It’s the first slow week in sports in a long time with football ending. Pacific Northwest winters are pretty gloomy, infested with 40-degree days and cold rain. And there’s still a worldwide pandemic.
Naturally, I sit here a little bored. The only sports news to gobble up is Tom Brady embodying every Arizona State stereotype to the fullest during the Buccaneers Super Bowl parade. Oh, and Russell Wilson creating national headlines by being assertive and candidly speaking his mind for the first time in his career, having to take matters into his own hands and state something that the organization should have fixed years ago instead of completely shrugging off their Hall of Fame quarterback getting mauled 40+ times a season for eight years running. That was of course followed up with the front office led by his stubborn, power-hungry head coach complaining that they didn’t appreciate him speaking publicly about it. Seems to all be going great!
“Sir, this a Wendy’s”.
Well, it’s actually a Mariners related article. But yes, let me stop my 12’s rant in its tracks and shift over to the diamond. I’m about to go down a rabbit hole anyway, and I promise it’s detailed, analytical and well-thought-out. It’s just not the one taking place next door at Lumen Field.
With MLB free agency heating up over the last week, I find myself doing some heavy thinking.
Okay, “thinking” is putting it lightly. I definitely had my blood pressure rise watching the rich get richer, as 2020 Cy Young winner Trevor Bauer signed with the reigning world champion Dodgers, and outfielder Marcell Ozuna re-signed with the Braves for less than his value, along with a handful of other offseason transactions. Not so much because there was any real expectation that players of that magnitude would currently land in a place like Seattle, as it is desperately wishing that the Mariners were in a place to make these types of acquisitions, growing more and more tired of watching their infamous postseason drought find itself less than two years away from legal drinking age. Not only have they fallen short of being true contenders over that time span, but they haven’t even come close, something that not many other teams can empathize with.
That aforementioned 21-year period will arrive in October of 2022, shortly after arguably the most lethal free agent class of all time will have graduated. And when it gets here, one thing is for certain: The Mariners need to be positioned to be the life of the party in the middle of the dance floor, not timidly trying to fit into one square of it. Because the truth is:
2022 may be the most important offseason that the Mariners have ever had.
Do you think I’m looking too far ahead? That I want to dwell on possible scenarios that won’t even occur until another full season has concluded? Okay, okay, fair enough. I’ll quickly pause on 2022 and circle back to it in a minute, but I promise it can’t be overstated. For now, let’s harp on 2021. It will help set the tone anyway.
Part I: 2021 Outlook
It could be easy to scoff at what GM Jerry Dipoto has brought in during an unusually quiet offseason for his standards. His only moves to this point have been trading for Rafael Montero, a hard throwing 30-year-old reliever who had one good year out of the bullpen in 2019, signing reliever Keynan Middleton, who has thrown less than 20 innings in the last two years, and inking right-handed starter Chris Flexen, who spent three seasons playing in Korea after posting a career 8.07 ERA and an astonishing -2.1 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 68 innings over three seasons with the Mets. To put this in simple terms for you non-baseball/sabermetric nerds, if Flexen had never appeared in a single game over his three seasons, the Mets would have more than two additional victories in their win column than what they actually accumulated. That is abnormal, and not in a good way.
Having said that, there are reasons for this tactic, like it or not. The M’s are right in the thick of a significant rebuild that began at the conclusion of the 2018 season, and to this point, it’s gone about as well as expected (if not better). They have six players ranked inside MLB’s Top 100 prospects list (seven if you include Noelvi Marte, who is ranked 73rd on Baseball America’s list), along with two in the Top 5 in potential superstars Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez. They have the reigning AL Rookie of the Year (Kyle Lewis), 2020’s top rookie starting pitcher (Justus Sheffield), and two gold glove winners (Evan White and J.P. Crawford). All of them are continuing to get better, and to this point the M’s have not run into any type of Lewis Brinson swing-and-a-miss fiasco like the one Miami dug themselves into. There is a foundation being set, and it is expected to take another big step in 2021 with the likes of Kelenic and right-hander Logan Gilbert all but set to make their debuts.
It has been echoed loud and clear by the coaching staff and front office that 2021 will be used to let this young core really grow and develop together. To let Lewis, White and Crawford get a full 162 game slate under their belts. To let Dylan Moore, who led the club over 2020 in WAR despite playing in less games than Lewis, get a full season of at-bats. To allow Sheffield to rack up 25-30 starts. To let Mitch Haniger get back on the field and find his stride again (yeah, remember him? The Mariners best player in 2018-19 before injury?). And to let the next wave of young M’s like Kelenic and Gilbert come up and get acclimated to the majors (although if Kelenic were asked, he wouldn’t hesitate to speak up and say that he’s going to do a whole lot more than “get acclimated”).
Rationally, regardless of how badly myself or Mariners fans may have wanted to see players like Bauer or DJ LeMahieu take their talents to T-Mobile Park, this is probably what’s best for this group in 2021, and that development can’t happen if certain guys are boxed out by a veteran free agent. In a proper rebuild, a team needs to first see what’s in their hand before they go fish.
And to be honest, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be another losing year either. In fact, this is the most excited I’ve been for the start of a Mariners season since 2015, even though those results didn’t exactly go as planned. This young group can easily find themselves in wild card contention come September. Heck, last year they were fighting for the final AL Wild Card spot despite a sub-.500 record. Even with the postseason format going back to the standard ten teams (five per league), there is almost no doubt the 2021 Mariners should be significantly better, with additional electric players, creating further excitement.
