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The long-term success of the Seattle Mariners hinges on whether general manager Jerry Dipoto’s vision for the Mariners and his expectations for the American League ever becomes reality.

A bold statement for sure, but think about Dipoto’s messaging this offseason.

Just last week, Dipoto told Brock and Salk of 710 ESPN Seattle, “What we wanted to accomplish in 2019 and beyond was to build around a group that had a chance to crest when the rest of the American League was starting to ebb.” The GM was referring to the Red Sox, Yankees, Indians, Athletics, and Astros.

In January, Dipoto told 710’s Shannon Drayer, “We view 2021 as that championship-type window if we did this the right way. Building around a group that was from an age perspective in a window that allowed us to crest in 2021.”

In Dipoto’s eyes, his reimagined team can be a serious World Series contender in two years, if the current league leaders regress as he expects them to do. Hearing this made me wonder.

What will the clubs JeDi mentioned look like when the 2021 campaign gets underway?

Naturally, I decided to investigate.


Ground Rules

Forecasting how any MLB roster may be constructed two years from now is a tricky undertaking. Who would’ve predicted 24 months ago the Mariners would drastically reshape their organization this offseason?

Essentially, we’re about to perform a giant “what if drill.” With that in mind, let’s establish several guidelines to simplify the process and maintain our wits.

First, presume teams don’t retain free agents or exercise club options on current players.

Additionally, players must be 33-or-younger on July 1, 2021 to be considered part of a team’s core. Dipoto told Brock and Salk he was building his core with players in their peak years (ages 26-32), so we’ll use the same approach with every club discussed.

We don’t know what we don’t know about prospects, so let’s avoid getting bogged down predicting which ones might make an impact in two years. Instead, we’ll just include any major or minor leaguer projected to provide MLB value this year.

To determine who may provide “value” this year, I’m using the Steamer projections used by FanGraphs. Any player fitting our age criteria and projected to deliver at least 0.1 fWAR this season qualifies with one exception; the only relievers included are current closers.

Why no love for relievers?

Relief arms are vital to every team and the game itself, but they’re generally complementary pieces added to a team’s core. With the exception of late-inning talent, club’s interchange relievers at a rapid fire pace.

With the ground rules settled, let’s start with the core Dipoto has constructed thus far. Then, we’ll dig into the competition he’s cited.


Mariners

For the Mariners, departing free agents should positively influence the club’s composition and budget. By Opening Day 2021, expensive veterans Félix Hernández, Edwin Encarnación, and Jay Bruce are no longer Mariners.

As already noted, we’re not including players with club options. Even if we did, Mike Leake, Dee Gordon, and Wade LeBlanc wouldn’t make the cut. Leake and Gordon will be 33-years-old, LeBlanc will be 36.

With the exception of Hernández, it’s plausible Dipoto deals his pending free agents before their respective contracts expire. Doing so may recoup varying levels of talent to his growing pool of young players.

So what will the Mariners have once the free agents depart? The names are familiar to fans with most joining the organization within the last 24 months.

2021 Mariners Core
POS Steamer 2021 Age
1B Dan Vogelbach 0.5 28
1B Ryon Healy 0.2 29
SS J.P. Crawford 1.3 26
C Omar Narváez 1.6 29
OF Mitch Haniger 2.9 30
OF Mallex Smith 2.3 28
OF Domingo Santana 1.3 28
SP Yusei Kikuchi 1.2 30
SP Justus Sheffield 0.6 25
SP Marco Gonzales 2.2 29
SP Erik Swanson 0.3 27
SP Roenis Elias 0.1 32

Newly acquired closer Hunter Strickland didn’t make the cut since Steamer projects -0.2 fWAR for the right-hander. Otherwise, Strickland would appear on our list – he’ll be 32-years-old and under club control in 2021.

By Dipoto’s target year, Kyle Seager will be the longest-tenured Mariner. However, he falls outside our window at age-33. Moreover, the former North Carolina Tar Heel will be in the final guaranteed year of his deal – Seattle holds an option for 2022.

Despite the absence of Seager and Strickland, the Mariners have a solid foundation. The biggest positive: Yusei Kikuchi, Justus Sheffield, Marco Gonzales potentially headlining a strong rotation along with Erik Swanson.

There are other minor leaguers not listed, who may see varying amounts of playing time with Seattle this season. Most notably: Shed Long, Evan White, and Justin Dunn.

