There’s no denying this offseason is going to pale in comparison to some of the wheelin’ dealin’ happenings of the last few years for Jerry Dipoto and Co. The Mariners don’t have a cast of high-profile names they can swing for bluechip prospects. Conversely, they likely aren’t willing to ship their own bluechip prospects for high-profile names.
Alas, we’re stuck somewhere in the middle.
Dipoto’s itch to pull the trigger at opportunity will certainly present itself this winter. You see, Dipoto is a garage sale guy. He scours his neighborhood and surrounding neighborhoods in search of that G.I. Joe doll he couldn’t get his hands on at initial release. But hark! Some poor soul is done with the figurine now. All they want is money, or a figurine of like-value! Music to ol’ Jerry’s ears. Now it’s his turn to play. Whether said G.I. Joe doll has its head, all its arms, melted legs, or even a uniform anymore for that matter is to be determined.
The Angels took this approach last winter and spent $35m on a bucket of plastic body parts, none of which had any value or formed a fully functional figurine of any kind.
Dipoto will similarly have to navigate those waters this offseason, though he will almost certainly find more success than Arte Moreno and Billy Eppler did a year ago.
So where do the Mariners stand?
At the moment, Seattle is on the hook for about $115 million in payroll for the 2020 season. This includes current contracts, arbitration estimates, pre-arbitration contracts, and dead money. Four players stick out immediately as likely candidates to not be tendered contracts for next season.
NON-TENDER: SS Tim Beckham
Beckham looked like the steal of the offseason in April, but quickly crashed to earth come May 1. His struggles at the plate were exacerbated by a putrid defensive display in the field. Ultimately, Beckham would play 80 games for the Mariners in 2019, compiling 0.4 bWAR before being suspended 80 games for testing positive for a performance-enhancing substance.
With J.P. Crawford handling the reigns at shortstop, and Beckham likely due $3 million in arbitration next season, he won’t be back in Seattle.
NON-TENDER: 1B Ryon Healy
Acquired in 2017 in exchange for RHP Emilio Pagan, Healy hasn’t been the reliable bat Seattle needed at 1B. Just a .235 hitter in two seasons with Seattle, Healy missed a good chunk of the 2019 season and is still recovering from hip surgery. Unfortunately, the Oregon product just doesn’t have a spot on the team with where things stand. Daniel Vogelbach can only play first base (if that), and prized prospect Evan White will likely be the team’s every day first baseman by next summer.
Due $2.5 million in arbitration this offseason, Seattle should probably cut bait and use that money elsewhere.
NON-TENDER: CF Keon Broxton
This, unlike the two before it, is less of a surprise. Broxton is a dynamic fielder, and frankly, was a worthwhile experiment toward the latter half of 2019. Unfortunately, the bat just doesn’t play and until he can manage to bring the strikeouts down, he’ll struggle to stick on just about anywhere. With Seattle’s depth in the outfield, and the kids coming up soon, Broxton won’t be invited back. Due $1.3 million in arbitration, that money will be utilized in other ways.
CONTRACT OPTION DECLINE: SP Wade LeBlanc
Seattle got their money’s worth from LeBlanc. The Mariners paid the crafty lefty just $3.5 million over the course of 2018 and 2019 combined. That money netted Seattle over 283 innings and an ERA+ of 92. Not spectacular by any means, but useful. 2019 was a struggle for LeBlanc, eventually being moved to the bullpen in favor of younger arms. His $5 million team option should be declined, and the Mariners will likely elect to buyout his remaining contract for $450k.
Those $4.5 million in savings will certainly be useful in filling out the 2020 roster.
The aforementioned moves add flexibility to the payroll. Jettisoning LeBlanc, Healy, Beckham and Broxton lowers the projected payroll closer to $103 million. The team spent $143 million this past season, but one can only assume that number will fall in 2020. Mariners’ ownership would probably like to see the team’s payroll closer to $120 million this season before presumably spending big next offseason. By these figures, let’s assume Seattle has roughly $17-$22 million in free agency.
But what about trades? The roster churns...
Mariners Receive: SP Alec Hansen, 3B Jake Burger
White Sox Receive: CF Mallex Smith, RHP Wyatt Mills
Hansen, 25, is a former elite pitching prospect. Actually, he was being considered for the #1 overall pick in the 2016 draft. Unfortunately, command has been a huge issue for the former Oklahoma Sooner. The trend of erratic command hasn’t changed in Chicago. Hansen is a great arm for Seattle to take a chance on. Worst case scenario, his stuff plays as a middle-relief option.
