4:10 pm: Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times reports that the value of Seager’s option has actually escalated all the way to the maximum $20MM figure. According to Divish, Seager needs 37 more plate appearances through the end of the regular season to push the value of the buyout from $1.5MM to $2MM. With 22 games remaining on the schedule, Seattle’s regular third baseman shouldn’t have much difficulty reaching that mark.
9:25 am: Kyle Seager has been a Mariner since the club selected him with the 82nd overall draft pick back in 2009, but the Mariners will soon face a decision on the former All-Star who’s held down the hot corner at T-Mobile Park/Safeco Field for the past decade.
Seager is in the final guaranteed season of a seven-year, $100MM contract extension signed back in December 2014, but that contract holds a club option for the 2022 season. While the option was originally valued at $15MM, Seager’s extension included escalators that could boost the option value up to $20MM and trigger a buyout of as much as $3MM (as MLBTR’s Tim Dierkes reported at the time of the deal). Seager hasn’t reached the full weight of those escalators, but Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic now reports that he’s boosted that option value up to $19MM and hit enough of the escalators to tack on a buyout in the $1.5MM to $2MM range.
Triggering the buyout means that regardless of the Mariners’ decision, Seager will walk away from the deal with at least $101.5MM to $102MM in guaranteed money. For the Mariners, what was previously a net $15MM decision is now a net decision in the $17MM to $17.5MM range.
Seager, 34 in November, has become an increasingly difficult player to value. His .213 batting average and .290 on-base percentage are both obvious eyesores, but he’s also slugging .455 and has clubbed a career-high 34 home runs in 2021 with a few weeks of games yet to play. His 23.7 percent strikeout rate is a career-high, but the league-average strikeout rate has soared in recent years; he’s only one percent north of the 22.7 average for non-pitchers.
Seager has also had at least some degree of poor fortune on balls in play, although perhaps not as much as his career-low .218 BABIP would suggest upon first glance. Seager’s career .272 average on balls in play is already lower than that of the league average (about .300), so we can’t simply assume there will be positive regression all the way up to the league norm.
This version of Seager is naturally going to be prone to a low BABIP due to his pull-happy (45.5 percent) and thus shift-prone approach, a huge 51.6 percent fly-ball rate (including a 13.6 percent infield-fly rate) and his decreasing speed. Statcast pegs Seager’s “expected” batting average at .225, which would be enough to narrowly push his OBP into the .300s assuming the rest of his profile remained the same. Seager, like so many other players in the league, has taken some steps toward a three-true-outcomes style at plate — albeit not to the same dramatic extent as three-true-outcome kings like Joey Gallo or Miguel Sano.
On the defensive side of things, Seager remains a solid option at third base. Both Ultimate Zone Rating (4.0) and Outs Above Average (5) grade him as an above-average defender. Defensive Runs Saved has him at minus-4 this season, but Seager has a long track record of quality DRS marks. His 13 errors have him on pace to finish right around his full-season totals from 2017-19. He’s not Matt Chapman or Nolan Arenado at third base, but most clubs would likely consider him anywhere from serviceable to above-average, which has value in its own right.
The Mariners, at least to some extent, will also have to take into account Seager’s status as a foundational piece for the past decade. Back in February, now-former Mariners president Kevin Mather made a buyout of Seager’s option sound like a fait accompli, indicating that the 2021 campaign would likely be his last as a Mariner. Mather, of course, is no longer with the club and Seager has gone on to belt a career-best 34 dingers — albeit with concerning declines in OBP and average, as previously highlighted. FanGraphs values Seager at 2.6 wins above replacement, putting him on pace to finish as a 2.9-WAR or better player for the ninth time in his past 10 full seasons (i.e., excluding 2020).
The Mariners could simply buy Seager out and slide Abraham Toro (and, on occasion, Ty France) over to third base in 2022. However, both players are capable of playing other positions. Toro has been lined up primarily at second base since being acquired from Houston, and France is capable at both second and first (with more than enough bat to simply DH, as well).
Ultimately, a net price in the $17MM range seems steep for Seager, but the Mariners also only have $19MM in guaranteed salary on the books next season, with a fairly light arbitration class to boot. Combine that with Seager’s career-best power output, solid glovework and legacy status in Seattle — and it’s enough to at least make this a closer decision for the front office than most would expect.