Why the Mariners look ready for a free-agent splash
Seattle Mariners shortstop J.P. Crawford Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Mariners closed the book on what turned out to be a roughly two-year rebuild with a 90-win season that saw them fight for a wild-card berth up until the final series of the season. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto will add aggressively this winter.

Guaranteed Contracts

  • Marco Gonzales, LHP: $24M through 2024 (contract includes $15M club option for 2025 with no buyout)
  • Evan White, 1B: $21.4M through 2025 (includes $2M buyout of $10M club option for 2026; contract also includes 2027-28 club options)
  • Ken Giles, RHP: $5.5M through 2022 (includes $500K buyout of $9.5M club option for 2023)
  • Chris Flexen, RHP: $2.75M through 2022 (contract includes $4M* club option for 2023)
  • Total 2022 commitment: $14.65M
  • Total long-term commitments: $53.65M

*=Flexen’s option price doubles to $8M with 300 total innings from 2021-22; he pitched 179 2/3 innings in 2021.

Arbitration-Eligible Players (projected salaries via MLBTR contributor Matt Swartz)

Option Decisions

  • Declined $20M option on 3B Kyle Seager in favor of $2M buyout
  • Declined four-year, $66M option on LHP Yusei Kikuchi; Kikuchi declined $13M player option to become free agent

Free Agents

Over the past three years, the Mariners have traded James Paxton, Omar Narvaez, Robinson Cano, Edwin Diaz, Jean Segura, Edwin Encarnacion, Roenis Elias, Austin Nola, Austin Adams and Kendall Graveman with an eye toward the future. This year’s deadline trade sending Graveman to the division-rival Astros in exchange for five years of control over Abraham Toro could go down as the final forward-looking, “big picture” trade of a veteran for young talent.

After all, the Mariners were in playoff contention until the very end of the year. They fell just shy of their first postseason appearance in two decades — the longest drought in Major League Baseball — but the performance of the young core acquired by Dipoto and Co. sets the stage for an active offseason.

One change that appears certain lies at third base. Kyle Seager, the heart and soul of this Mariners club for many years, fought back tears when manager Scott Servais pulled him from the ninth inning of Seattle’s final game. In one of the more emotional moments of the year throughout all of MLB (video link), the home fans chanted Seager’s name as the dugout emptied, and he hugged and bid farewell to the only team he’s known. Seager was given the third base bag and took a curtain call clutching it over his head as he thanked a raucous fan base.

It’s almost symbolic, in a bittersweet way for fans, that this turning of the page coincides with the face of the Mariners for the past several seasons likely leaving. Seager’s $20M option was declined at season’s end, and while a reunion can’t be expressly ruled out, the scene at T-Mobile Park on Oct. 3 certainly had the feel of a goodbye.

There’s no “replacing” a player this revered and beloved in the clubhouse — shortstop J.P. Crawford could scarcely speak when praising Seager after that final game — but Seager’s likely departure leaves an opening in the lineup. The aforementioned Toro could step in to an everyday role in that spot but can also play second. Similarly, Ty France has experience at third base but is a better defender at first or second base.

Given how little the Mariners have on the books in 2022, there’s really no free agent who should be off-limits. Seattle has only $14.65M in guaranteed 2022 contracts, and the arbitration class should only bump that number to around $40M. This is the same ownership group that averaged an Opening Day payroll of $152.1M from 2017-19.

Dipoto has already said this winter that he’ll prioritize “adaptable” free agents — those who are comfortable moving around if need be. He name-checked both Marcus Semien and Javier Baez when making those comments, instantly making each a potential fit. Kris Bryant is another such option — a possible everyday third baseman who could fill in as needed across the diamond or at any of the three outfield spots. Old friend Chris Taylor, meanwhile, has built a career on being “adaptable.”

What’s become clear is that there’s little interest in displacing Crawford at shortstop. The 26-year-old (27 in January) won a Gold Glove in 2020 and has cemented himself as a quality defender with an improving bat (.273/.338/.376 in 2021). Dipoto has already informed Crawford that the Mariners see him as the everyday shortstop. Perhaps Crawford would be amenable to sliding elsewhere if the Mariners got serious in a pursuit of Carlos Correa, but it seems far likelier they’ll make a run at players in the Bryant/Semien/Baez/Taylor tiers. Trevor Story is also in that “second” tier of free-agent shortstops and could feasibly improve his market by showing an openness to second base.