Burger, 23, was the 13th overall pick in the 2017 MLB Draft. Injuries have absolutely decimated his career. Burger hasn’t played since 2017 after tearing his achilles just 40 games into his minor league career. He’d re-tear that same achilles rehabbing it just six months later. Burger then lost his entire 2019 campaign to a severely bruised heel. A bat-first corner infielder with plus hit and power tools, Burger is a big body so it remains to be seen if he can stick at third base, especially given his durability issues. Still, the talent is there. If Kyle Lewis can recover and recapture his value from a similarly catastrophic lower body injury, the Mariners should try to do the same with Burger. There’s a little Kevin Youkilis in his game.
As for the White Sox, Smith fills a current void in centerfield. Smith was not what the Mariners envisioned in 2019 and is probably due for a change of scenery. Seattle returns Mitch Haniger, Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley, Domingo Santana and Braden Bishop, while Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez may not be far off either.
Mills endured a down year in 2019 and finds himself falling behind a crowded group of right-handed arms on the cusp of breaking into the big leagues.
Mariners Receive: LHP Taylor Hearn, SP Ricky Vanasco
Rangers Receive: RF Domingo Santana, RHP Matt Festa
Hearn, 25, got his first taste of MLB experience this season and it... well... it didn’t go well. On April 25, the big Texas lefty started against the Mariners and got shellacked. He pitched just one-third of an inning, allowing five runs (four earned). He also walked four batters.
Hearn has a big, plus fastball and backs it up with a developing slider and changeup. To my eye, he looks like a late-inning dominant reliever, but Seattle would likely give him every opportunity to stick in a rotation.
Vanasco, 21, has middle-rotation stuff. He had a great 2019, posting a 1.81 ERA over almost 50 innings in the low minors. He’s a fastball-curveball pitcher whose bender has flashed plus-plus at times. The heater sits comfortably in the mid-90s.
The Rangers lack right-handed bats all over the diamond. If Texas intends on competing in their inaugural year in their new ballpark as their front office has suggested, Santana represents a strong bat from the right side.
Festa, like Mills, has struggled to find his footing at the big league level. His previously deemed plus slider has morphed into a terribly flat cutter. He too could use a change of scenery to recapture his lost sheen.
One scenario not listed here would be Texas sending Shin-Soo Choo back to Seattle as part of the deal. Choo is left-handed, aging, and certainly at risk of losing his position with the team after a difficult 2019. He’s owed $21 million in 2020, so money would absolutely exchange hands. He’d represent a strong veteran presence in the clubhouse if Seattle doesn’t elect to go the free agent route in that respect. Keep reading.
Mariners Receive: 3B Christopher Morel, RHP James Norwood
Cubs Receive: 2B Dee Gordon, $10 million
Morel, 20, is one of my absolute favorite prospects. He’s got a great arm at the hot corner, and can more than handle his own defensively. At this stage, the biggest knock on Morel is his weight. As of 2018, Morel was listed at just 6-foot, 140 pounds. Some reports estimate his frame at closer to 6-foot-1, 175 pounds now. Morel has a good hit tool, and generates big bat speed for his size. It remains to be seen if his athleticism will remain at third base, or if he’ll eventually shift to CF.
Norwood, 25, is a fastball-first relief pitcher who effortlessly approaches triple digits and racks up strikeouts at eye-popping rates. The stuff should play well as a high-leverage reliever and he’s not far from making his big league debut.
Gordon will immediately move into the Cubs starting lineup as Ben Zobrist departs. Second base was a bit of a wart for the Cubbies last season, rotating the likes of David Bote (a natural catcher), Addison Russell (a shortstop and previously suspended domestic abuser), and Ian Happ (a utility outfielder) into the position while Zobrist worked through his off-the-field divorce proceedings.
It’s Shed Long time in Seattle. Gordon in a Mariners uniform this February would come as quite a surprise. The biggest question here is simply how much contract is Chicago willing to eat? In this scenario, we’ll say Chicago inherits $3.3 million of Gordon’s remaining $13.3 million deal.
