It’s not easy to build a Major League Baseball team. Well, it’s not easy to build a good Major League Baseball team. It used to be that you could be the New York Yankees, throw a couple hundred million dollars at free agents, and be a perennial contender. Thankfully, it’s not that simple any more.
Nowadays, if you want to compete, it has to start with development. Teams (for the most part) aren’t stupid anymore. Few teams will get fleeced in a trade, few bargain-bin free agents are to be found, and the market inefficiencies of yesteryear have all dried up. The Yankees are still a perennial contender, but it’s been mostly on the heels of outstanding player development. The Red Sox and Dodgers have high payrolls, but a significant part of each of their rosters is made of homegrown talent. The Astros, class of the AL West, got to where they are through, you guessed it, player development.
If the Mariners are ever going to get back to the playoffs, it’s probably going to be with mostly homegrown players. If the Mariners are going to get back to the playoffs in the next five or six years, most of those players are in the organization right now.
Jerry Dipoto has set low expectations for the 2019 season, and with good reason. The team isn’t as bad as it could be, but the fact remains that the Mariners have gotten rid of players that were worth about 20 collective fWAR in 2018. Many of the players they received in return project to have more value in the future than in the present.
Dipoto says that the Mariners’ competitive window will start “midway through the 2020 season”. That’s an odd way to phrase it, because it’s not likely that players will suddenly start playing a whole lot better after the All Star break in 2020. 2021 looks to be better for the team than 2020 anyway, so let’s start evaluating the team there.
Let’s start by looking at the team’s future salary commitments. Per Spotrac, the Mariners currently have about $79 million in commitments for the 2021 season, which ranks at eighth in the MLB. Most of that money is tied up in just a few players: Kyle Seager, Yusei Kikuchi, Dee Gordon, Mike Leake, and Wade LeBlanc.
Fortunately, LeBlanc, Gordon, and Leake all have options in 2021. Leake’s option is a mutual option, LeBlanc’s is a team option, and Gordon’s is a vesting option. If Gordon is bad this year or next, the team could easily prevent his 600-plate-appearance option from vesting, which would give the team the option of a $1 million buyout. Leake’s option has a $5 million buyout, and LeBlanc’s has a $475,000 buyout. If all of their options are declined, the team’s payroll commitments drop to about $49 million, which would rank 17th in the Majors.
If we assume all of those guys are gone in 2021, here’s what the roster looks like.
C: Omar Narváez, Joe DeCarlo
1B: Evan White, Ryon Healy
2B: Shed Long
SS: J.P. Crawford
3B: Kyle Seager
Corner OF: Mitch Haniger, Domingo Santana, Kyle Lewis, Jake Fraley, Dom Thompson-Williams
CF: Mallex Smith, Braden Bishop
DH: Daniel Vogelbach
SP: Yusei Kikuchi, Marco Gonzales, Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert, Sam Carlson
RP: I’m not going to include relievers. Relievers are so volatile that it’s hard to know who will make a real contribution in two or three years. That being said, the Mariners have some interesting ones in the organization, including but not limited to Matt Festa, Wyatt Mills, and Art Warren.
Here’s the bad news: It could be bad. If Kyle Seager doesn’t fix himself this season, it seems like a pretty sure bet he won’t be fixed in 2021. Other third base options currently in the organization are pretty much limited to Dylan Moore and Kristopher Negrón. Kyle will be just 33 when 2021 begins, so if he can bounce back this year, this might not look so bad.
Most of the rest of the team is volatile.. So, so volatile. The “sure things” on the roster, barring injury, are Marco Gonzales and Mitch Haniger. Kikuchi, Narváez, Sheffield, and Santana look like decent bets too, but I wouldn’t call them sure things. If everything breaks right, this team could be phenomenal. If everything breaks wrong, this team will be abysmal. If, as is most likely, everything breaks medium, or some things break right and other things break wrong, the team looks just okay.
If Dipoto is going to be proven right, and the Mariners are going to contend in a couple of years, the Mariners will have to hit on a lot of guys. They’ll have to be proven right about J.P. Crawford. They’ll have to be proven right about Shed Long. They won’t need everyone out of Evan White, Kyle Lewis, Erik Swanson, Justin Dunn, Justus Sheffield, Mallex Smith, Jake Fraley, and Domingo Santana to be good. But they do need most of them to be good.
The good news is that there’s reason to believe that all of those guys have a chance to be good, and that most of them will be. Baseball is weird, so nothing is guaranteed. But it’s hard not to look at this team and be excited. Plus, this is a team with less than $100 million in salary committed. We could easily be looking at this core, plus a couple of big-name free agents. Cough, cough.
And let’s just say for a moment, that this team doesn’t quite put it together. We can always kick the can just a little further down the road. After all, this article hasn’t even mentioned Julio Rodriguez, Jarred Kelenic, Cal Raleigh, or Noelvi Marte.
By all accounts, the future is bright. The 2019 Mariners may not end up being very good, but the team will have plenty of factors beyond the standings that will make them worth watching.