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The 2019 Mariners off-season in review

The good, the bad, the ugly

bracing ourselves against the takes like

The Mariners have already kicked off the 2019 season in Japan, even if it doesn’t really feel like the actual start of the season until the gates officially open at Safeco T-Mobile Park. That means the off-season is officially over, and it’s time to review what happened, assess how well (or poorly) the team did, and look into the future, as we’ve been doing during our AL West preview series.

The goal of the off-season is to move the team forward in some important ways, either by signing free agents to bolster the team’s roster, or dealing established players for prospects who will become the core of the next competitive team. The Mariners did a little of both this off-season, trading away established stars like James Paxton and Edwin Diaz to acquire young talent, but also signing one of the best free agent pitchers available in Yusei Kikuchi. Jerry Dipoto has been transparent in acknowledging that currently, the Astros are the class of the AL West, and the Mariners’ “step back” was necessary in order to field a team down the road that could have a legitimate shot at winning the west, not just settling for a Wild Card berth. Therefore, in evaluating the off-season, we’re less concerned about whether or not the moves result in a better team this season. The questions we do want to examine are:

*Were the moves made the best possible moves for the team, in the current market?

*Was every move that was made a necessary move?

*Is this team set up for success in 2020? 2021? 2022? How does that timeframe match up with other AL West rivals?

*How do we feel, as a whole, about the team’s off-season?

Let’s go through them, one by one.

Were the moves made the best possible moves for the team, in the current market?

Kate: The Mariners ran out the string as long as they could with their roster of stars, and I agree that rebuilding was the right move. Largely I like the moves that were made, especially the gutsy trade of Edwin Diaz to acquire Justin Dunn and Jarred Kelenic, who is the kind of first-round impact talent the Mariners couldn’t access while they were in “win-now” mode.

The trade I struggle with the most, and the one that almost broke my faith in this rebuild, is the one with Philly. General perception of the trade was that Seattle’s return was too light for an All-Star shortstop, with this especially stinging line from CBS’s Mike Axisa: “Crawford’s best-case scenario is basically what Segura is today.” Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs made the case that the Phillies were Segura’s only fit, but his article looked at Segura as a shortstop alone, where Segura is also playable at 2B. Dipoto’s tendency to want to work quickly worked against him here, in my opinion, as just a few short (haha jk, they were long and agonizing) months later, the Padres would sign Manny Machado to play third, indicating they’re much closer to competing than as portrayed in Sullivan’s article. Now the Padres have washed Ian Kinsler washedly holding down a washed second base, and the Mariners missed out on the chance to sample from San Diego’s delightfully deep farm system. That deal also brought Carlos Santana, flipped for Edwin Encarnacion, who was then supposed to be able to be flipped for another prospect but has found himself Still A Mariner headed into the season. Carlos Santana, by the way, is slugging .703 this spring with a 1.166 OPS. Encarnación’s OPS? .290.

John: The day the Phillies trade came through I remember refreshing Twitter feverishly, waiting to see which mid-level starting pitching prospect would be part of Seattle’s return. The answer, of course, was None of the Above. I believe I remarked at the time the deal was the worst of the Dipoto era (assuming the sense at the time of the deal, since of course Chris Taylor for Zach Lee will happily dance in our nightmares forever). As Kate mentioned above, there was a reasonable case made that Segura’s market was dimmed by a historically strong crop of shortstops on competitive teams.

FanGraphs projects Segura to be a 2.5 fWAR player, marking him as the 12th-13th best SS in the league, even as it likely underrates his improvement since the swing change pre-2016. He’d still make a significant improvement to the Brewers, Braves, and Pirates, all of whom intend to compete. At 2B he’s just as useful, offering a sizable leg up to the Rockies, Angels, Red Sox, and Twins. Segura had a No-Trade Clause, so it’s no guarantee the M’s had any leverage to work with, but if Segura wanted a competitive team and a clear starting role there were plenty of options.

Instead, the M’s got Crawford, Santana, and rid themselves of $8.5 million in Juan Nicasio’s contract, as well as talented but inconsistent LHP James Pazos. Like the Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz deal, Seattle chose the always tantalizing Financial Flexibility over heavier prospect hauls. In doing so, they’ve made a curious choice not to infuse their system with the maximum number of players, which seems anathema to the organization’s stated confidence in their own development. There’s a case to be made that they’ve hedged their bets somewhat, providing themselves financial options for their purported 2021 re-opened window when the new CBA will be up for discussion. If the pathway to team-building changes dramatically, Seattle might be able to better take advantage, with more money freed up, but as it stands, young, underpaid star players have been the backbone of every competitive team of the past several years. The M’s have plenty worth being excited about for the future as a result of this offseason’s moves, but their margin for error is extremely thin.