Let’s take a quick look at where the payroll now stands:
Flipping Santana, Gordon, Festa, and Smith, while acquiring Hearn and Norwood saves Seattle roughly $9.9 million in the 2020, bringing the total payroll to $93 million. If the previous estimates for 2020 are correct, this gives Dipoto around $30 million to play with in free agency.
So where will that money go?
FREE AGENT SIGNING
Mariners sign SP Julio Teheran — 4 years, $50 million
Dipoto can’t be under the delusion he’ll be able to sign absolutely everything he needs after the 2020 season to compete in 2021. Because of this, it’s important Seattle make one little splash in the free agent pool in preparing for the future now.
Thus I present to you: Julio Teheran.
Teheran has been a 2.1 fWAR player the last three seasons. By that measure, he's a $13-$14m/year guy.— Joe (@JoeDoyleMiLB) September 30, 2019
I'd have no problem shelling out 3/$39m for a 29 year old SP coming from a contender that similarly built itself from the ground up through the farm.
Teheran has been doing this a long time. After making his MLB debut 2011 at just 20 years old, he’s has averaged 151 innings per year over his 9-year career. Teheran has also been remarkably reliable, having surpassed 170 innings in each of the past six seasons. Over that span, the Columbian product has averaged 2.8 bWAR per season. By comparison, Marco Gonzales has averaged 2.9 bWAR over the past two seasons.
He’s probably not going to be the guy for Seattle when the team takes the next step in a couple years, but he’s a solid mid-rotation starter who has seen a team rebuild its organization with a massive youth movement into prominence.
Envisioning a rotation with a still-to-be-acquired ace at the top (James Paxton? 2021? eh? eh?), followed by Logan Gilbert, Gonzales, Teheran and one of Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn or George Kirby would surely rank among one of the best in baseball come 2021.
Now, all this being said, the Braves do have a $12 million club option for Teheran in 2020. From this chair, given the Braves incredible depth in the pitching department, one would venture to think the odds of them exercising that option are more slim than not.
FREE AGENT SIGNING
Mariners sign RHP Arodys Vizcaíno - 2 years, $10 million
It remains to be seen what, if any, relationship between the Mariners and Arodys Vizcaino looks like. Acquired in July as part of the Anthony Swarzak-Jesse Biddle swap, Vizcaino missed virtually all of 2019 after undergoing shoulder surgery.
When healthy, Vizcaino has been one of the more dominant relievers in baseball. Over the past five seasons with Atlanta, the Dominican-born right-hander has posted a 2.77 ERA to go along with a 151 ERA+. That’s a pretty large sample size of success for a relief pitcher.
Just 28 years old, Vizcaino represents a very strong buy-low candidate for the Mariners. The 2 year/$10 million suggested contract may be an overpay given he’s coming off significant shoulder surgery, but if the former Braves reliever can recapture anything close to what he was in Atlanta, the Mariners will have a reliable, high-leverage arm they can turn to through 2021.
FREE AGENT SIGNING
Mariners sign RHP Tyson Ross - 1 year, $5 million
It’s no secret Ross struggled mightily in 2019. After throwing just 35 innings, Ross was shutdown for inflammation in his right ulnar nerve. His 6.11 ERA isn’t inspiring, but many reports have Ross dealing with arm and hand irritation in his throwing arm for about a month before the eventual shutdown.
He’s a good option to come in and eat some innings, as well as a decent flip candidate at the trade deadline. Maybe most important, Ross gives Seattle the time and innings needed at the beginning of next year to allow Justin Dunn more time and seasoning in the minor leagues.
FREE AGENT SIGNING
Mariners sign LHP T.J. McFarland - 1 year, $4 million
You can bet the Mariners will be in search of some left-handed help out of the bullpen this off-season as Taylor Guilbeau returns as the only southpaw arm heading into 2020.
McFarland struggled in 56 innings with Arizona in 2019, posting an ERA of 4.82, but as recent as one year prior, “T-Mac” was one of the more reliable lefties in the game. In fact, 2018 saw McFarland throw 72 innings of 2.00 ERA ball for the DBacks, his best season as a pro.
The Palos Hills, Illinois native makes his mark inducing soft contact. A ground ball pitcher, McFarland features a sinker-slider combination that can be especially difficult on lefties. While he’s had a tough time getting right-handed hitters out the past few years, McFarland is a good situational arm -- something Seattle is in desperate need of.
