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What do the Mariners need most this offseason if they hope to contend?

The Mariners need to improve. That’s gonna cost money.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

Today launches our offseason coverage in earnest, with outlines of what the Mariners can reasonably be expected to spend financially this offseason, as well as an augury of what the first move of the winter might be, and what it will portend for the rest of the Hot Stove. But first, let’s identify what exactly the Mariners need. They’ve stated they do not intend to rebuild, and Jerry Dipoto made it clear enough that that’s not what we should expect from Seattle while he’s around.

“The likelihood of ever truly considering a tear-it-down model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Dipoto said. “With that being said, there are alternatives to tear downs. When I look at tear downs, it’s ‘Everybody get out, we’re starting over.’ That doesn’t make sense because we have so many positive elements with where our teams is... But we do need to reassess where this roster is and take a look at not just 2019 but how we catch the teams that are in front of us. I don’t think the Red Sox, the Yankees, Astros or Indians are going anywhere, and, frankly, the Tampa Rays and Oakland A’s just showed us that they are real and we have to consider that. “I just don’t think you tear it down. I think it doesn’t make a lot of sense with the talent that we have. We’re not talentless. We have a ton of talent.”

Instead, Seattle will try to compete. To do so they’ll need to improve internally and externally - a tall order considering by many measurements they vastly outperformed expectations last year already. The Mariners received top-12 production by bWAR from six position groups in 2018: RP, C, 2B, SS, RF, and DH. Five of those six spots seem well-situated to at least replicate, if not improve upon their 2018 totals. A full season of Robinson Canó, who looked every bit the All-Star he has been when healthy/eligible, should boost whichever position he fills. Jean Segura and Mitch Haniger were bonafide stars, and even if Edwin Díaz can’t manage to retain his borderline impeccable form it’s a reasonable bet that the several other quality relievers for Seattle should help keep the pen afloat. Mike Zunino is a polarizing figure, but his defense is beyond reproach and his offense can scarcely go anywhere but up.

With five spots seemingly well-handled, six more raise questions. 1B, 3B, LF, and CF all delivered bottom-10 level production for Seattle, while their starting pitching ranked 17th (although a heartier 13th by the more predictive fWAR). It is these spots, as well as DH, that will require obvious improvement.

1B: Ryon or Replacemont?

Scouts can look at Ryon Healy and see the outline of a quality baseball player. They could do the same with The Undertaker, however, as both are colossal men who might struggle a bit with a slider. There will be several quality veterans available in the trade market this winter and Seattle seems well-situated to go after one. They could wait for Ryon’s BABIP and xwOBA to turn around, but another replacement-level season from the cold corner would be crushing.

3B: What’s the Right Adjustment, Kyle?

It’s been two years since Kyle Seager was a great hitter but in just 2017 we saw a still-capable offensive player deliver his typical defensive excellence. A yearlong slump later, shifting and bone separated from toe tissue set Seager up as a question mark. An improved backup and perhaps the occasional spell from Robinson Canó could grant him better rest, but larger offseason adjustments are needed for Kyle to return to form. The Mariners may not have their next 3B in the system until Noelvi Marte, so it’s SeaBoss or bust.

LF: Platoon or Performer?

This “hole” is the source of the least consternation in the group to me. Seattle will likely decline Denard Span’s $12 Million option and pay his $4 Million option. They’ll do that in part because Ben Gamel was nearly his clone in terms of on-field results. Gams is an acceptable everyday guy if the team is willing to commit resources elsewhere. If Chris Prieto’s sliding lessons with Guillermo Heredia’s continue through the offseason, he can make a dependable 4th OF and LF platooner yet. Once again, a more capable utility option than Andrew Romine would make a difference here too.

CF: The Offseason’s Keystone

This is the offseason’s most important decision. Does Dee Gordon return to center field full-time in his second year in Seattle? If the answer is yes, A. I’ll be surprised, and B. The 2019 Mariners may look extremely similar to 2018’s version.

If the team chooses NOT to continue running Dee out to center, the position becomes the clearest point of need. If Gordon takes on a utility role (my preference) Seattle would need to fill CF as well as look at 1B and SP options, but their depth would be better than any M’s team in years. If Gordon is pegged to help Canó transition to 1B, well, CF is an even greater need. AJ Pollock is the obvious fit in free agency, but a number of options in the trade market could fit as well.

SP: What Now, Félix?

When the Texas Rangers punishes pitch after helpless pitch from Félix Hernández late this summer, it was difficult to imagine things getting worse for The King. After two years of injuries and plausible deniability, the truth of his ability smacked him in the face this season, and it was tragic to watch. Félix has given all he has to give to the Mariners organization, and it seems he simply may not have any more left to give. To upgrade their roster, Seattle would be wise to add to their rotation. Paxton-Gonzales-Leake-LeBlanc-Hernández is the likeliest starting 5 at this stage, and even if Seattle’s relatively healthy rotation situation repeats that’s a quintet that falls off hard. Just as worryingly, there’s little depth behind them. To not attempt to upgrade would be, generously, tempting fate. Less generously, it would be malfeasance, but upgrading means kicking the weakest link from the rotation, and possibly the roster. Unthinkably, we all know who that would be.

As I’ve laid it out, CF, 1B, SP, and UTIL are the points where external improvement could deliver the greatest impact. How Seattle handles Dee Gordon and Robinson Canó will determine which of those needs take precedence. According to Scott Servais, the goal is a championship team that contends perennially:

“We might have to make a few changes to get to the goal, and that’s not to get to the wild card game. That’s to win postseason games and get a world championship.”

It’s hard to imagine any solution that doesn’t involve spending more on payroll than ever before. Here’s hoping.