If you’ve watched Spring Training broadcasts, you’re aware of Seattle’s youth movement with Kyle Lewis, Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, and Braden Bishop mentioned often. These prospects aren’t in the mix for today’s exercise, but the recent influx of young talent into the organization is encouraging.

Okay, let’s turn our attention to the other clubs JeDi mentioned, starting with the reigning World Series champions.


Red Sox

Of all the clubs discussed today, the Red Sox may experience the most roster upheaval due to free agent departures.

At the end of this season, ace Chris Sale and 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello leave via free agency. So does All-Star shortstop Xander Bogaerts. One year later, Mookie Betts and fellow outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. could leave too.

Considering Boston’s willingness to spend money, retaining Betts is a likely priority for the club. That’s assuming the 2018 AL MVP doesn’t want to test the free agent market.

Having said that, Bradley’s value shouldn’t be overlooked. Mike Petriello of MLB.com recently suggested the 28-year-old is poised for a breakout season.

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If a Beantown mass exodus were to occur, the Sawx would possess a relatively small core of players – based on our criteria.

2021 Red Sox Core
POS Steamer 2021 Age
3B Rafael Devers 2.5 24
UT Blake Swihart 0.1 29
C Christian Vázquez 0.9 30
OF Andrew Benintendi 3.7 26
SP Nathan Eovaldi 2.7 31

It’s important to note J.D. Martinez will still be with Boston. He’ll be 33-years-old, but that doesn’t mean he can’t or won’t be a key contributor in 2021. Former Cy Young Award winner David Price will also be with the team, although he’ll be entering his age-35 season.

Whether long-time second baseman Dustin Pedroia is with the Red Sox is a mystery. But he’ll be in his age-37 season in 2021 and will cost $12 million in the final season of his six-year/$85 million deal.

Pedroia, Martinez, and Price will earn a combined $63.4 million in 2021, which is a large sum even for the deep-pocketed Red Sox. Especially with two of the players – Pedroia and Price – in the twilight of their career.


Yankees

After the upcoming season, four recognizable Yankees can choose free agency. All are valuable, but their departures won’t be devastating.

Notable Potential Free Agents
2019 2020
Didi Gregorius Masahiro Tanaka
CC Sabathia James Paxton
Brett Gardner DJ LeMahieu
Dellin Betances Jacoby Ellsbury++
J.A. Happ++
Giancarlo Stanton$$
++Club Option               $$ Can opt out after 2020

Shortstop Didi Gregorius is recovering from October Tommy John surgery, but expected to return this summer.

Late-inning reliever Dellin Betances and veteran outfielder Brett Gardner also hit the market; southpaw C.C. Sabathia has already announced he’s retired at the end of the 2019 campaign.

The bigger losses occur in 2020. Two key rotation arms – Masahiro Tanaka and former Mariner James Paxton – plus recently signed infield free agent DJ LeMahieu can walk.

2021 Yankees Core
POS Steamer
2021 Age
1B Luke Voit 1.4 30
1B Greg Bird 0.3 28
2B Gleyber Torres 2.1 24
3B Miguel Andújar 2.0 26
C Gary Sanchez 3.2 28
C Kyle Higashioka 0.1 30
OF Aaron Judge 4.6 29
OF Giancarlo Stanton 4.3 31
OF Aaron Hicks 3.2 31
OF Clint Frazier 0.2 26
SP Luis Severino 4.5 27
SP Domingo German 0.4 28
SP Jonathan Loaisiga 0.4 26
SP Jordan Montgomery 0.3 28

Amazingly, the team has over $39 million committed to three late-inning relievers in 2021 – Aroldis Chapman, Zack Britton, and Adam Ottavino. The trio doesn’t appear on our list because Chapman and Britton will be 33-years-old, while Ottavino will be entering his age-35 season.

Outfielder Giancarlo Stanton meets our age criteria, although he’ll be making a whopping $29 million in 2021. A key consideration; Stanton can opt out of his deal after the 2020 campaign, but it’s tough envisioning him walking away from a guaranteed $228 million through his age-38 season.

Despite the losses of notable names and the cost sunk into several aging veterans, the 2021 Yankees appear to be in decent shape.

Outfielder Aaron Judge and catcher Gary Sánchez will be in the middle of their lineup. Also on hand, starter Luis Severino and outfielder Aaron Hicks – both recently signed extensions with the club.

