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If 2021 is the Mariners’ new goal, what does that roster look like?

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Taking a step back is supposed to lead to a leap forward. When and how will that happen?

Arizona Fall League All Star Game Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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It’s a “step back”, not a rebuild. While this could be a short-term lie to soften the blow, the initial return for James Paxton and Mike Zunino seems to echo what Jerry Dipoto has claimed about the team’s trajectory. The Mariners want to contend again soon, and will be making moves with the intent of doing so. The statements have hinted at 2020-21, and I am more inclined to believe the latter date than the former in the most generous of projections. GMs hate the term “window” when referring to contention, and I agree that it’s a sloppy gauge. More accurate is the less catchy “where will they be on the win curve?” or, more directly, “when will enough of their young, league-minimum-paid players be good enough to be paired with pricier veterans and compete?” 2021 is a decent target, but once again the Mariners can’t miss on much.

Right now, Seattle looks to be as similar to its 2019 roster in 2021 as any team in the league; they will have the 2nd-highest committed payroll in 2021 of any team in MLB, per Spotrac. $80.4 million will be due to Robinson Canó, Kyle Seager, Jean Segura, Wade LeBlanc, Dee Gordon, and Mike Leake. That’s deceptive in a few ways, however.

First, Segura and Leake have both had their names swirling in trade rumors. Each has a no-trade clause, but it sounds like Leake will have a few choices for locations he’d be comfortable with, while Segura will likely be moving to a more competitive team that he deems acceptable. That will mean somewhere between $15-25 million coming off the books, depending on how much money Seattle eats to grease the transactional gears.

Secondly, beyond the Leake and Segura trades, Dee Gordon’s $14 million 2021 option vests with 600 PAs in 2020 or 1,200 in 2019+2020, which seems like something Seattle will attempt to avoid in this scenario, leaving them with just a $1 million buyout instead. Wade LeBlanc’s $5 million deal has similar qualifiers at 160 IP for each of 2020, 2021, and 2022, with a $450k buyout each season. Meanwhile, the majority of the team’s current contributors, including Marco Gonzales, Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith, and Edwin Diaz will be in their first or second year of arbitration eligibility, earning them still-cheap contracts but numbers in the millions instead of the thousands.

If all those dollar signs made your eyes glaze over, the crux is this: barring extensions, the only players on the current roster, with guaranteed deals, who are likely to remain in Seattle by 2021 are Robinson Canó and Kyle Seager. So what does the outline of that team resemble?

C: ???/Cal Raleigh/Joe DeCarlo

1B: Evan White/Robinson Canó/Ryon Healy

2B: Robinson Canó/???

3B: Kyle Seager

SS: ???/**prospect acquired via Jean Segura trade, maybe??**

OF: Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith, Ben Gamel, Braden Bishop, Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley/Julio Rodriguez/Dom Thompson-Williams

DH: Dan Vogelbach/Robinson Canó/Joey Curletta

UTIL: Dylan Moore

SP: Marco Gonzales, Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Max Povse, Anthony Misiewicz, Roenis Elías, Logan Gilbert, Wade LeBlanc, Darren McCaughen

RP: Edwin Díaz, Wyatt Mills, Joey Gerber, James Pazos, Sam Tuivailala, Dan Altavilla, Matt Festa, Art Warren, Joe Beimel Jr., some lefty for 2/$15 million for some reason

If that’s not particularly encouraging, I’m not surprised! Teams usually look bad when you spend ~$60-70 million on them, and this team doesn’t include any future acquisitions via trade or free agency, but there are a few focal points this framing highlights.

  1. The Mariners of the next couple years are going to need starting pitching to turn up from somewhere. Pulling the 1st-round potential out of Marco was a lifesaver for the present and future, but there just aren’t many starting pitchers who have even flashed MLB stuff for the M’s. The bullpen, even just including the serious names, has reason for optimism, but it remains to be seen if the reticence to trade Díaz is a front, or if it lasts beyond this winter.
  2. By acquiring Paxton’s de facto replacement in Sheffield from the Yankees, Seattle has put the trade need of Jean Segura in a strange spot. Ideally a move should bring back the Best Talent Available, but Seattle is categorically bereft of prospects above the DSL regarded as full-time future shortstops. While Dee Gordon can fill that void for a 2019 and 2020 roster that isn’t intending to compete, 2021 would be best played with an up-and-comer.
  3. Take all that and run it back for catcher. 2018 3rd-rounder Cal Raleigh might well be ready in three years, but Mariners fans are better acquainted than most with the dangers of rushing even the most offensively-skilled backstops to the bigs. Passable fill-ins behind the dish have been easier to find in free agency than shortstops in recent years, but I’m not sure banking on that is a winning bet.
  4. How will Canó handle aging on a team not built to win? If Robi keeps producing, it’s conceivable he could be traded, as could Seager if he delivers a bounce-back 2019, but both may be the veterans of a lengthy rebuild they’d rather not be party to. For Canó, that also may mean a full transition to DH and 1B, though much like SS, there aren’t other middle infielders breathing down his neck if Dee departs.
  5. After all that worry, we’ve earned a moment of enthusiasm. By 2021, Justus Sheffield Evan White, Kyle Lewis, Erik Swanson, Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley, and Dom Thompson-Williams should all be at the Major League level! There’s plenty of reason to think some or several of those prospects flame out or lag behind on their timelines, but prospect estimators peg that entire group to arrive by the end of Dipoto’s projected contention point or before. The good: young players with talent are fun to watch, and watching prospects arrive and develop is something we’ve had scant opportunities to do in the past few seasons. The bad: the Mariners have to be right about the players they acquire. It’s virtually impossible to see a competitive team in 2021 without Sheffield, White, Lewis, and others pushing to or beyond industry expectations.

That final point is the key: 2021 could easily be a contending season for Seattle, and the landscape of the AL West could be drastically different. Mike Trout and Blake Treinen could be free agents, Jose Altuve will be 31 and making $29 million, not the mere $9 million he is this year, and the Rangers... look, nobody knows, Jurickson Profar will be a free agent but still somehow just 28? You get the point. While the Mariners will be financially flexible relative to their current state, that doesn’t mean much unless they’re getting stellar results from a dozen or more players without any MLB appearances right now. Competing in the new timetable will have little to do with the 2019 Opening Day lineup of the Seattle Mariners and everything to do with that of the Arkansas Travelers.