The screeching sound you hear is the Mariners 2019 season being put firmly in the rearview mirror. If that is NOT the screeching sound you’re hearing, please contact the authorities. Assuming the best, things are trending positively for Seattle, which means they are distancing themselves from their worst season since 2011. Calling what is to come an improvement depends on your perception. Is it better when your neighbor’s dog rips up your flowerbed, or if your precious, fluffy angel tears up the petunias?
The Mariners prefer the latter, turning incidents into learning opportunities instead of neighborhood-wide intrigue. With just four members of the 2019 Opening Day lineup even capable of returning to start 2020 with the team, Seattle has shed the majority of the holdovers and short-term hangers-on, leaving a group of youths whom Jerry Dipoto intends to “let run with it”.
2020, then, will be a challenging season in ways old and new. The team’s successes and shortcomings will be squarely on the players most responsible for lifting the next great Mariners team into contention. When Tim Beckham booted a ball or Jay Bruce waved at a slider in the dirt, it was exasperating, but we knew they would pass. Seeing Tommy Milone and Wade LeBlanc offering a dueling banjoes accented by a staccato of barreled blasts left my ears singed, but it didn’t really matter. Next year, the majority of the roster will be of consequence. As a visual learner myself, I felt like putting this into a depth chart/lineup/rotation was the appropriate process.
The Locks - 7/26
It’s surprisingly easy to forget the Mariners played 2019 without their best player for much of the season. Mitch Haniger will return, as will the building-blocks of the middle infield, J.P. Crawford and Shed Long. Kyle Seager, with his affirmational statements regarding the need for the rebuild, along with his contractual situation, seems likely to return as the steady old head for 2020. The top three of the rotation is also almost assured. Marco Gonzales is a beacon of consistency and proof of concept for the organization’s pitching development, while Yusei Kikuchi and Justus Sheffield will be the biggest names to watch work through their second full seasons in the org. Either one realizing their potential would be a relief. Both doing so could push Seattle closer to actualizing their aggressive 2021 window-opening. Neither doing so would create serious concern in the team’s ability to communicate their message at the big league level.
However they perform, these seven will be everyday/every time through the rotation starters for Seattle, health willing. What they bring to the field will say more than most about the team’s proximity to contention.
The Coin Flips - 23/26
This group launches from confidence into conjecture. Let’s start with the most confident and work out to the wilds.
The catcher position was a surprising delight this year. Seattle got the fourth-best production behind the dish this year of any team in baseball by fWAR, third-best by bWAR, and both Omar Narváez and Tom Murphy rated as top-15 catchers per WARP. What gave me pause was whether Seattle saw the strong seasons of both players as trade opportunities. Ultimately, I think both players return in 2020, but wouldn’t be shocked to see one move. Narváez was a butcher defensively, but can only improve with his framing and familiarity, especially as he likely won’t set the single-season record for most unique pitchers caught again. Murphy was sharper behind the plate, but his facial hair and haunting eyes belied a familiar recipe for success that Seattle might not believe in: blistering hard contact, dingers and a high BABIP, and a whole mess of strikeouts. Zunino-lite is not a bad player to be, but Seattle could see Murph as a sell-high candidate.
Extending to the rest of the field, Mallex Smith is the likeliest man to run out to center field in T-Mobile Park next March 26th, but with a plurality of the vote more than a majority. Smith’s stolen bases crown was the only highlight of his season. Despite significant defensive improvements in the second half, his erratic work at the plate and in the field sunk his season. The internal alternatives in center all come with question marks, however - Braden Bishop struggled to hit in his cups of coffee, although a ruptured spleen from a HBP interrupted his season and no doubt sapped his strength at the end of the year. Jake Fraley also struggled in his first call-up, before a collision with Smith led to a hand injury that shut him down prematurely. Smith’s track record is the strongest of the group, and he’ll turn 27 midway through 2020 - hardly a veteran set in stone.
