The Seattle Mariners made an uncharacteristically low number of player acquisitions under GM Jerry Dipoto this offseason. But Dipoto’s inactivity doesn’t mean the organization didn’t accomplish what it set out to do.
Before digging into where the Mariners stand with Spring Training upon us, let’s reflect on Seattle’s 2019 campaign. It certainly was a bumpy ride for the team and its fan base.
The Mariners entered last season in rebuild-mode, yet managed to enjoy a surprisingly good start. By April 11, Seattle was 13-2 and owners of the best record in MLB.
Then, reality set in.
Seattle subsequently went 55-92 finishing with its worst record since 2011. The team’s offensive numbers and their associated MLB rankings were similarly underwhelming.
Mariners 2019 Offense
After June 15, the Mariners were bottom-5 in all categories listed above. Compounding matters, the lineup ranked last in the most important department – run production. Only the Tigers scored fewer runs (345) than the Mariners (375) did.
The progressive decline in productively is partially attributable to losing three important hitters in June. Both Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion left via trade; Mitch Haniger suffered a season-ending injury.
Haniger was having a sub-par season, but did have 15 home runs in 63 games with an above-average 109 OPS+ before his injury.
Daniel Vogelbach was the team’s lone All-Star and led the club with 30 home runs. Unfortunately, the left-handed hitter’s second-half OPS plummeted to .626.
After walking at a historically low rate in 2018, Dee Gordon doubled his walk tally and registered a minor uptick in productivity. Unfortunately, injuries reduced Gordon’s availability for a second consecutive season.
Shortstop J.P. Crawford also enjoyed a strong start before regressing. The 25-year-old’s May-June .310/.380/.500 slash-line plummeted to .178/.275/.297 for the remainder of the season.
Kyle Seager played less than 154 games for the first time since 2012 after suffering an injury in Spring Training. The former North Carolina Tar Heel struggled upon returning in May, although he produced a tremendous August with a 1.116 OPS. That said; Seager finished with a .675 OPS in September.
Defensively, the Mariners were among the worst teams in the majors. Players with the most notorious defensive reputations were outfielders Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana, infielder Tim Beckham, and catcher Omar Narváez.
Santana’s productivity at the plate made defensive lapses more tolerable. But injuries inevitably derailed the latter part of the 27-year-old’s lone season with Seattle.
Among 167 infielders with 100-plus attempts in the field, Beckham’s -9 infield OOA ranked in the bottom-10. Crawford eventually replaced the Georgian before an 80-game PED suspension ended his season.
Similarly, advanced metrics suggested Narváez was one the worst defensive catchers with the Venezuelan rating particularly poorly at pitch framing.
Despite the overall dismal performance by position players, there were bright spots worth highlighting.
Murphy led all regulars with a 129 OPS+ (league-average is 100). The Buffalo alum also demonstrated meaningful power with 18 home runs in 75 games.
Austin Nola made his MLB debut at age-29, delivering outstanding results: 10 home runs and .269/.342/.454 with a 115 OPS+ in 73 games. The former LSU Tiger primarily played first base, although he made starts at second and third base, right field, and his favored position – catcher.
September call-up Kyle Lewis played just 18 games, yet managed to hit six home runs and five doubles.
It was a difficult year for Seattle’s pitching staff also.
Mariners 2019 Pitching
Only three pitchers made 20-plus starts for the team – Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, and Mike Leake. The team dealt Leake at the trade deadline, while Félix Hernández made 15 starts between IL stints.
Gonzales anchored the staff, pacing starters in every significant category. The former Gonzaga Bulldog set career highs for starts (34) and innings (203) and was one of only 15 pitchers to log 200-plus frames.
Among starters with 150-plus innings, only Boston’s Rick Porcello (5.52) had a worse ERA than Kikuchi did (5.48). The southpaw’s .344 xwOBA also placed him in the bottom 10-percent in MLB.
Most observers expected former top-100 prospect Justus Sheffield would join the rotation by mid-season. However, Sheffield struggled so much at Class-AAA Tacoma the organization re-assigned the 23-year-old to Double-A.
The bullpen was extremely volatile with a league-leading 22 pitchers throwing 10-plus innings in a relief role. Still, several relievers did perform relatively well.
Austin Adams posted a .247 xwOBA – eleventh best in MLB among relievers facing 100-plus batters. Unfortunately, late-season knee surgery likely sidelines Adams several months into the 2020 campaign.
Rule 5 selection Brandon Brennan was another pleasant surprise. The only hiccup in the right-hander’s rookie campaign was a shoulder injury costing him six weeks. Still, Brennan posted the bullpen’s best xwOBA after returning in early August.