While Crawford, France and Toro each have 2022 spots locked down, Evan White’s future is less certain. The 25-year-old was the No. 17 pick in 2017 and inked a six-year, $24M contract with three club options before making his MLB debut. So far, he’s struggled to a .165/.235/.308 slash in the majors. It’s only 304 plate appearances, however, and White was surely hampered by a 2021 hip injury that required surgery. There’s still room for him to be a part of the future — he’s earning just $1.4M in 2022 — but it’s tough to pencil him into the Opening Day lineup in a win-now season, especially with France’s breakout at first.

The Mariners don’t have a set DH and could use that spot as an opportunity to add even more offense — a Nelson Cruz reunion would be well-received by fans, for instance — but there’s no indication that’s a priority. In fact, keeping the DH spot relatively free may be of particular importance as the team hopes for better health from 2020 Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis.

A career .258/.343/.450 hitter (121 wRC+) through his first 464 MLB plate appearances, Lewis was limited to 36 games this year after undergoing surgery to repair a right meniscus tear. It’s not the first time he’s encountered right knee troubles; Lewis suffered a dual meniscus tear and ACL tear in that same knee in 2016. Setting aside some occasional DH reps for him could have obvious benefits.

Beyond Lewis, the M’s have two of the game’s most highly touted young outfielders in Jarred Kelenic and the yet-to-debut Julio Rodriguez. Kelenic struggled in his first taste of the majors but improved with a .233/.304/.455 line following the trade deadline and a .248/.331/.524 showing over his final month. Rodriguez, meanwhile, posted a ludicrous .347/.441/.560 line between Class-A Advanced and Double-A. He’s considered a top five prospect in all of baseball and could debut in early 2022.

Even after the trio of Lewis, Kelenic and Rodriguez, the Mariners are deep. Taylor Trammell had his own struggles during his 2021 debut, but he’s another now-former top 100 prospect who posted solid numbers in Triple-A (.263/.362/.456) and only recently turned 24. Jake Fraley didn’t hit for average but was an OBP machine who walked in more than 17% of his plate appearances. Of course, veteran right fielder Mitch Haniger returned from a harrowing sequence of fluke injuries to crush a career-high 39 home runs.

Haniger’s name has been bandied about the rumor circuit for years now, and there will surely be fans and pundits who speculate on his availability once again now that he’s a year from free agency. However, it’d be difficult to move him when he’s projected for a palatable $8.5M salary and was a key middle-of-the-lineup presence in 2021. Seattle’s aim this winter is to deepen the lineup, and a trade of Haniger would run counter to that thinking. Dipoto is an open-minded baseball ops leader and could at least listen to offers, but a Haniger extension seems more prudent to explore than a possible trade.

Behind the plate, the M’s have a trio of options. Tom Murphy gives them a veteran who has had some big league success, while either Cal Raleigh or Luis Torrens could be a long-term solution. That depth could draw the interest of other clubs in need of catching help, with the Marlins standing out as a team that could entice the Mariners with some starting pitching.

The rotation will be a focus for Seattle this winter. Marco Gonzales shook off a terrible April, returning from a five-week IL stint to log a 3.60 ERA in his final 115 frames. Last winter’s low-cost dice roll on KBO breakout Chris Flexen was an overwhelming success, as Flexen turned in a 3.61 ERA over 179 2/3 innings. Top prospect Logan Gilbert had a rough patch in the middle of the season but was dominant down the stretch, pitching to a 2.70 ERA over his final six starts. With a 4.68 ERA overall and terrific strikeout and walk rates, he earned a spot in 2022.

After that trio, there’s not as much certainty. Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn were notable acquisitions during the rebuild but might be looking at bullpen roles in the future given their struggles and a slate of impressive prospects yet to come. First-rounders George Kirby and Emerson Hancock are still on the rise, and 2019 second-rounder Brandon Williamson has only seen his stock soar since the draft. Matt Brash dominated in the minors and has likely already made the Padres regret parting with him in a trade to acquire Taylor Williams.