The team will also have two Rookie of the Year runner-ups from last year – Miguel Andújar and Gleyber Torres – plus several promising young arms for their starting staff.

Potential rotation-mates for Severino include Domingo German, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Jordan Montgomery. All will be in the 26-28 age window and may represent the foundation of a championship staff.


Indians

As with Boston, free agency could take a significant bite out of Cleveland’s long-time core.

Gone will be starters Trevor Bauer and Danny Salazar and long-time Indian Jason Kipnis. Moreover, superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor will be in his final year of arbitration.

Notable Potential Free Agents
2019 2020
Corey Kluber++ Trevor Bauer
Jason Kipnis++ Jason Kipnis
Danny Salazar
Corey Kluber++
Carlos Santana++
Brad Hand++
Roberto Pérez++
++Club Option

Entering 2021, Indians have guaranteed deals with just two players – Carlos Carrasco and José Ramírez. However, the club does hold options on Corey Kluber for 2020 and 2021.

While keeping Kluber seems like a no-brainer today, the former Cy Young Award winner will be entering his age-34 season and owed $18 million in 2021. Will that expenditure still make sense two years from now?

2021 Indians
POS Steamer
2021 Age
1B Jake Bauers 1.2 25
SS Francisco Lindor 6.4 29
3B José Ramírez 6.0 30
IF Max Moroff 0.4 28
C Roberto Perez++ 1.2 32
C Kevin Plawecki 0.9 30
OF Jordan Luplow 0.7 27
OF Tyler Naquin 0.5 32
OF Bradley Zimmer 0.3 28
SP Mike Clevinger 2.6 30
SP Shane Bieber 2.4 26
CL Brad Hand++ 0.8 31
++ Club Option

For those wondering, Carrasco doesn’t appear because he’ll be 34-years-old in 2021.

Despite the potential loss of several significant players, the Indians’ roster won’t be quite as barren as the Red Sox appears it could be. The Tribe will still have two perennial MVP candidates with Lindor and Ramirez and starters Mike Clevinger and Shane Bieber in their prime.

Still, Cleveland appears destined for a roster reboot within three years.


Athletics

There are plenty of young players projected to be with Oakland in 2021, but key veterans will likely be wearing other teams’ uniforms by then.

The A’s are set to lose 2018 MLB home run king Khris Davis after this season, but the bigger hits to the roster come after the 2020 campaign.

Before the 2021 season kicks off, starter Mike Fiers, elite closer Blake Treinen, shortstop Marcus Semien, and infielder Jurickson Profar are the most notable names hitting the market.

Although losing so much talent will hurt, there’s still hope for Oakland.

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2021 Athletics Core
POS Steamer
2021 Age
1B Matt Olson 3.1 27
2B Franklin Barreto 0.5 25
3B Matt Chapman 4.4 28
OF Ramón Laureano 2.7 26
OF Stephen Piscotty 2.3 30
OF Dustin Fowler 0.4 26
OF Mark Canha 0.3 32
OF Chad Pinder 0.3 29
OF Nick Martini 0.3 31
SP Jesus Luzardo 1.1 23
SP Frankie Montas 0.6 28
SP A.J. Puk 0.5 26
SP Jharel Cotton 0.4 29
SP Chris Bassitt 0.4 32
SP Daniel Mengden 0.4 28
SP Sean Manaea 0.2 29
SP Paul Blackburn 0.2 27
SP Andrew Triggs 0.2 32

A pair of Gold Glove corner infielders – Matt Olson and Matt Chapman – will anchor the lineup. Olson clobbered 29 home runs last season; Chapman finished seventh in AL MVP voting last year and is a budding star.

Oakland will also have considerable outfield depth with Stephen Piscotty being the only player projected to have a guaranteed contract in 2021. That said; Oakland’s greatest strength could be their starting pitching.

Rotation candidates two years from now could include current ace Sean Manaea and top prospects Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk. Other potential under-30 contributors include Frankie Montas, Jharel Cotton, and Daniel Mengden.


Astros

The Astros had the best starting rotation in baseball last year, but 80% of that staff could be playing elsewhere by 2020.

Charlie Morton signed with the Rays during the offseason and Dallas Keuchel is still a free agent. After this upcoming season, the club will be without ace pitchers Gerrit Cole and Justin Verlander.

Also off the books by 2021, recently signed free agent Michael Brantley and fellow outfielder Josh Reddick. In addition, the first player from their highly touted young core reaches free agency – George Springer.