The exodus of talent this offseason was much lower than last year for two reasons. The club was in a different stage of its rebuild. Besides, there wasn’t much talent left to trade.
There were few offseason acquisitions, but the club parted ways with several Opening Day starters – Beckham, Santana, and Narváez. Also gone, arguably the best pitcher in franchise history – King Félix.
Among the players listed below, Nestor Cortes Jr. was the only trade acquisition. Everyone else was a free agent signing except for a trio of waiver wire pickups – Sam Haggerty, Phillips Valdéz, and Nick Margevicius.
The team’s biggest offseason moves were agreeing to contract extensions with Gonzales and Evan White.
Extending Gonzales was a no-brainer, but White’s deal was surprising. Seattle committed six years and $24 million to the first base prospect with just four games above the AA-level.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, White will be the Opening Day first baseman. Prospect Insider’s most recent rankings place the former first rounder in the organization’s top-10.
White hasn’t demonstrated prototypical first base power. But there’s no questioning the 23-year-old’s Gold Glove potential.
Shed Long projects to be the everyday second baseman. In 42 games last season, Long hit 12 doubles and .263/.333/.454. The Alabama native’s hit tool has never been in question, but his position in the field has.
A former catching prospect, Long started double-digit games at second base and in left field during his rookie season. There was talk last year about the 24-year-old morphing into a super-utility player. For now, such a role isn’t in the plan.
Shortstop belongs to Crawford in 2020. As noted last September, management needs time to assess whether he’s the club’s long-term answer at the position.
Where Gordon plays this season remains unclear. Other than a failed center field experiment in 2018, the 31-year-old has been a middle-infielder during nine big-league seasons.
Whether Seager capitalizes on his hot August and reworked physique is something we’ll learn later. Regardless, the 33-year-old will be the starting third baseman for a ninth consecutive season.
Haniger suffered a rehab setback that required surgery last month. The 29-year-old’s return date remains unknown.
The potential absence of Haniger would be devastating to teams ready to contend. Since the Mariners are rebuilding, there’s an opportunity to make lemonade out of lemons – more playing time for developing players.
Smith should be the everyday center fielder. Despite posting career lows in every slash category, the 26-year-old led the majors with 46 stolen bases.
Lewis’s 38.7-percent strikeout and 4-percent walk rates in September appear troublesome. Then again, that’s a small sample size. The 24-year-old will have the opportunity to demonstrate improved plate discipline in 2020.
After slashing .298/.365/.545 in the minors, Fraley suffered a season-ending thumb injury after just 12 games with Seattle. Haniger’s injury gives the 24-year-old a shot at being the Opening Day right fielder.
The injury bug snagged Bishop also. The former Washington Husky had just six hits in 60 plate appearances during his disappointing rookie debut.
It’s plausible highly touted outfield prospect Jarred Kelenic joins the team. Still just 20-years-old, Kelenic slashed .291/.364/.540 with 23 home runs during three minor-league stops last season.
Last year, Dipoto declared Vogelbach would be on the Opening Day roster and be afforded an opportunity to demonstrate he belonged. Now, the path to a long-term spot with the team appears narrower.
Vogelbach was particularly vulnerable to left-handers. Among MLB lefty hitters with 100-plus plate appearances versus southpaws, only Crawford had a lower batting average (.160) than Vogelbach (.161).
Adding to the drama, the 27-year-old Vogelbach is one of several players with no minor-league options remaining.
No Minor-League Options
Murphy will be the starting catcher with Nola likely serving as his backup. There currently isn’t another backstop on the 40-man roster.
It’s worth noting Murphy hasn’t played more than 116 games in a season as a professional. Last year, he appeared in 76 contests with Seattle.
Murphy’s productivity against like-handed merits watching also. The right-handed hitter’s .653 OPS versus righties was 450 points lower than his OPS when facing southpaws.
Turning our attention to the rotation, Gonzales tops the staff. However, uncertainty surrounds the remaining favorites for spots 2-4.
Kikuchi tossed recorded 11 outings of six-plus innings, including a complete game. However, inconsistency and home runs plagued the Japanese import throughout the season.
The prevailing belief is Kikuchi rebounds in 2020 thanks to his talent and determination to improve. That said; measurable growth and sustained success this year benefits both player and team long-term.
Kendall Graveman was Oakland’s Opening Day starter in 2017 and 2018. Unfortunately, he underwent Tommy John surgery in July 2018. Last year, the 29-year-old only pitched six innings in the minors for the Cubs. For this reason, expect the club to establish workload restrictions.
Dunn was a September call-up, but he struggled with control during his first two starts. Still, the former Boston College Eagle did perform better during his final two outings walking just one in four innings.
