It’s been approximately 70 hours since Shohei Ohtani chose the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, tipping the expected balance of power in the AL West and breaking the hearts of Mariners fans and Jerry Dipoto alike. Rejection stings, and when it arrives it usually brings its nastier cousin, failure. Fear of rejection and failure can be paralyzing, and it comes for us all at some point. Apparently the famously garrulous Jerry sat in silence at lunch on Friday, stunned that his efforts been in vain, and that he had lost out to the organization that effectively ran him out of town less than five years ago. Inaction is never more appealing than the moment you realize you’ve taken your best shot and come up short, but in the grisly aftermath a lone consolation is often found: clarity.
Without Ohtani, Seattle’s options are limited. The Astros are a young juggernaut and, despite the flaws in their pitching staff, the world champs should remain dominant for at least a few years. Houston, along with Cleveland, Boston, and the newly Stanton-gifted Yankees are all projected to be 90-win teams already, with moves still to be made. The Angels boast the best player in baseball, under contract for three more seasons, and Ohtani is theoretically cost-controlled through the rest of the Albert Pujols’ contract, plus an additional two years. This weekend, the rich got richer and the middle class of the American League is, as Dave Cameron argued, in a real bind. Seattle has a few paths ahead of them, but none of the choices are simple.
A continued focus on contention seems most likely. The team Jerry Dipoto has built is a different animal than 2014’s stars and scrubs roster. Steamer projects seven of the nine spots in the lineup to contribute 1.8 or more WAR. They boast a balanced offense that should be one of the best in all of baseball again, after ranking 4th in the AL in wRC+ as a team last season. Unfortunately, the pitching staff is full of holes and question marks. At least one starting pitcher needs to be added, above all else, and that will cost money and/or resources. Yu Darvish is the best available free agent pitcher, but it’s tough to say if ownership will allow Dipoto to make a long-term financial commitment, given the state of the American League. Realistically, however, now that it looks like the M’s are set on Ryon Healy at first base, Darvish is the single best shot Seattle has at sliding a foot in the door of the playoff race.
Trades are Dipoto’s preferred pathway to acquisitions, but there is a dearth of peak value players that Seattle could use to acquire a solid starter *cough* Julio Teheran *cough*. If Seattle wants a clearer shot at contending with the titans, pitching is where they need a boost, and that will cost them. Of course, even if the Spring Training facilities in Peoria have a black cat infestation and the team strolls out to practice each day under a series of ladders the injury situation cannot be as poor as 2017. Hopefully, with the addition of Dr. Lorena Martin, the emphasis on High Performance throughout the organization can have a positive impact. Seattle needs a return to elite form from stars like Kyle Seager (likely), Robinson Canó (plausible), and Felix Hernandez (doubtful). Contention is tougher to envision than ever, and throwing in the towel on this core looks enticing, but even that isn’t so simple.
James Paxton, Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Kyle Seager, Mike Zunino, and Edwin Díaz are the most valuable trade pieces the Mariners have at the MLB level right now. Collectively, if dealt to a prospect-rich contender like the Yankees, Astros, or Dodgers, Seattle could add a brand new barn to their depleted farm system. The return, however, likely wouldn’t be nearly as extravagant as what the White Sox received for Chris Sale, Adam Eaton, and their entire bullpen. The first three Mariners listed above missed significant time to injury last year, while the second trio struggled with inconsistencies despite their demonstrated potential. If you believe this is the best or healthiest they will be, it’s a no-brainer that Seattle should sell them, but there’s reason to worry that the prospect return would be disappointing. That’s not to say a rebuild couldn’t be successful, but it would be significantly hampered by a limited initial return, and changes in the CBA that limit hoarding draft picks and international signings. Houston benefited from competitive balance picks and a system that allowed them to accrue 12 first round draft picks in six years from 2010-2015. The Cubs added multiple extra first round picks too, via the old qualifying offer system. The Dodgers and Yankees built their teams in part by blowing past the soft caps on international signings and weathering the penalties to restock their farm systems, another pathway no longer available as international signings now have a hard cap. Tanking may also see diminishing returns as there look to be at least 10 teams either intentionally or unintentionally destined for a crooked number in the loss column. Seattle is in a corner, and the gluttons of the American League are pulling the ladder up out of reach.
The answer I keep coming back to, though certainly not the one I’d hope for, may simply be to play it out. Jack Zduriencik’s roster was built to peak from 2014-2017, based on the productivity of its stars. Jerry Dipoto has made moves to stretch that window and provide depth throughout the roster, to compensate for the slipping value of those big names. The Mariners don’t have a pathway to super-team status, but with a few moves to bolster the pitching staff and improved health, they are a good team. Seattle’s roster is full of players in their primes, with only 37 year-old Nelson Cruz and 32 year-old Marc Rzepczynski set for free agency after 2018. Below, you can see 19 of the 36 players on Seattle’s roster are between the ages of 25-28:
The challenge will be whether the peak performances of Dipoto’s fleet of late bloomers can compensate for the decline of the elder outliers. With $27.8 MM coming off the books after 2019 in Félix’s contract, Seattle will still sustain the same grouping of mid-to-late twenties and early thirties players with a modicum of financial flexibility. If Seattle is able to snag Darvish, or at least one more above-average starter, Seattle could have a team that remains together for the next few years and pushes playoff contention. If the team is collectively healthy, Seattle can have a playoff race on their hands and can run a similar team out over the next few seasons, as they use international free agency and the draft to restock the farm with players who should emerge by the time the current core sees their contracts expire. If some players shine while others flounder or are hurt yet again, holding the team back from success in the standings, Seattle has the opportunity to sell high on players who sustain.
Rejection stings, but life goes on, and the Mariners must too. They are built to be good-not-great now in a league with four titans and a nasty red giant in their division as well. Seattle has to improve their pitching to help their potent offense compete. The Mariners need to shoot high and be creative as they work to compete while the farm system reboots. They need creativity, health, and luck. Try new things, Jerry. There’s nothing else to lose.