabonis, Brady Lail, Sam Travis, Jack Reinheimer
- Dee Strange-Gordon, Yoshihisa Hirano, Tim Lopes, Mallex Smith, Phil Ervin, Carl Edwards Jr., Bryan Shaw, Walker Lockett, Taylor Guilbeau, Art Warren, Joe Hudson
Entering the offseason, the Mariners looked as though they had the potential to spend more than some rival clubs. Seattle carried a 2021 payroll projection of just over $70MM — a number that would dip all the way to $7.15MM in 2022. With many clubs around the league not expected to spend at all, an opportunistic approach seemed plausible.
As it turned out, the Mariners front office was also reportedly limited in its dealings by an ownership group reeling from last year’s lost revenues. The Mariners still spent some money, but the majority of their investments were on affordable one-year pacts. Exceptions included affordable two-year deals for KBO returnee Chris Flexen and Tommy John rehabber Ken Giles.
Flexen, guaranteed a total of $4.75MM on the deal, tossed 116 1/3 frames of 3.01 ERA/2.74 FIP ball in South Korea last year, notching impressive strikeout and walk percentages (28.1 and 6.4, respectively). Those 116 1/3 innings are 30 more than any big league pitcher threw in 2020’s shortened slate of games, so his workload will be less of a concern than that of the Mariners’ other starters. Giles, meanwhile, won’t pitch in 2021 after undergoing Tommy John surgery last summer, but he’ll be expected to hold down a key bullpen role in 2022.
The most notable addition to the pitching staff, of course, was James Paxton, who returns to Seattle after spending two years in the Bronx. Paxton will slot into the rotation alongside the pitcher he was traded for, lefty Justus Sheffield. The 32-year-old Paxton missed most of the 2020 season as he battled injuries — February back surgery and an August forearm strain. He pitched with greatly diminished velocity in 2020, but Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said after signing Paxton that “Big Maple” had recovered the lost zip on his heater by the time he threw for scouts over the winter.
A healthy Paxton is the Mariners’ best starter — probably one of the best 20 or so starters in the game. At a year and $8.5MM, he’s an affordable and sensible gamble for Seattle even after last year’s injuries. It seems that a return to the Mariners was always something of a best-case scenario for Paxton; he was reported at multiple points to be seeking more than the $11MM that fellow injured ace Corey Kluber received from the Yankees in free agency, but Dipoto said after the contract was completed that Paxton gave his club a “some form of hometown discount,” adding that he “wanted to be a Mariner” again.
With Paxton and Flexen now penciled in as part of what’s expected to again be a six-man rotation, the Mariners have a fairly interesting starting staff. Marco Gonzales has been nothing but solid over the past three seasons, pitching to a combined 3.85 ERA in 74 starts. Sheffield was knocked around early in 2020, but his final eight starts looked an awful lot like the solid starter he’s long been projected to become: 47 1/3 innings, 3.58 ERA/3.17 FIP, 50.6 percent grounder rate, 20.7 strikeout rate, 8.6 walk rate.
The 2021 season will be a critical one for 29-year-old southpaw Yusei Kikuchi, whose contract allows the Mariners to extend him for four years and $66MM at season’s end. If the team declines to do so, he can exercise a $13MM player option. Based on Kikuchi’s track record, it’s unlikely that the M’s would pick up their end of that deal, but the lefty showed some interesting signs in 2020. His average fastball spiked from 92.9 mph in 2019 to 95.2 mph in 2020, while his strikeout and ground-ball rates soared by eight percent apiece. Kikuchi’s walk rate rose from 6.9 percent to 10.3 percent, which is a notable red flag, but if he can get back to his previous control while maintaining some of the other positive gains, he could yet be a quality big league starter.
Right-hander Justin Dunn, meanwhile, outlasted Nick Margevicius and Ljay Newsome in the spring battle for the sixth starter’s role. While he’s yet to find much big league success, Dunn was a top 100 prospect when the Mariners acquired him from the Mets, and he’s still just 25 years old. He could very well just be keeping a spot warm for top prospect Logan Gilbert, but Dunn has at least one more chance to show he can stick in the rotation.
As is the case in the rotation, there are some new faces in the bullpen after Dipoto and his staff brought in a trio of inexpensive relievers. Former Mets top prospect Rafael Montero had a resurgence in the Rangers bullpen over the past two seasons, pitching to a 3.09 ERA with a strong 28.6 percent strikeout rate and a terrific 5.9 percent walk rate.
Montero went 8-for-8 in save attempts with Texas last year and will close games for the Mariners in 2021 following a trade that sent righty Jose Corniell to the Rangers. Corniell received the largest bonus given out by the Mariners in the 2019-20 international free agent class ($630K), but he’s yet to play a pro game. The Mariners will also send a PTBNL to Texas to complete this deal at some point in the coming months, but for two years of control over Montero, the price tag seems reasonable for now. Corniell currently ranks as the Rangers’ No. 30 prospect at Baseball America.
Seattle also re-signed righty Kendall Graveman to a one-year deal and will put him straight into the bullpen role in which he thrived last year. The Mariners initially tried out the former A’s starter in their rotation before he went down to an injury. When he returned in September, Graveman went to the ’pen and saw his average sinker velocity jump from a career 93.2 mph to 96.3 mph. He didn’t miss many bats but posted a sizable 55.2 percent grounder rate with strong control. For a $1.25MM base salary with incentives to take the deal to $3.5MM, the Mariners will see if he can sustain that output.
