(Photo of Jarred Kelenic by Mark Wagner/Arkansas Travelers)
Seattle Mariners fans have endured enough, which is an understatement, and something that could have been said way back in 1988. And again in 1998, 2009, 2014, and every year since.
There’s a faction of the fan base that is behind the rebuild, has spent the time to inform themselves and see it for what it is. There’s also a faction of the dwindling fan base that doesn’t want to spend time on a team that hasn’t won anything at all since 2001 and hasn’t even won 90 games since 2003, and that’s more than understandable.
The latter group isn’t likely to react much, if at all, to small potatoes. They don’t care about the acquisition of Kendall Graveman or even the contract extension doled out to Evan White. They don’t want to hear about the improved player development or the draft or how the club is going about things the right way.
This collection has fan’d through a constantly-rebuilding Mariners team. That’s their reality. It’s not true, but that’s been their experience for the last 15-plus seasons.
They want more big-league victories. They want big-time player acquisitions. Money spent on good players. Meaningful performances in the major leagues and more telling evidence the Mariners are on the right track, because they’ve been told that very thing so many times before.
So let’s discuss in general terms the top rebuild models, the most important players and when the club might start making moves that add winning players to the roster via trade or free agency.
1. Atlanta Braves
The Braves’ model ranks No. 1 for me because the steps taken the first year-plus are nearly identical. Seattle, like Atlanta, has maximized current assets for future value yet have not moved their top proven players for the sake of it. The Mariners, as of December 31, 2019, still employ Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and Kyle Seager, despite making several deals the past 15 months to acquire young talent and create future payroll flexibility.
The Braves spent years acquiring young players through the draft, trade and the international market, but kept Freddie Freeman along for the ride. Now he’s a big part of a Wold Series contender.
Atlanta, however, still has a lot of talent in the minors and available financial resources to supplement their big-league roster and are starting to use some of it, all while keeping a young group of players as the core.
2. Chicago White Sox
The White Sox are a year or two behind Atlanta and a year or two ahead of Seattle. But we’re seeing the past two years — mostly this winter — the Sox are taking aggressive steps to better their major-league roster, including the signings of Dallas Keuchel, Yasmani Grandal, and Gio Gonzalez to add to their young talent that won 72 games in 2019.
3. Cincinnati Reds
Similar to the White Sox, the Reds won 75 games in 2019 but see an opportunity and started that process last year with the acquisitions of Sonny Gray and Trevor Bauer. They’ve added Mike Moustakas and Wade Miley this winter and appear to be after at least one more bat.
4. San Diego Padres
The Padres started rebuilding after the 2014 season with GM A.J. Preller at the helm. They won 72 games in ’14, then 72 in 2015, 72 in 2016, 59 in 2017 and 65 in 2018. But the sword is out of its scabbard in San Diego, despite a 70-win campaign in 2019, thanks to the emergence of young players such as Fernando Tatis Jr. and the signing of free agents Manny Machado and Drew Pomeranz.
The Padres have veterans, including Machado, Eric Hosmer and a handful of arms, but their success, immediate and future, is about the young core.
It’s not as ideal and accurate a model as the first three, but the Padres have made a big-ticket free agent acquisition and Seattle will be able to do that, too, if the right free agent is available and has legitimate market-price (ish) interest, unlike the Braves, White Sox and Reds, at least so far.
5. Arizona Diamondbacks
The Diamondbacks’ rebuild has been strange and only serves as a model for other rebuilds, including Seattle, in one way, and that’s the trading of quality veterans to acquire quality young talent and avoid the Astros-style rebuild that comes with inherently more risk and takes a lot longer to accomplish.
Arizona won 93 games in 2017, but rather than simply build on that, they took a step back, were conservative for a year, then spent the following nine months trading a few key veterans for future answers.
They went 82-80 in 2018, then 85-77 in 2019 and are staring at a chance to break through in 2020.
The D-Backs 2017 club resembles the Mariners’ ’89-win 18 team in many ways. Some pricey veterans, a few quality young talents, but weren’t good enough to add complementary pieces and make a run at 100 wins to catch the Dodgers, so a quick retool was in order.