FREE AGENT SIGNING
Mariners sign IF Sean Rodriguez - 1 year, $2 million
Rodriguez has long been considered one of the more fiery and competitive players in the game. A well-regarded clubhouse presence, Rodriguez could do wonders for a team of young players navigating their way through their first couple big league seasons. A 12-year veteran, Rodriguez has had a propensity for coming up with the big hit in big situations. He’s also been a part of successful playoff rebuild campaigns for Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh during his career. Rodriguez can play the entire infield and work as a mentor for guys like Crawford and Long.
Signing Rodriguez would put utility infielder Dylan Moore’s roster spot in question, but he does still have minor league options.
Acquisitions like Rodriguez are what shape the culture of a winning team. He likely wouldn’t be with the team in 2021, but his impact would ideally be seen long after he’s gone.
FREE AGENT SIGNING
Mariners sign OF Rajai Davis - 1 year, $2 million
Davis, like Rodriguez, represents a veteran presence in the locker room with a history of winning and positive culture. A veteran of 14 seasons, Davis has World Series experience. He’s a vibrant personality in the clubhouse and would provide priceless guidance to youngsters like Lewis, Fraley, and Bishop.
Given the transactions above, the Mariners would go into 2020 with a starting outfield of Lewis-Fraley-Haniger. Braden Bishop would represent the team’s fourth outfielder. Davis could be plugged in as a veteran presence. To be honest, barring a serious injury in the outfield, Davis probably wouldn’t be on the team through the All-Star break, but given the value he’d bring to younger players, he’s worth the investment.
After all these moves, $31 million will have been added to the Mariners 2020 payroll and beyond. This brings next years payroll to roughly $124 million - a reasonable expectation.
There’s some obvious takeaways from this offseason plan, first and foremost being a further bolstering of a rapidly improving farm system. Burger, Vanasco and Morel would undoubtedly be added to Seattle’s Top 30 prospects, while Hearn and Hansen have an outside shot of breaking the list as well.
As it stands, third base may be the biggest question mark in Seattle’s system. Joe Rizzo represents the team’s best prospect at the hot corner, but all signs point to him becoming more of a utility infielder. Further down the farm, Austin Shenton, Bobby Honeyman and possibly Noelvi Marte represent potential options at third, but all three have a very long ways to go and a lot to prove.
The acquisitions of Burger and Morel all but ensure the team has some future plan when Kyle Seager likely departs after 2021.
The acquisitions of Hearn, Vanasco, and possibly Hansen improve the team’s depth in the starting pitching department, adding to an impressive cast of Gilbert, Kirby, Ljay Newsome and Penn Murfee reasonably close to contributing at the big league level.
So what does opening day look like?
- C: Omar Narvaez
- 1B: Austin Nola
- 2B: Shed Long
- SS: JP Crawford
- 3B: Kyle Seager
- LF: Kyle Lewis
- CF: Jake Fraley
- RF: Mitch Haniger
- DH: Daniel Vogelbach
- Bench: C Tom Murphy, IF Sean Rodriguez, OF Rajai Davis, Util Dylan Moore
- SP: Marco Gonzales
- SP: Julio Teheran
- SP: Yusei Kikuchi
- SP: Tyson Ross
- SP: Justus Sheffield
- Bullpen: Anthony Bass, Sam Tuivailala, Brandon Brennan, Arodys Vizcaino, T.J. McFarland (L), Matt Magill, Connor Sadzeck
The roster listed above is going to change a lot as the season winds. White will be the everyday first baseman by June 1. Bishop will undoubtedly be up before long. Guys like Tim Lopes and/or Donnie Walton will play a role sooner rather than later.
On the mound, Seattle will see guys like Dunn and Gilbert get plenty of big league innings, while familiar bullpen names like Erik Swanson, Zach Grotz, Art Warren, Reggie McClain, Dan Altavilla, and Guilbeau will also be featured. Mariners fan can also expect to be introduced to relievers Joey Gerber and Sam Delaplane before the season ends.
2020 is going to be an interesting year for Seattle. It’s probably safe to assume it’ll be another difficult year in the standings, but paying close attention to the growth of guys like Crawford, Long, Sheffield, Fraley and Lewis will better indicate how soon Seattle can compete. Down on the farm, Julio, Kelenic, Gilbert, Kirby, Marte, and catcher Cal Raleigh will garner a ton of attention as Dipoto and fans examine just how realistic a 2021 competitive window is.