Hard-throwing righty Keynan Middleton gives the Mariners another former division rival to count among its setup corps. The Angels non-tendered Middleton despite having three years of control remaining and an arbitration projection around $1MM. The 27-year-old missed most of 2018-19 due to Tommy John surgery early in the ’18 campaign, but when he was healthy he looked like a solid late-inning option in Anaheim. From 2017-18, he logged a 3.43 ERA and 3.73 SIERA while punching out a quarter of his opponents. There was some improvement needed, but for a young pitcher with a heater that averaged 97 mph, the results were encouraging. He was cut loose despite regaining that velocity in 2020, and the Mariners will now hope to benefit.
There won’t be many new faces in the Seattle batting order. The Mariners didn’t add any position players over the winter, due in no small part to the growing number of prospects they’re seeing rise to the big league ranks. Evan White struggled to make contact in 2020, but when he did he was among the league leaders in exit velocity. Strikeouts were never a major issue for him in the minors, either, and he won a Gold Glove at first base in his rookie season, so expect to see plenty more of him.
Kyle Seager returns across the diamond, and the Mariners had a second Gold Glover at short in J.P. Crawford, so he’s locked in there. Dylan Moore gets the first look at second base after a breakout 2020, but Shed Long Jr. will also be seeking a rebound after playing through a stress reaction in his tibia last year. Behind the plate, the Mariners will lean on Tom Murphy and Luis Torrens, both of whom have shown they can provide solid offense. Catching prospect Cal Raleigh will continue to rise through the upper minors as well. Ty France, acquired from the Padres alongside Torrens, figures to see plenty of work at DH and also fill around the diamond. He’s done nothing but rake in Triple-A, the big leagues, and Spring Training. The Mariners are aiming to get him 500-plus plate appearances between DH and spelling White, Seager and Moore.
Things get more interesting in the outfield. In right field, the Mariners are set to welcome back Mitch Haniger after an arduous two years of rehabbing a chain reaction of fluke injuries that began with a ruptured testicle after a woefully placed foul ball. Now 30 years old, the 2018 All-Star will look to round back into form after missing the past season and a half. Reigning AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis opened the year on the IL, clearing a path for top prospect Taylor Trammell to make his debut in center. Lewis isn’t expected to be out long, so the Mariners could soon see an alignment of Trammell, Lewis and Haniger.
Of course, all eyes are on uber-prospect Jarred Kelenic, who was the subject of numerous headlines after now-former Mariners CEO Kevin Mather blatantly indicated the organization planned to hold him in the minors until late April. The words “service time” weren’t directly used, but the implication was clear, particularly given that Mather also revealed in that Q&A with his rotary club members that Kelenic rejected a contract extension prior to the 2020 season.
Kelenic and agent Brodie Scoffield told USA Today’s Bob Nightengale in the aftermath of the interview that the organization made clear to him at multiple points that he would’ve made his MLB debut in 2020 had he signed the extension offer — a six-year pact with a trio of club options to buy out three free-agent seasons. While Scoffield told MLBTR at the time that Kelenic is still open to extension offers, a spotlight has been shined on the situation. Kelenic missed time this spring with a minor knee sprain, which made it easier for the Mariners to send him down to begin the year. But if he’s called up in late April just as Mather said he would be, the organization will have a hard time claiming that it was a strictly development-driven decision to send him out in the first place. Kelenic went 6-for-20 with two doubles, two homers, four walks and just one strikeout in 25 spring plate appearances.
To be clear, the majority of big league clubs play service time games. It’s not that the Mariners’ plan was necessarily nefarious or previously unheard of — far from it — but such matters simply aren’t discussed publicly, as teams don’t want to give players and their agents any fuel for possible grievance filings. Mather’s indication that late-April promotions were likely not only for Kelenic but the aforementioned Gilbert broke the norm of making such manipulation a poorly kept but still-unspoken “secret.”
Had Mather’s service-time comments been the only questionable moments in his Q&A, the fallout probably wouldn’t have been so great. But he also made disparaging comments about foreign players’ English skills (or lack thereof), lamented having to pay translators and rattled off various negative comments about established players on the big league roster. It wasn’t much of a surprise when Mather resigned from his post in the days after the interview, and chairman John Stanton revealed later that Mather also gave up the minority stake in the club he received when initially being elevated to CEO.
Turning back to the on-field product, the Mariners very much have the look of a team that is on the rise. It’s a matter of “when,” not “if” Kelenic makes his Major League debut in 2021. Fellow outfield wunderkind Julio Rodriguez isn’t too far behind him, and we’re already getting our first look at Trammell. Gilbert is the first in a growing line of high-end pitching prospects funneling through the system, with recent first-rounders George Kirby and Emerson Hancock both on the horizon.
Each of those prospects could be in the big leagues before midseason 2022, and as previously noted, the Mariners’ long-term payroll is squeaky clean. They have just $15.45MM in guaranteed salary committed in 2022 (not including the $3.75MM they owe the Mets as part of the Robinson Cano deal).
Considering the Mariners had a franchise-record $158MM payroll in 2018 and averaged a hefty $150.25MM payroll from 2016-19, a spending spree during next year’s free agent mega-class seems eminently plausible. Contending in 2021 is long shot but not impossible with enough breaks from their young big leaguers. However, even if the Mariners extend a two-decade playoff drought this season, the future in Seattle is brighter than it’s been in quite some time.
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