Seattle, at the time in 2018, didn’t have the near-ready prospects or young impact players on the roster Arizona did in 2017, so the turnaround is going to take an additional year, maybe two, but while Seattle moved Robinson Cano and his contract, let Nelson Cruz walk, traded James Paxton and Mike Zunino and dealt Edwin Diaz off an elite reliever season, the Diamondbacks let J.D. Martinez bolt via free agency, traded Paul Goldschmidt for their immediate & future catcher and a mid-rotation starter, dealt Zack Greinke and his contract, and have spent the 2019-20 offseason looking to add pieces to a team that may be capable of 90 wins or more in 2020, not to mention a window of opportunity that may last 3-4 seasons.
1. Logan Gilbert
Gilbert is currently the organization’s best chance at top-of-the-rotation starter and his floor as a mid-rotation innings eater is as important any floor in the entire farm system. But Gilbert ranks No. 1 here because his success in general is more important to Seattle’s rebuild and preferred timeline than any other individual prospect.
Impact starting pitching is hard to acquire; it costs a ton in trade and metric ton to acquire via free agency, despite being the riskiest proposition in the game. But if the Mariners want to win anytime in the next three years, they’ll need multiple impact starters to emerge and they’ll likely need at least one, if not two, to come from within. Gilbert is not only their best shot among the current prospects, he’s the one closest to the majors.
2. Justus Sheffield
Sheffield isn’t far off from Gilbert and comes with more pro experience and about a half season of big-league time. He also comes with more risk, both in terms of performance and role. But Sheffield proving to be a mid-rotation starter (or better, of course) would be an enormous development for Seattle moving forward.
3. Justin Dunn
Dunn’s status here isn’t as vital as Gilbert or Sheffield, but if he reaches his ceiling he could end up replacing either of the aforementioned arms in the whole process. Dunn just happens to come with more role risk than either Sheffield or Gilbert, but he also projects very well in a bullpen role, having shown 95-99 mph velocity as a reliever in college.
One could argue, and I’m one ‘one’ that is doing just that, Dunn has more value to Seattle in the bullpen than as a No. 4 or 5 starter, so if the mid-rotation upside isn’t looking realistic, the Mariners probably make the move they did with Diaz in 2016. And for the record, Dunn has a better slider than Diaz when the Mariners made that move, and has the same kind of upside in that role.
4. Cal Raleigh
Catching is tough to find. Good catchers are nearly impossible to unearth, and if Raleigh ends up average defensively he’ll be a significant asset for the Mariners for years, one that could trigger a few more wins out of the 2021 and/or 2022 clubs than would otherwise be plausible.
Kelenic may be able to handle center field for awhile early in his career and the bat likely plays anywhere. He’s 20, has Double-A experience already and he and Rodriguez both are overflowing with the kind of confidence and makeup that often end in stardom.
Corner outfielders are much easier to acquire. The supply outweighs the demand in every market pretty much every year. But the middle of the field is a different story. Kelenic could be the regular in center for the next good Mariners club, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he made a Kyle Lewis-like plunge into the majors in 2020.
When Should the Mariners Start Buying?
While there are still nearly six weeks until pitchers and catchers report, and three months til the 2020 season opener, it’s been a quiet offseason for Dipoto’s Mariners, by any measure.
So, the question ultimately becomes: When do the Mariners become buyers?
The answer, or answers, may very well be layered with multiple driving factors, but the main one is that it depends on the developments in 2020.
- Does Gilbert prove he’s ready to take on a mid-rotation role or better in 2021?
- Does Sheffield OR Dunn show No. 4 or better potential for 2021?
- Does Raleigh take a step closer toward showing he’s a significant option behind the dish early in 2021?
- Can the club fill an additional everyday spot or two from within?
If at least three of the above occur, with the third and fourth being an either/or scenario, Dipoto’s probably foaming at the mouth by the All-Star break this coming summer.
Of course, I’ve been arguing the club should be more aggressive on starting pitching this winter than they have been thus far, but there’s still time to make a pretty cool upside play or two — Aaron Sanchez? Taijuan Walker? Alex Wood? Drew Smyly?
While I continue to warn against any expectations the Mariners will push the luxury tax limits anytime soon — they won’t, since they’ll be so far under it they’d need to sign four or five $25 million-per-season contracts to get anywhere close — or be competitive for the elite free agents on any kind of regular basis, the time for extending the payroll and committing big-time dollars or significant assets in order to acquire big-time players has yet to arrive.
Such efforts may not be far off, however, so fans that yearn for the exciting trade or signing that ultimately sets up the roster for a real postseason run may not be waiting much longer.