Churchill recently expressed concern regarding Dunn’s viability as a starter. Depending on his development, the Freeport, New York native may eventually morph into a high-leverage reliever. Then again, Jason was careful to reiterate there’s no rush to decide the 24-year-old’s ultimate role.
Margevicius made 12 starts with San Diego last year, positing an unsightly 6.41 ERA and .366 xwOBA. But it’s important to note the southpaw didn’t pitch above High-A prior to making the Friar’s Opening Day rotation.
Cortes has starting experience, although the Yankees and Orioles used him more often in relief. Similarly, Valdéz bounced between starting and relieving with the Rangers. How to the pair fits with the Mariners will unfold during the season.
Chen was a starter prior to 2019, but a UCL injury limited him to just 31 starts in 2017-18. Considering Miami released the Taiwan native despite still owing him $22 million a starting role may be a reach.
Yoshihisa Hirano and Carl Edwards Jr. should comprise the bullpen’s back-end. Hirano served primarily as a late-inning arm during his rookie campaign in 2018. Last year, the 35-year-old slipped to a middle-relief role.
Still, Hirano’s 53 innings would’ve led Mariners relievers last season. Moreover, his .296 xwOBA suggests a bounce back is possible.
Edwards endured an injury-plagued season with the Cubs and Diamondbacks. Obviously, the Mariners believe the 28-year-old, who’s a season removed from a .282 xwOBA, can regain his form with his new team.
Potential candidates to round out the bullpen include Magill, Tuivailala, Brennan, Grotz, Dan Altavilla, Taylor Guilbeau, Yohan Ramirez, Gerson Bautista, Art Warren, Sam Delaplane, Erik Swanson, and perhaps Dunn, Cortes, and Valdéz.
Rotation depth remains perilously thin. One often mentioned option to help is former Mariner and current free agent Taijuan Walker.
A reunion with Walker would please fans looking for a good news story. But it’s unclear how much the former first rounder may contribute to any club this year.
Walker made just three starts in 2018 before needing Tommy John surgery. Last year, a shoulder ailment slowed his rehab limiting the 27-year-old to just one inning at any level. As with Graveman, the righty faces strict workload limitations in 2020.
Even if Walker rejoined the Mariners, adding a veteran capable of serving as a starter or multi-inning reliever would help. Free agent Tommy Milone fit that bill for Seattle last season. Perhaps a second act from the former USC Trojan or a similar pitcher happens.
Considering the arduous nature of the position, adding organizational catcher depth would appear to be a priority.
A veteran presence could potentially remove unneeded pressure on the club’s stable of young outfielders. There’s a wide array of notable names available on the free agent market including former Mariners Jarrod Dyson, Leonys Martín, and Cameron Maybin, Kevin Pillar, Juan Lagares, and Yasiel Puig.
These and other free agent outfielders vary greatly in age, skill set, and expectations for playing time. For now, the Mariners appear comfortable with their current situation. Perhaps a change of heart occurs once management reassesses Haniger’s physical readiness in Peoria.
It’s understandable that Gordon will want to play regularly. However, the opportunity may not afford itself in Seattle. The optimal outcome for both player and club may be a trade.
Considering Gordon’s recent below-average production and his $14 million salary, moving him won’t be easy. Then again, Dipoto managed to move a lot of money last year.
There are few pending free agents on the 40-man roster. But Hirano certainly would garner interest with a rebound. The same applies to Edwards, who’s under club control through 2022.
Pending Free Agents
|* Club Option For 2021|
Dipoto could conceivably peddle other players this summer. If Haniger returns and delivers production reminiscent to his 2018 All-Star campaign, he’d pique the interest of contenders.
Depending on the growth of the club’s young outfielders, Dipoto could consider dealing Smith. Then again, Smith himself is still young and under club control through 2022.
Any reliever delivering solid results is a potential trade chip. This applies to any seller at the deadline.
Dipoto has suggested it’s possible he begins adding major-league talent via trade this summer. While this sounds great to fans in February, it’s important they consider what this strategy means. To add established players, the team will likely have to offload some prospects.
I’m not suggesting Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, and Julio Rodriguez will be dealt as Adam Jones was over a decade ago. However, names fans have fallen in love with despite never seeing them play may be on the move. It’s all part of a rebuild process expected to make the club viable in 2021.
The Mariners won’t appear on anyone’s list for winning the offseason. However, Seattle can still make significant progress in 2020 without improving in the win-loss column.
All that’s needed is measurable development from the Mariners’ crop of young players. This would be an important victory for an organization expecting to become relevant in the standings within 18 months.
My Oh My…