But let me restate what I said above. This strategy is what is best for the team in 2021. After that? It’s a whole new ballgame.
Part II: 2022 Positives and Negatives
If one were to form a lineup, strictly in house, of what the Mariners will look like in early 2022, it will likely resemble something close to this:
Catcher: Cal Raleigh/Tom Murphy
First Base: Evan White
Second Base: Dylan Moore
Shortstop: J.P. Crawford
Third Base: Ty France
Left Field: Jarred Kelenic
Center Field: Kyle Lewis/Taylor Trammell
Right Field: Julio Rodriguez
Designated Hitter: Mitch Haniger
Starting Pitchers: Marco Gonzales, Logan Gilbert, Justus Sheffield, Yusei Kikuchi, Justin Dunn
Looking at the projected lineup, it’s highly unlikely that the Mariners will be in need of outside help in the outfield anytime soon, so that area can pretty much be crossed off. Catcher and first base may not be one hundred percent out of the question, especially if Evan White repeats the offensive season he put up in 2020, although that’s highly unlikely. Starting pitching? That’s certainly a topic of its own, so let’s circle back to that later.
But not too shabby, right? It’s certainly something one can get excited about. But to compete for an AL pennant and chase a World Series ring, it’s not nearly strong enough when you line it up with the real contenders.
Additionally, none of these players are locked into large contracts outside of Kikuchi, with the majority on rookie deals. Entering 2021, Seattle has the 6th lowest payroll in the game. And when third baseman Kyle Seager’s 7-year, $100 million contract expires at the end of 2021, their payroll will drop even further. In other words, they have plenty of money to spend, and spend big.
Part III: Easier Said Than Done
There are plenty of hoops to jump through in order to execute bringing cornerstone players to Seattle, and a lot of it is out of the hands of the 2021 roster’s ability to win games and continue to show an upward trend that could eventually attract these free agents.
To begin, Dipoto will need to be granted the passcode to the vault. Just because the Mariners ownership holds enough money to fill a manmade lake doesn’t mean they will choose to distribute it.
This has been a problem across the entire league during the 2021 offseason. Organizations and their penny-pinching tactics reigning supreme, which is one of the main reasons a vast number of free agents still remain unsigned this late in the process. Some teams have opted to trade away stars and some have refrained from spending money to make money. Part of this is due to each team losing millions from the pandemic, but the current push for a 16-team playoff field going forward would give clubs a scapegoat to not spend money and just say “hey, we got in. We’ll sell some playoff tickets. That’s enough”.
Seattle’s ownership has certainly shown little interest in handing out checks over the last few years. Some of that is due to the rebuild process, but some wonder if they will continue to not invest in a championship level roster and let the young core on cheap rookie contracts push them just far enough to get into the postseason, only to be handed early exits.
If this is what occurs, there may be no answer for what the solution is. Because in that scenario Seattle and their long-term outlook would be no different than that of Oakland, Tampa and Cleveland, with the only difference being the Mariners choosing not to spend when the three teams mentioned above do not have the option to spend as low-budget, small market clubs. This hypothetical strategy may lose them a nice chunk of fans, because as we’ve seen with the small-market teams, it is really hard to win in October on such a low payroll even if they reached the postseason field. They take that approach and miss out on all of these free agents despite being a high revenue franchise? I can’t imagine that would sit too well.
Then there’s the whole debacle of the lockout that, barring a miracle new CBA agreement between the MLB player’s association and Major League Baseball, will take place for the foreseeable future at the conclusion of 2021. If that does happen, teams are prohibited from negotiating with free agents until the lockout concludes, which would give the Mariners even less time to try and sell themselves to the guys on their radar.
If you’re hoping the CBA will get resolved, let me be clear on this: the two sides are not close. They’re not on the same continent. The MLBPA is in the United States while MLB is in Australia, and both would have to tread thousands of miles of ocean water to meet at a midpoint. The two sides are going back and forth about a universal DH, the playoff format and a handful of other rules like they’re an old married couple. Just the Mariners luck, right? A looming prolonged lockout right when they’re supposed to turn the corner.
Finally, even after all of that is resolved (because eventually it will, it’s a matter of how soon), a lot of pressure will be on the front office to have effective sales pitches to win some bidding wars with the free agents, something they have not had much experience in during their regime. Dipoto has a 2-1 record in this category in his career. He won the Albert Pujols sweepstakes and landed lefty C.J. Wilson, fresh off a sixth place Cy Young finish, in the same 2012 offseason when he was the GM of the Angels. But Dipoto fell short in the Shohei Ohtani battle in the 2018 offseason, losing out to his former employers.
Sure, those circumstances were a little different, and to this point Ohtani has not been the all-world two-way sensation many expected him to be coming over from Japan. But the point here is that Dipoto has not had a lot of work experience in this particular field and especially not during his time in the Pacific Northwest. There is a skill to it, and with COVID protocols up in the air for next offseason it is unknown if the Mariners will even get the chance to meet these players face-to-face on a visit, making the process that much more difficult. We can only hope they’re planning ahead.
Now… here’s where the hypotheticals become fun. If they turn to an aggressive approach and are ready to spend ten months from now, there’s certainly going to be some shiny vehicles staring them in the face (see next article for the free agent players breakdown).