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Non-tender targets for the Mariners

An old friend, and some new ones, all available for the low, low price of some money

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Seattle Mariners
still some of the best sock game ever to wear a Mariners uniform
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday was the deadline for MLB clubs to offer contracts to the arbitration-eligible players on their 40-man rosters. The Mariners opted to non-tender Tim Beckham, as was expected, and Domingo Santana, which was less expected. In all, 40 players were non-tendered yesterday, more than double the amount of players non-tendered two years ago. As many analysts have pointed out, MLB clubs seem to have put a dollar amount on wins lower than in years past, and a one-plus player set to earn $10M might be considered only to be “worth” half that on the open market, making non-tendering a more attractive option for clubs insistent upon shaving payroll.

As a result, the list of players non-tendered yesterday contains some surprising names, including the Giants’ second-most valuable position player by fWAR in Kevin Pillar, he of the single MVP vote, and Travis Shaw, who prior to a poor 2019 posted back-to-back three-plus win seasons for the Brewers. Some teams have already been active on the non-tender market; the Marlins acquired infielder Jonathan Villar after the Orioles inexplicably placed him on waivers, and added to their haul with Jesus Aguilar, non-tendered by the Rays after a three-win season with the Brewers in 2018.

Like the Rays, the Mariners want to give their young players opportunities at the big-league level, but while waiting for some of their prospects to finish cooking, they would be well-served to follow the Marlins’ example and add some stopgap solutions to play watchable baseball who could ideally be flipped at the trade deadline. Here are some candidates to consider:

RP Blake Treinen

Treinen is the jewel of the non-tender class, insofar as there is a jewel (maybe less a jewel and more a ring you get out of a quarter machine that turns your skin green). The famously impecunious Oakland A’s opted not to tender a contract to Treinen, who despite a down 2019 was projected to earn close to eight million dollars in arbitration thanks to a 2018 where he battled with Edwin Diaz for the title of best reliever in the AL (can’t spell “reliever” without “really very volatile”). Competition for Treinen’s services will be stiff among teams that project to be much more competitive than the Mariners, and the Yankees are already sniffing around, so unless the Mariners are willing to outbid other teams—still not a guarantee he would choose them, although they do have financial flexibility other teams lack—it’s somewhat tricky to see the fit here, although the Mariners are in the position of offering him the closer role if the 31-year-old is thinking forward to his next contract.

3B Maikel Franco

The Phillies non-tendered Cesar Hernandez and Franco, two of the longest-tenured Phillies, cutting over $15M from payroll combined (Hernández, in his final year of arbitration, was due the lion’s share of that sum, just over double digits). Franco is only 27, but has struggled to reach his potential in Philadelphia, as the constant stream of off-season profiles wondering if this would be the year Franco would put it all together will attest. Franco doesn’t walk often, but he also doesn’t strike out much and makes a ton of contact, although a lot of that (43%) was on the ground this year, and Franco can suffer from a Jean Segura-like affliction of “just because you can get to that ball doesn’t mean you should.” He does have some pop in the bat, with 20+ home runs each of the past three seasons prior to 2019. The Mariners signed Patrick Wisdom to a MLB contract to shore up third base, a position of weakness throughout the organization, so they might not be looking for a mercurial, boom-or-bust third baseman, but Franco’s relative youth, MLB track record, and 100+ career home runs make him an intriguing option.

SP/RP Kevin Gausman

Don’t let the ERA of close to six scare you; Gausman’s peripherals say he was pretty unlucky last year. Both his FIP and xFIP were almost two full runs lower than his ERA, and he struck out a career-best 25% of batters who faced him while walking just 7%, K-BB numbers that should make him appealing to the Mariners’ front office. So far Gausman has spent his career mostly pitching in the bandboxes of the AL East, so it would be interesting to see how his stuff played in the more spacious parks of the AL West. The Reds were using Gausman out of the bullpen rather than the rotation, giving him some role flexibility that would fit in well with Seattle’s staff as the young pitchers grow into their roles. Gausman’s strikeout success was driven by a truly nasty splitter (highest swinging strike rate on that pitch in baseball this August):

Gausman only threw the splitter around 40% of the time; he also had success with a slider, but he barely threw it, maybe because after he introduced it in 2017 after working on it all off-season it promptly got destroyed in the AL East; by late 2018 he had essentially abandoned it. Pitch mix issues are something the Mariners love to tinker with, and it looks like Cincinnati was on it way to unlocking something in Gausman’s arsenal. Personally, Gausman won me over with his strong take on the Astros sign-stealing controversy:

Yes Kevin, this Astros thing is, indeed, bad.

SP Jimmy Nelson

In the “baseball life comes at you fast category,” Nelson was a Cy Young candidate just two seasons ago before a freak shoulder injury/argument for the universal DH ended his season and robbed him of his 2018. Nelson only pitched 22 uninspiring innings for the Brew Crew this year, who cut him loose rather than pay a paltry $3.7M-ish for him in arbitration (side note: the Brewers are having my least favorite off-season in baseball. This is your window, you ding-dongs, what are you doing?). Shoulder injuries are scary times, but the Mariners have the space and money to roll the dice on a once-promising pitcher.

SP Taijuan Walker

One of the former “big three” pitching prospects for the Mariners and sent away in the Hanigura trade, Taijuan had a solid 2017 before missing the next two seasons with Tommy John surgery and a subsequent complicated return from injury (a sprained shoulder capsule shut him down entirely late in his TJS recovery). Twitter pundits were quick to point to a relatively low arbitration figure ($5M) and the fact that Walker was finally poised to return from his injury as a red flag that he’s not yet entirely healthy, but the real culprit might be the D-Backs’ pitching depth: Robbie Ray, Merrill Kelly, Alex Young, Luke Weaver, Mike Leake, new trade acquisition Zac Gallen, and top prospect Jon Duplantier all have a claim to a limited number of innings. Walker is a bigger gamble than some of the other names on this list, given that he’s been out of baseball for two years, but he’s a known quantity to the Mariners (and has spent the last three years getting married, having a kid, running a foundation supporting foster kids, and growing up in general). Also, and I cannot stress this enough, Taijuan forever: