There is plenty of cause for optimism in Seattle. The Mariners finished with a 90-72 record, their best since 2003. They delivered one of the best comeback wins in postseason history on their way to knocking off the Blue Jays in the wild card series. Down the stretch, the club locked up budding presumptive AL Rookie of the Year Julio Rodriguez through 2034 and extended two-time All Star starting pitcher Luis Castillo through 2028.
Now, on the heels of a thrilling season, Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has indicated that he’s open to making big moves in order to improve what is already a playoff-caliber team.
At the M’s end-of-season media session on Wednesday, Dipoto said that his “great preference” this offseason “would be to land a shortstop that would like to play second base” (relayed by Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times). Dipoto is likely referring to any of the four “big name shortstops” who project to be free agents this offseason: Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Dansby Swanson, and Trea Turner. Each of these four would instantly improve Seattle’s offense, which ranked in the bottom half of all of baseball. All four of the big name shortstops will require multi-year pacts with significant annuals.
The Mariners project to have the payroll capacity to splurge on a top-of-the-market shortstop, should they choose to. In 2022, Seattle ranked 22nd in MLB with an Opening Day player payroll just shy of $104MM, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts. 2022’s figure is significantly lower than some of the Mariners’ recent seasons, during which Seattle was generally less competitive. From 2016 to 2019, the Mariners averaged total payrolls of roughly $150MM, ranking as high as 11th league-wide.
The M’s currently have around $91MM worth of payroll commitments for 2023, per Roster Resource. Though that number will increase as a result of arbitration, it seems likely that Seattle would have the fiscal capacity to sign one of the big four shortstops, even if they attempt to bring back Mitch Haniger, who will be a free agent this offseason as well.
The major caveat in Seattle’s pursuit of a big-name free agent shortstop will be whether or not any of them will accept a move to second base. Dipoto reaffirmed his commitment to J.P. Crawford as the Mariners’ shortstop. He told the media that Crawford, age 27, will “line up for us Opening Day at shortstop and the goal is to find someone to put around him.” Dipoto continued on to state plainly that the Mariners signed Crawford to be a shortstop and that “that’s what we intend to do.”
One could argue the cleanest fit of the four aforementioned shortstops would be Turner, who is the only one of the four to appear in Major League games as a second baseman. Turner was a full-time second baseman as recently as the second half of 2021, when he transitioned to the right side of the diamond so that the Dodgers could accommodate both Corey Seager and Turner after Los Angeles acquired him from the Nationals.
None of Correa, Bogaerts or Swanson has played on the right side of the infield in their careers, although they all have extended experience at the infield’s most demanding position. Trevor Story had also never previously played the keystone, but he agreed to move over in deference to Bogaerts upon signing with the Red Sox last offseason. Whether any of the big four shortstops this time would do so while letting Crawford keep shortstop isn’t presently known, but Dipoto and his staff seem likely to inquire with everyone in that group.
Haniger, meanwhile, will hit free agency after spending the past five seasons in Seattle. M’s general manger Justin Hollander was effusive in his praise for the 31-year-old outfielder and said the organization will remain in contact with his representatives at Apex Baseball (via Divish). At the same time, he noted that Haniger “wants to gauge what else is out there” on the open market during his first trip to free agency.
It’s not the best platform season for Haniger, who missed a couple months with a high ankle sprain. He ultimately appeared in 57 games and hit .246/.308/.429 with 11 homers over 247 plate appearances. That’s above-average offense but a step back from his 39-homer, .253/.318/.485 campaign in 2021. Haniger is eligible for a $19.65MM qualifying offer, but the relative down platform year and the M’s stockpile of controllable outfielders make it seem likely they’ll allow him to hit free agency unencumbered by a QO.