Despite generally modest expectations coming into the year, the Mariners have remained in playoff contention all season. Seattle enters play tonight with a 72-62 record, three and a half games back of the Red Sox for the American League’s final postseason spot (with the A’s also ahead of them). That’s in spite of a fairly youthful roster that many onlookers didn’t believe capable of sticking with the best teams in the AL over a 162-game campaign.
Regardless of whether the Mariners make it to the playoffs, the upcoming offseason will be pivotal. The franchise has reached the end of its recent retool, and expectations will certainly be higher entering 2022 than they were coming into 2021. It seems the time has come for the front office to more aggressively supplement the young core that has already cracked or will crack the majors in the near future.
“We will be more active in free agency than we have been in years past,” president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto confirmed to MLB Network Radio on SiriusXM this afternoon (Twitter link). Seattle’s front office leader pointed to the franchise’s ample long-term payroll space, as well as the club’s ability to target more specific areas of need now that they’ve had certain players emerge as internal building blocks.
The Mariners have almost no guaranteed money on the books for next season. Only Marco Gonzales ($5.75MM), Ken Giles ($5.25MM), Chris Flexen ($3.05MM) and Evan White ($1.4MM) are locked into the ledger at the moment. Seattle will have to decide on options for Yusei Kikuchi (whose complex contract situation MLBTR’s Steve Adams explored in July) and Kyle Seager, and players like Mitch Haniger, J.P. Crawford and Diego Castillo will be due raises via arbitration.
Even in the event they bring back both Kikuchi and Seager and their arbitration class lands solid raises, the Mariners are likely looking at commitments in the $60-65MM range upon turning their considerations to external upgrades. Before their recent rebuild, the M’s ran player payrolls at and above $150MM, in the estimation of Cot’s Baseball Contracts. Assuming ownership is willing to greenlight spending at a similar level moving forward, there should be plenty of room for the front office to make multiple notable additions.
Dipoto unsurprisingly didn’t tip his hand as to where the front office might look to upgrade, but bolstering the lineup figures to be a priority. Despite their team-wide success, Mariners’ hitters rank just 25th out of the league’s 30 clubs in park-adjusted offense (excluding pitchers). Seattle position players have a .222/.299/.380 line, with particularly weak production from each of catcher, second base, left field and center field.
That’s not to say all of those positions will be target areas. Jarred Kelenic and Cal Raleigh have started their big league careers slowly but are both highly-regarded prospects who should continue to get opportunities in left field and at catcher, respectively. Julio Rodríguez is tearing the cover off the ball in Double-A and doesn’t seem far away from getting his first call. When healthy, Kyle Lewis is a good center fielder. And trade deadline acquisition Abraham Toro could be a long-term answer at second base, particularly if Seattle brings back Seager at Toro’s more familiar third base spot.
There are internal options around the diamond, but at least one acquisition on the position player side seems likely. Adding a first baseman could push Ty France back to second. Signing a quality multi-positional player (old friend Chris Taylor is slated to hit free agency, as one example) could give manager Scott Servais added cover all around the diamond. Adding a corner outfielder like Kyle Schwarber could help solidify left while offering the flexibility to move to DH if Kelenic and/or Rodríguez seizes an everyday job in the grass.
The upcoming free agent class features plenty of high-end starting pitchers too, many of whom are young enough to project as solid contributors over the next few seasons. Kevin Gausman, Robbie Ray, Marcus Stroman, Eduardo Rodríguez and Max Scherzer should be near the top of the market, with Anthony DeSclafani, Noah Syndergaard, Justin Verlander and Alex Wood among the other options.
Starting pitching isn’t necessarily a need for Seattle, particularly if they bring back Kikuchi. Gonzales, Flexen, Logan Gilbert, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn all remain under team control, and prospects George Kirby and Emerson Hancock are moving closer to the big leagues. There’s always room for extra starting pitching depth, and the M’s could have the resources to add a middle or top of the rotation type in free agency and improve that group’s overall floor.
The Mariners’ combination of payroll space and flexibility to pursue upgrades at various spots on the roster has the potential to make for Seattle’s most exciting offseason in recent memory. Dipoto, who signed a multi-year extension and earned a promotion from GM to president yesterday, is in position to add to the core the organization has assembled in hopes of building the M’s first perennial contender in two decades.