Jerry Dipoto was very upfront in his intent to get younger and faster in the outfield prior to the 2017 season. While the outfield definitely got more defensively competent—the M’s outfield jumped from 27th in defensive runs saved in 2016 all the way up to 5th in the 2017 season—there was an obvious and detrimental tradeoff.
As you may expect, Jarrod Dyson was in large part responsible for the massive increase in DRS—he single-handedly contributed 15 DRS—as well as the decrease in wRC+. While his 85 wRC+ diluted the team figure a bit, his baserunning ability contributed massively, and helped prop up a solid 2.1 fWAR season.
With Dyson set for free agency, there’s an elite defender/baserunner-sized hole left in the lineup, something that Dipoto has already acknowledged will need to be addressed this offseason:
Dipoto confirms they will add an outfielder, does not have to be a CF. Confident in Haniger in center.— Shannon Drayer (@shannondrayer) October 3, 2017
I’d be a little shocked to see the team actually commit to using Haniger as the everyday centerfielder, especially given him having to fight through several ailments in his first full season. That said, if the team wants to find a happy medium between “baserunning and defense” and “actually can hit”, giving Haniger a go in center and bringing in a more offense-oriented (while not “Nelson Cruz” bad at defense) outfielder to hide in a corner could make sense, which significantly expand the pool of eligible options.
Expensive Impact Outfielders
OF JD Martinez
Martinez turned out to be the big offensive prize of the trade deadline when he was acquired by the D-Backs. Now, he looks to be one of the biggest pieces on the market this offseason, and will likely cash in on a 3.8 win, injury-shortened season. Martinez, who has been a bit of a trainwreck defensively in the outfield, would mandate a move of Mitch Haniger to center field; however, his bat—he falls between Nelson Cruz and Paul Goldschmidt in wRC+ from 2015 - 2017—would justify taking such a risk. It would be a bit surprising to see the M’s make a serious run at the slugger considering their need for a frontline starting pitcher, but if they’re willing to opt for a lower cost option at first base, you can squint and see a world where Jerry is able to break the bank this offseason with his job potentially on the line.
OF Justin Upton
The Mariners made a run at Upton back in 2013, and had a megadeal in place before Upton rejected a trade to Seattle. With an entirely new front office and roster in place, Upton who was with the D-Backs during Jerry Dipoto’s tenure there, would be a huge get for any team this offseason, but he’ll need to opt out of his current contract before that could happen, and with him set to make upwards of $22 million for the next four years, he may be better off sticking around in L.A. than hitting the market as a 30-year old. Even if he does opt out, he’ll presumably look to upgrade on his current deal, which should drive him right out of the M’s budget. [Ed. note: also, suck it, JUps]
OF Lorenzo Cain
Cain represents one of the few guys on this list that come even close to Jarrod Dyson’s skillset, and while he isn’t quite the weapon Dyson is in the outfield or on the basepaths, he’s better than most, and his bat would be a significant upgrade over Dyson’s. Last offseason, Dexter Fowler was able to land a five year deal ~$16million per year after back-to-back seasons of 3.2 and 4.6 wins for the Cubs. Cain, who is coming off of a 4.1 fWAR season that followed a 2.5 win 2016 campaign, will hit free agency one year older than Fowler did, but with a recent history of a higher ceiling, topping out a 6.5 fWAR in 2015. Cain is a more natural fit than Martinez or Upton, as his ability to man centerfield would allow Mitch Haniger to stay in right field as opposed to sliding to center, where he logged just 28.0 innings last season. Several outlets have listed the M’s as a landing spot for Cain’s services here early on in the offseason, and you can expect to hear his named linked to the team all winter long. Thanks to his defensive prowess and offensive abilities, Cain will most likely be the most handsomely recompensed outfielder available this off-season, which might put him beyond what the Mariners are willing to pay, to say nothing of the draft pick/international spending money he’d cost.
Aging Former All-Stars
OF Michael Brantley
Brantley, should Cleveland decline his club option for the 2018 season, would have been a strong candidate for the largest contract this offseason were he able to stay healthy for even a majority of Cleveland’s games the last two seasons. Instead, Brantley could be in the market for a short-term, “prove it” deal to re-establish some value and make his case for one last big payday. If the Mariners grow more and more comfortable as other outfield candidates come off the market, a regular role on a team expected to compete in 2018 could be attractive for the Bellevue native. Brantley’s inability to stay on the field might just deter several teams this offseason, and unless he’s coming at a significant hometown discount, the Mariners would probably be better suited to stay away.
OF Carlos Gonzalez
After racking up 16.1 fWAR from 2010 - 2013, Gonzalez managed 3.8 fWAR from 2014 - 2017, missing 139 games along the way. He actually had a couple of pretty solid seasons in 2015 and 2016 sandwiched between a -0.5 win season (2014) and a -0.2 win season (2017). Like the previously mentioned Michael Brantley, Gonzalez is a good candidate to receive a one year deal to re-establish a little value. Also like Brantley, the M’s don’t seem to be good fit for his services unless they have a very dependable backup in place behind it. Everyone is waiting to see not if the bottom is about to fall off with Gonzalez, but when.
OF Jay Bruce
After a string of unimpressive seasons for the Reds and Mets that saw Bruce middling between -0.8 - 0.9 fWAR, Bruce seemingly re-found his stroke this season, splitting time with the Mets and Indians. His defense is actually playable in the outfield, but he too would likely require a position change for Mitch Haniger. With Bruce currently in the midst of playing the role of “playoff hero” for the Indians, he’s looking like a strong bet to wind up back there in 2018.