Assuming health and a reasonable spring again, I anticipate the team giving Fraley first crack at left field. The organization’s two most heralded hitting prospects could push for big league time in 2020, in addition to Kyle Lewis, so Fraley’s shot to establish himself will be right out of the gates. This operates under the belief that the team moves on from Domingo Santana, which sounds highly likely given the way the team has spoken about him in the last month. The defensive travesty Santana put on in left field earned him little love, and with Mitch Haniger returning the competition would seem to come down to Slamtana and Daniel Vogelbach at the DH spot. There’s a good case for either player, but five years of contract control compared to two for Santana led me to give Vogey the edge.
Dylan Moore was a capable bench player who improved as the season went along - something you might expect from a true rookie. Tim Lopes was also impressive in his limited action, though Moore’s moonlightability at shortstop puts him atop the UTIL chart. While I have Some Ideas about how the Mariners should fill the 1B position as they wait for Evan White to marinate, their plan will probably involve surprise contributor Austin Nola and Friends shuffling through the cold corner.
In the rotation, I’m taking Jerry Dipoto at face value for the most part, which is a lambast-able offense typically. Justin Dunn will be offered a shot at earning a position in the rotation out of the gate, with the team targeting a veteran starter or two to fill in. I suspect Dunn breaks camp in AAA ultimately, where the humidor will hopefully keep things in check. Perhaps it’s foolhardy, but if he shows well over the winter it seems reasonable to think the team will prioritize big league reps over service-time shenanigans for a 24 year old starter they already called up when they did not explicitly need to.
The entire bullpen is a question mark, but I’ve included seven returners who either showed significant improvements after joining the M’s organization or were recently acquired talents and have reason to expect more in the future. The seven names - Anthony Bass, Brandon Brennan, Erik Swanson, Taylor Guilbeau, Matt Wisler, Sam Tuivailala, and Matt Magill - include players acquired via waivers who could find themselves right back there just as easily, but consider them stand-ins for themselves or other low-cost, medium-ceiling relievers. Art Warren, Zac Grotz, Gerson Bautista, or Matt Festa could just as easily be swapped in. Prior injury also plays a role here. Austin Adams, his gum, and his slider were the most exciting trio in town for part of the season, but an ACL injury will hold him out until mid-2020 most likely. Connor Sadzeck’s health makes him an uncertainty as well, as the ever-spooky “elbow inflammation” held him out for much of the year and could linger into 2020 too.
Bullpens, in short, are as fickle in construction as they are in results.
The Newbies - 26/26
Three spots remain that I expect will be filled externally. The most likely is the rotation, where Dipoto has explicitly stated there will be an addition. That will unfortunately be in the innings-eater tier, meaning Gio Gonzalez or Rick Porcello could be headed to a park near you. The bullpen move seems likeliest to resemble the Hunter Strickland/Cory Gearrin/Zac Rosscup signings, ideally in the image of the first move and not the latter two. Perhaps a pass at Addison Reed or paper Mariner Arodys Vizcaino would make for a slightly more exciting high-leverage option and a Mark Lowe-esque deadline return. Lastly, I think somewhere in the minor deals made, Seattle brings on a position player to fill out the roster, but could easily go to another UTIL like Tim Lopes or even Donnie Walton.
The two position players of greatest note that I assume move on are Domingo Santana and Dee Gordon, who both are without clear routes to playing time. Gordon could remain useful as a bench player thanks to the 26-man roster, but beyond his legitimate-if-tough-to-quantify value as a more vocal veteran resource than Kyle Seager, there is no material pathway to on-field opportunities for Flash. I suspect he moves this offseason for minimal return to take on a UTIL/pinch-runner role for a contender, to minimal return. Ryon Healy’s combination of ineffectiveness and injury unfortunately tickets him for non-tender this offseason most likely, while Tim Beckham’s suspension sets him up for the same.
By midseason this roster could well have added a number of players. Kyle Lewis, Evan White, and Donnie Walton should start the season in AAA-Tacoma, with Jarred Kelenic (and yes, perhaps even Julio Rodríguez) close on their heels. Eric Filia and Dom Thompson-Williams will hope to poke their ways back into the conversation as well. Logan Gilbert, Ljay Newsome, Ricardo Sánchez, and Anthony Misiewicz will push for midseason call-ups in the rotation. By June or July the roster should be cycling in the names that will make or break the Mariners of the 2020s. It starts here.