Even though the Astros stand to lose considerable pitching talent, the team has young arms to fill the void. By 2021, top prospects Joshua James, Framber Valdéz, and Forrest Whitley may lead the rotation with Lance McCullers Jr. still on the scene.

2021 Astros Core
POS Steamer
2021 Age
1B Tyler White 1.1 30
2B Jose Altuve 4.6 31
SS Carlos Correa 4.3 26
3B Alex Bregman 5.4 27
C Max Stassi 0.8 30
C Garrett Stubbs 0.1 28
OF Kyle Tucker 0.7 24
OF Tony Kemp 0.6 29
SP Joshua James 2.0 28
SP Framber Valdéz 0.5 27
SP Forrest Whitley 0.3 23
SP J.B. Bukauskas 0.2 24
SP Rogelio Armenteros 0.1 26
SP Lance McCullers Jr. DL 27
CL Roberto Osuna 0.8 26

The lineup will need reinforcing, but should still have infielders Carlos Correa, José Altuve, and Alex Bregman, and Tyler White to provide pop. Top outfield prospect Kyle Tucker could be a vital piece in two years also.

The 2021 season could be pivotal for Houston. It’s the walk year for key contributors Correa, McCullers, Roberto Osuna, and Chris Devenski. Furthermore, Bregman will be entering his final arbitration year and Altuve will be 31-years-old.

Perhaps Houston will be looking to regroup at the point.


Show Me The Money

So far, we’ve discussed potential on-field talent, but we should briefly cover the finances of each organization.

The following illustrates the current number of players with guaranteed contracts in 2021 on each AL team. Also on display, the total money committed to those contracts and buyout costs associated with players having club options.

For example, the Mariners have two players with guaranteed deals totaling $33.5 million in 2021 – Seager and Kikuchi. However, the team also owes $6 million in buyouts to Leake and Gordon bringing the grand total on the following table to $39.5 million.

AL Dollars Committed in 2021
Tm # Players
$ Committed*
NYY 6
$94.7M
BOS 5
$86.6M
LAA 2
$53M
SEA 2
$39.5M
BAL 2
$38M
KCR 3
$36.5M
TEX 3
$35.9M
DET 1
$30M
HOU 1
$29.3M
CLE 2
$23.4M
TBR 1
$13.2M
MIN 2
$10.8M
CWS 1
$8.3M
TOR 1
$7.9M
OAK 1
$7.6M
* Buyouts included

Before going any further, it’s important to acknowledge teams will owe more money than the preceding table suggests. Arbitration-eligible players can be costly, but clubs can be creative when managing arbitration expenses.

One option is to ink a player to an extension for their arb eligibility and perhaps several free agent years. Another approach is non-tendering replaceable arb players with cheaper substitutes.

Arbitration costs aside, the preceding table suggests the budget flexibility teams may have in 2021. How organizations elect to use their finances is a mystery we’ll have to watch unfold in the future.

From the Mariners perspective, the team will have a relatively low amount sunk into veterans in 2021, but their arbitration costs will be rising.

Mitch Haniger, Mallex SmithOmar Narváez will be in their second year of arbitration-eligibility. Domingo Santana will be in his final arbitration year, while Gonzales and J.P. Crawford will be in the arb window too.

Will these costs hamstring Dipoto’s attempts to add on to his 2021 core? Probably not, especially if these players are delivering results. Besides, other clubs have it worse than Seattle will.

Most of Houston’s core will be arbitration-eligible, including Bregman, Correa, and McCullers. The Yankees will be addressing the cost of Judge, Sanchez, Torres, and Andújar.

Looking Forward

By 2021, we’ll have a sense whether Dipoto’s approach will yield a competitive, sustainable contender. Having said that, expecting the current AL leaders will be within reach is a risky proposition.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Yankees and Red Sox will continue spending money to add top-shelf talent and retain homegrown stars.

Until the current Astros management fails to field a contender, the team receives the benefit of the doubt on whether they’ll continue being a formidable AL West threat.

On the other hand, Oakland’s budgetary limitations places the A’s at a competitive disadvantage. Likewise, the Indians could begin regressing as early as this year.

Ultimately, the Mariners’ future success hinges more on how their stable of prospects develop and their willingness to spend money than the ebb and flow of competitor’s rosters.

Then again, you could say the same thing about every rebuilding MLB club.