We’ve been recapping the offseason work of the Seattle Mariners’ division rivals. Now, let’s shift our focus to the Mariners and the organization-changing moves made by general manager Jerry Dipoto.
Before proceeding, it’s important to note there’s time for the Mariners – and every team – to make more changes. Big-ticket and lower-tier free agents remain available, plus clubs have players with no minor league options.
Essentially, individuals with no options left must make the Opening Day roster or go through waivers before a minor league assignment.
Spring Training deals happen too and one Mariner in particular is the subject of current trade speculation. We’ll discuss that individual shortly. First, let’s quickly reflect on the 2018 Mariners.
The Mariners won 89 games – sixth most in franchise history. Yet, the club was an afterthought in the division and wild card races by September.
In fact, Seattle only had the seventh best record in the AL (12th in MLB). The club’s stats sheet illustrates why it finished out of the postseason – again.
|Mariners Team Stats|
While there were individual performances worthy of acclaim, the team itself over-achieved early before regressing. Bottom line, the Mariners ranked in the bottom-third of MLB in run production and were below average at preventing runs.
Since his club had the oldest group of position players last year, Dipoto chose to focus on the future rather than chase fleeting postseason opportunities. Naturally, this strategy frustrates a fan base dealing with a 17-year playoff drought.
Still, JeDi’s approach makes sense.
The Mariners’ farm system was incapable of replenishing its aging roster. For that reason, Dipoto dealt his most valuable big league talent to achieve a competitive, sustainable roster by 2020-21.
|Nelson Cruz||Robinson Canó||James Paxton|
|Edwin Díaz||Jean Segura||Mike Zunino|
|Alex Colomé||Denard Span||Juan Nicasio|
|Ben Gamel||Chris Herrmann||Guillermo Heredia|
|James Pazos||Nick Vincent|
How significant were the players listed above to the 2018 Mariners? The group accounted for 64% of the club’s 35.7 fWAR last year.
So what did Dipoto net from his seemingly endless stream of moves? Lots of prospects, some major league talent capable of helping in 2019, and several veterans unlikely to be Mariners by season’s end.
|Yusei Kikuchi (SP)||Omar Narváez (C)||Mallex Smith (CF)|
|Edwin Encarnación (DH)||J.P. Crawford (SS)||Jay Bruce (OF/1B)|
|Domingo Santana (OF)||Tim Beckham (IF)||Shed Long (2B)|
|Hunter Strickland (RP)||Justus Sheffield (SP)||Cory Gearrin (RP)|
|Anthony Swarzak (RP)||Gerson Bautista (RP)||Erik Swanson (SP)|
Signing Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi is the Mariners’ biggest pickup since acquiring Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger in 2016. Injury concerns dampened the southpaw’s market. However, assuming good health, his signing is a coup for Dipoto.
Kikuchi has number-two starter stuff and potentially remains under club control through the 2025 season. The 27-year-old’s contract is intriguing. After three years, there’s a player option for a fourth season. But Seattle can exercise a four-year club option after year-three bringing the term of the deal to seven years.
Mallex Smith enjoyed a breakout season with Tampa Bay slashing .296/.367/.406 with 27 doubles, an AL-leading 10 triples, and 40 stolen bases. Smith projects as the everyday center fielder.
Narváez’s defense isn’t in the same class as Zunino’s, although the 27-year-old should deliver more consistent offense than the Mariners have received from its catchers in several years.
In 2017, Domingo Santana hit 30 home runs and swiped 15 bases for Milwaukee. However, the 26-year-old regressed and became expendable with Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich joining the Brew Crew last offseason. With Seattle, Santana should get regular opportunities in left field.
Jay Bruce may also see time in left field. The 31-year-old has extensive corner outfield experience, plus 30 starts at first base since 2017. Injuries limited Bruce to to 94 games, his fewest in 11 MLB seasons.
Overall, Bruce’s 2018 numbers look bad: nine home runs and .223/.310/.370 slash-line. Still, it’s plausible the left-handed hitter rebounds. After returning from the DL in late August, he hit .243/.344/.467 with 6 homers and a 123 wRC+ in 125 plate appearances.
The prevailing thought is first baseman/designated hitter Edwin Encarnación is with another club by Opening Day. However, he’s currently in camp with the Mariners, so we’ll discuss him with the assumption he starts the season with Seattle.
Entering his age-36 season, Encarnación still has a potent bat. Last year, he hit 32 home runs and .246/.336/.474. Fun fact: the 14-year veteran is the only MLB player to clobber 30-plus dingers in every season since 2012.