Even with all those prospects nearing the big leagues, the Mariners’ win-now mantra will push them to bring in some established veterans. With so much payroll space, there’s reason to think the Mariners could ink one of the top pitchers on the market even after signing a free-agent bat. However, the safer bet may be to add some solid mid-rotation arms as opposed to the type of $100M+ deals that could be commanded by Max Scherzer, Robbie Ray, Kevin Gausman and Marcus Stroman.

The market has plenty of options, including Jon Gray, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood and Steven Matz. If the Mariners are open to some risk, Carlos Rodon was one of the game’s best starters when healthy this season but ended the year with some concerning shoulder troubles. A team in Seattle’s spot could view Rodon’s late injury flags as a means of buying a possible No. 1 starter at a discount. The downside is obvious with a pitcher who managed just 36 innings in the final 10 weeks of the season and saw a rapid drop in his fastball velocity, but with so many prospects providing depth, perhaps the Mariners can take that chance.

This is the first time under Dipoto that the Mariners are likely to be more active in free agency than in trades, but there’s probably a limit to how much they’ll spend on the open market. With the need for a big bat and at least one — if not two — rotation spots open, the Mariners will surely explore that route. By now, it’s well-known that names like Luis Castillo, Sonny Gray, Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas, Pablo Lopez, Elieser Hernandez, Merrill Kelly and others could be available on the trade market.

That said, fans of other clubs dreaming up scenarios to acquire the likes of Rodriguez, Noelvi Marte, Kirby, Hancock and other Seattle top prospects may want to pump the brakes. Dipoto said at the GM meetings last week that there’s “no scenario” where he’ll move the very top prospects in his organization (link via Corey Brock of The Athletic). Seattle has Baseball America’s top-ranked farm system though, so there’s plenty of value even in the middle tiers that could be used in trades. It’s also plausible that a controllable player without a clear path to playing time (e.g., Trammell, Fraley) could be part of a package for immediate help — be it in the lineup, the rotation or the bullpen.

Of course, the Mariners’ need for relief pitching is less acute, especially if Sheffield and Dunn join this mix. Breakout righty Paul Sewald went from a struggling Mets depth piece to a powerhouse closing option who fanned nearly 40% of his 2021 opponents. The M’s struck gold on a minor league deal for Drew Steckenrider and picked up a big-time righty from the Rays at the deadline in Diego Castillo. Former All-Star Ken Giles will join that trio in 2022 when he returns from Tommy John surgery. Casey Sadler won’t repeat his ridiculous 0.67 ERA but has locked a spot down. Seattle also received promising showings from Erik Swanson and Yohan Ramirez, and the team will have a full season of Andres Munoz and his triple-digit heater now that he’s back from Tommy John surgery.

If there’s one area the Mariners are lacking, it’s a lefty. A pursuit of Andrew Chafin or Aaron Loup seems sensible, and this is another area where a trade might make sense. The M’s could also look at Sheffield here and/or give Anthony Misiewicz a bigger look. Misiewicz’s 4.61 ERA isn’t eye-catching, but he had better marks from metrics like FIP and SIERA.

However the Mariners choose to attack the offseason, it’s unlikely to look like any we’ve previously seen since Dipoto took the reins in Seattle. He’s preferred to operate primarily on the trade market, but the Mariners have gotten to that sweet spot where their squeaky-clean payroll outlook overlaps with an elite farm that is teeming with MLB-ready talent. The nexus of those two enviable characteristics should open the door for considerable spending this winter and perhaps another big swing on the trade front. The Mariners are veritable locks to add at least one impact bat (likely in the infield) and figure to be active in bolstering the rotation.

With the Athletics going into an obvious rebuild, the Rangers still working to emerge from their own building phase and the Astros perhaps bidding farewell to free agent Carlos Correa, the Mariners’ time is now. They know it, and so does the rest of the industry. It’s going to be a fun offseason for Seattle fans.

This article first appeared on MLB Trade Rumors and was syndicated with permission.

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