OF Jose Bautista
Many M’s fans were clamoring for Bautista’s services last offseason, and holy cow did we dodge a bullet. After consistently being one of the most feared hitters in baseball for the better part of a decade, Bautista came out and tripped over his new $18 million deal to fall flat on his face in 2017. After the sendoff he received in his final home game with Toronto, Bautista appears to be headed elsewhere for 2018, although he better be ready to take a fat pay cut in order to do so. With the negative value he brings to the table defensively, committing even a decent sized chunk of change--not to mention a roster spot--to the soon-to-be 37-year old looks even more unlikely than last offseason.
OF Carlos Gomez
After a short run as one of the most valuable players in baseball that included a 7.4 fWAR 2013--good for 5th in all of baseball--Gomez has settled nicely into being an above-average hitter, although his defense has fallen from elite to simply “meh”. Gomez, who consistently runs a K% of ~30%, has also been unable to play in 120 games in any of the last three seasons. As such, he doesn’t quite seem to fit the prototype for what the M’s will be on the hunt for this winter.
OF Curtis Granderson
I almost didn’t bother including Granderson at all because he’s been sooo bad this season, and then I realized...he really hasn’t. While he has posted months with wRC+’s of 3, 79, and 70 this season, he’s also checked in with months where he posted a mark of 129, 196, 133, and 110. While he is no longer excellent as a center fielder, he makes for a more than capable right fielder, and could fill the center field void passably at least if Haniger isn’t able to take to the position like some hope he can. While he has fared better against righties, he’s got a career 87 wRC+ vs left-handed pitchers, making him a solid candidate for everyday duties. Add in his durability--he’s missed significant time due to injury just once in his 13-year MLB career--and that looks like a pretty solid fallback plan at worst. If Granderson, who will turn 37 next season, is still looking to start for a competitive team, a reunion in Seattle with ex-teammate Robinson Cano might just make sense for both parties.
OF Michael Saunders (technically should have been part of the last group)
After his lone full season in Toronto during which he won over Blue Jays fans on the way to an All-Star appearance, Michael Saunders was DFA’d halfway through his one year, $9million deal with the Phillies, during which he was worth -0.7 fWAR. After latching back on with the Jays on a minor league deal, Condor was called upon for just 20 plate appearances down the stretch. The western Canada native, who will turn 31 this offseason, was a valuable offensive contributor for the Mariners from 2012 - 2014, and although he had nice things to say about his time in Seattle in this Ryan Divish piece from July of 2016, he also mentioned that he “felt like he found a home” in Toronto. Saunders is serviceable in either corner outfield spot, but like many of the guys on this list above him, he’s on the wrong side of 30, and has a long injury history. I’d expect him to land somewhere where he won’t immediately be relied on as a starter.
OF Cameron Maybin
Maybin is one of few free agents this offseason that can rival the departing Jarrod Dyson’s abilities on the basepaths. While he’s been a touch better than Dyson offensively throughout his career, he’s defensively inferior; despite how he seemingly robbed every Mariner hitter of a base hit while terrorizing the AL West, his defensive abilities have graded out negatively on Fangraphs for the past three years. The slight edge he holds with the bat isn’t enough to make up for Dyson’s baserunning and defensive abilities. Sticking around in Houston where he acts as the primary backup outfielder makes sense for him in 2018.
OF Ben Revere
In his heydey, Revere would make for an excellent candidate to at least match the skillset of 2017 Jarrod Dyson. He’s the only guy on this list not yet in his 30’s, and as such, may be worth taking a flier on for a team in need of some help on the bases and in the outfield. The fact that he’s run a career wRC+ of just 82 makes him a good candidate to split time with a more offensively oriented outfielder with usage being dependent on situations. He’s by no means elite in centerfield, but may be more proficient there than Mitch Haniger, which would allow Haniger to stick in right field a majority of the time. Last offseason, he inked a one year deal for just $4million, indicating he likely wouldn’t be a huge financial commitment for the upcoming season, and he has a skillset that should bring value to the table regardless of whether or not the bat comes around in 2018.
OF Seth Smith
The man affectionately referred to as “Dad” was actually more valuable to the 2015 Mariners than Robinson Cano, and while something will have gone terribly wrong if that happens ever again, Smith and his 112 career wRC+ would play nicely in a part time role that limited the amount of time he spent roaming the outfield. After making $7million last season, he appears set to take a pay cut for his age 35 season—should he decide he wants to continue playing, that is. Splitting time with a more defensively gifted counterpart, like say, Ben Revere for example, would make for a valuable tandem, but carries the obvious downside of having to devote two roster spots to what essentially amounts (hopefully) to one solid player.
The approach Jerry Dipoto took in addressing the outfield for the 2017 season was a new one for this organization, and it was actually one of the more productive outfields in baseball when the projected starters were able to stay on the field. Unfortunately, the two most productive outfielders on the team combined to miss 117 games, forcing guys who were better suited to be role players into starting gigs. In a perfect world where the M’s get 150+ games out of each of their outfielders, there probably is no real outfield dilemma and retaining Dyson for 2018 would be a no-brainer. While bringing him back for next season still makes sense, the injuries to he and Haniger make betting on them to stay healthy for 2018 a bit of a risk.
While Mitch Haniger looking like a budding star, the idea of sliding him over to center field makes me cringe a little, particularly after being spoiled by Jarrod Dyson’s abilities out there. With Jerry Dipoto in the last year of his official contract, making a splash in the free agent pool for the first time since joining the organization might just be in order. I’m going to throw out a personal prediction that the M’s reel in Lorenzo Cain to add a little star power to their already star-studded infield. Doing so would be costly, but with pretty inexpensive options available at first base, look for Jerry to throw some cash at the starting rotation and center field vacancies.