Anthony Swarzak struggled with injuries last season also. If the right-hander regains his 2017 form, he’ll be a formidable weapon for manager Scott Servais. In 2017, Swarzak’s .242 xwOBA ranked seventh best among relievers facing at least 250 batters.
Something to keep an eye on – Strickland’s home run, strikeout, walk, and hard contact rates have been trending in the wrong direction in recent seasons. Perhaps a new address helps the 30-year-old.
Speaking of changing area codes, former top prospect J.P. Crawford gets a chance to reboot his brief MLB career. Still, just 24-years-old, Crawford struggled in limited action with the Phillies slashing a combined .214/.333/.358 in 225 plate appearances since 2017.
The Mariners view Crawford as a possible long-term solution at shortstop. Therefore, the club intends on giving him a chance to develop, which means the former first rounder likely starts the season with Class-AAA Tacoma. Hence, the signing of veteran infielder Tim Beckham as a potential placeholder.
Beckham has a 96 wRC+ and .252/.304/.424 slash in 1,423 career plate appearances making him average-ish at the plate. Still, his sprint speed is slightly above average and he’s played every infield position.
Veteran reliever Cory Gearrin pitched with three clubs last year – the Giants, A’s, and Rangers. Like his former teammate Strickland, there’s been regression in recent seasons. That said, the 32-year-old may contend for a late-inning role
Justus Sheffield was the centerpiece of the deal sending James Paxton to the Yankees. The left-hander has top-of-the-rotation stuff, but may need additional refinement in the minors. Barring a setback, he likely pitches for Seattle at some point this year.
The other arm coming to Seattle in the Paxton is Erik Swanson. The right-hander doesn’t have as high a ceiling as Sheffield, but he could reach Seattle first, depending on how the rotation holds up.
The most recent JeDi trade snagged minor league second baseman Shed Long. A converted catcher, Long’s hit tool is the key to him reaching the majors. It’s possible the 23-year-old sees time at third base or even moves to the outfield.
Despite regressing at the plate last year, Ryon Healy is the favorite to be the everyday first baseman. The 27-year-old’s .323 xwOBA (.311 was league-average) suggests there’s an opportunity for improvement.
In reality, Encarnación has been more DH than first baseman lately. Over the last two years, he’s played 23 games at first base in each season. As noted earlier, Bruce should get opportunities at both positions too.
The most intriguing player in the first base/DH mix is Daniel Vogelbach. In the minors, Vogelbach demonstrated a power stroke with good on-base abilities. Yet, the 26-year-old hasn’t received a chance to prove himself in the majors.
Since Vogelbach has no minor league options remaining, his near-term future with the team likely hinges on Encarnación’s tenure in Seattle. Barring unforeseen circumstances, there isn’t room for both on the roster.
With Canó gone, second base belongs to Dee Gordon. Last year, the career infielder struggled with acclimating to center field. Compounding matters for Gordon at the plate – injuries and a historically low walk rate.
If Gordon can produce at a level similar to the average of his 2014-17 campaigns (.304/.336/.382 and 53 stolen bases), the 30-year-old will a valuable contributor this year.
Kyle Seager – the longest-tenured Mariners position player – is coming off his worst season. In December, we discussed expectations for Seager and the effect of defensive shifts. This year is crucial for Seager, who certainly wants to prove he’s not washed-up at 31-years-old.
Spoiler alert: Kyle Seager isn’t washed up.
Vying to be the club’s back-up infielder are Dylan Moore and Kristopher Negrón. Both players have experience at every infield position with a smidgen of corner outfield time. Moore hasn’t played in the majors, but he’s over six years younger than the 33-year-old Negrón.
A factor that may influence management’s decision; Negrón has no minor league options and Moore does. Here are the Mariners with no minor league options remaining.
|No Minor League Options
|Tim Beckham,||Domingo Santana||Kristopher Negrón|
|Marco Gonzales||Shawn Armstrong||Zac Rosscup|
|Roenis Elias||Nick Rumbelow||Sam Tuivailala (DL)|
Moore and Negrón are the primary candidates mentioned for the backup infield spot, but there’s a familiar face in camp – Dustin Ackley.
Ackley’s return agitates some Mariners fans, which is puzzling. The 30-year-old hasn’t seen MLB action since 2016, but does provide positional depth in the event of injuries or other unexpected circumstances.
The starting outfield appears set with Santana in left field, Smith in center, and Mitch Haniger in right field. Haniger is Seattle’s best position player by a large margin. As noted earlier, Bruce likely sees corner outfield action.
Team icon Ichiro Suzuki is back on a minor league deal. Assuming good health, the future Hall of Famer plays during the Mariners’ first two games in Japan. After that, there is uncertainty. Dipoto routinely reiterates his focus is on providing playing opportunities for young players.
The rotation is set with Kikuchi, Marco Gonzales, Félix Hernández, Mike Leake, and Wade LeBlanc. Candidates to augment the original five are Sheffield, Swanson, Roenis Elias, non-roster invitee Tommy Milone, and minor leaguers Rob Whalen and Max Povse.
For now, Gonzales is the best pitcher in the rotation. But Kikuchi could change the narrative in relatively short order. That’d be a positive development for the Mariners.
Leake isn’t flashy, but has made 30-plus starts in every season since 2012. The only other pitchers to accomplish the feat: Max Scherzer and Jon Lester. The 31-year-old’s durability and knack for eating innings matter to a team planning to mitigate the workloads of Kikuchi and eventually Sheffield and Swanson.
In what’s likely his Seattle swan song, King Félix enters Spring Training on shaky ground. If he doesn’t remain in the rotation, it’s tough envisioning him contributing as a reliever.
The bullpen looks significantly different after the hectic offseason. Strickland is the likely closer with Swarzak and Gearrin in line for back-end spots. Having said that, Servais has suggested mixing and matching relievers in late innings based on match-ups.
|Roenis Elias||Shawn Armstrong||Zac Rosscup|
|Dan Altavilla||Nick Rumbelow||Chasen Bradford|
|Matt Festa||Ricardo Sanchez||Art Warren|
|Gerson Bautista||Ruben Alaniz||Aaron Northcraft|
|Tyler Danish||Ryan Garton||Sam Tuivailala (DL)|
One factor in my selection process, pitchers with no options remaining: Elias, Armstrong, Rosscup, and Rumbelow. Additionally, Elias is a lefty with starter and reliever experience.
Realistically, the Mariners will have “unfinished business” until becoming a serious AL contender. In the near-term, there are several areas needing attention.
Center field depth is precariously shallow. Perhaps prospect Braden Bishop helps later this year. However, he projects to continue his development with Class-AAA Tacoma. In the interim, there are no clear-cut options if injuries sidelined Smith.
Haniger can handle center field duties, but is better suited for right field. Adding an established backup capable of playing center seems reasonable, although there are few available options. Carlos Gómez is still a free agent, but he’d likely want more playing opportunities than the Mariners could guarantee.
Perhaps a veteran on a non-roster invite – like Peter Bourjos of the Angels – becomes available by late March. Another possibility may be a player on another roster with no minor league options remaining.
Hernández’s fading performance and availability in recent years combined with the team’s desire to limit the stress on their young arms and Kikuchi suggests additional rotation depth is needed.
We know Dipoto won’t be pursuing Dallas Keuchel. However, there are veteran arms of varying skill levels and value still looking for work. Examples include thirty-somethings Miguel González and Clay Buchholz and MLB nomad Edwin Jackson. And there’s 45-year-old Bartolo Colon, who could go to AARP meetings with Ichiro.
With the Mariners not expected to contend this season, they’ll be aggressive sellers this season. Naturally, any pending free agent having a good year is instantly available.
|Pending Free Agents|
|Felix Hernandez*||Edwin Encarnación*||Anthony Swarzak|
|Wade LeBlanc*||Cory Gearrin||Ichiro Suzuki|
|Jose Lobaton||Tommy Milone||Dustin Ackley|
|* Club option for 2020|
Potential free agents aren’t the only players Seattle may peddle this season. There are several individuals under team control after his season, who may not figure into the team’s long-term strategy.
|Other Potential Trade Chips
|Jay Bruce||Mike Leake||Kyle Seager|
|Ryon Healy||Dee Gordon||Roenis Elias|
|Domingo Santana||Tim Beckham||Any Healthy Reliever|
Haniger wasn’t included, but he certainly could be on the move. For now, the team appears content to hang on to the player we recently compared to a Hall of Famer.
By ridding themselves of Canó’s bloated contract and maximizing the value of Paxton and Díaz, the Mariners took the first steps towards reshaping their roster and upgrading the organization’s stature as a perennial fringe contender.
Still, it’s too early to know whether Dipoto’s offseason exploits eventually result in the Mariners becoming a serious threat in the AL West. But, based on his stated goals, the third-year GM had a great offseason.
It’s time for baseball.