Ben: Like most Mariners fans, I too was underwhelmed with the return for 2018 All-Star Jean Segura—not to mention the addition of two relief arms that likely possessed some degree of trade value themselves. That said, if J.P. Crawford can eventually blossom into even 75% of what people once thought he would be, that’s still a valuable building block for a Mariners team looking to compete in the near future and that previously had no clear heir to the shortstop position.

One way in which the M’s may have failed to position themselves best for the organization moving forward is the abundance of veteran position players that have been brought in this offseason and the indirect effect that has on other, younger players throughout the system. Mainly, I’m firmly in the camp that Dan Vogelbach has earned the chance to receive a significant role throughout the 2019 season, but the presence of Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnación on the active roster poses a threat to Vogey’s playing time. Additionally, the logjam on offense creates a problem for players such as Jay Bruce and Domingo Santana as they look to rebound from down seasons. While they share the lack-of-playing-time issue, the situation is problematic for Bruce and Santana for different reasons. The organization likely acquired Santana in hopes of him rebounding to 2017 form and being a significant contributor for years to come, while a hot performance from Bruce would drive up his trade value and increase the chances the team could acquire future assets in exchange for his services this summer. Like Bruce, Encarnación could see his playing time—and trade value along with it—affected by a lack of at-bats as the season wears on. Simply put, while I like the each of the transactions that lead to the acquisitions of Bruce, Santana, and Encarnación on their own, the confluence of all three moves combined with the previously-present Mitch Haniger, Mallex Smith, and Dan Vogelbach could make for some playing time issues this summer. Not to mention the possibility that Braden Bishop, Jake Fraley, or some other young outfielder proves ready to be tested at the major league deadline later on this season.

Grant: It’s always hard to answer questions like these without knowing all the possibilities. As fans, we’re working with limited information; we don’t know if there were any other teams making offers on Jean Segura, or if Dipoto could have gotten more for James Paxton, or so on. I was heartened to see the Mariners’ full-throttle pursuit of Yusei Kikuchi, since he was probably the #1 free agent who fit within the “retooling” theme of this offseason. I would have liked to get a bigger return for Segura, as others have mentioned, and I’m not fully convinced that Mallex Smith will be able to repeat his 2018 campaign, which would make that swap a bit disappointing. But I agree with the decision to retool and I think the team executed it reasonably well, on the whole.

Eric: We may never know what exact moves Dipoto had in mind for flipping players like Jay Bruce and Edwin Encarnación, or if that was even his intention. By going off what we as fans as can measure in this case (results-based analysis, oh no!), it feels like a real bummer that the team ended up with Encarnación, who is almost as old as Nelson Cruz, and they are paying him more or less the same amount that they would have had to pay Cruz for a 1 to 2 year extension. Even with the massive overhaul of the roster, I would guess that Cruz would have been willing to stick around if the team had made him a fair offer, which I realize is conjecture. I don’t know, I just really, really enjoyed Nelson Cruz, Seattle Mariner and Destroyer of Baseballs and given what they ended up with (a potentially washed Encarnación), I’d just rather they would have stuck with ol’ Nelli. On top of that, It’s doubly frustrating that now Encarnación and Bruce will be blocking Daniel Vogelbach from getting free and easy ABs in what is supposed to be a rebuilding year, where wins and losses should not be taken so seriously.

Jake: With some hindsight into the glacial pace of free agency and the below-market deals for baseball’s middle class, there’s some part of me that wonders if the Mariners could have made one last go at competing with their old core. But even if rebuilding was going to be the plan from day one, the Mariners’ lack of (public) interest in either Manny Machado or Bryce Harper was a little curious. Signing Yusei Kikuchi was a forward-thinking move that proved they had no problem signing a young free agent now in preparation for their eventual window. But it became abundantly clear that clearing payroll was much more important than bringing tons of high-level talent into the organization. The Jean Segura trade was evidence enough of that priority hierarchy. But even if creating financial flexibility was an urgent matter, the Mariners didn’t really accomplish that goal either. Flipping Carlos Santana for Edwin Encarnación should have been a cost savings move but the Mariners will actually end up paying for both players.

Was every move that was made a necessary move?

Matthew: Probably. Each move featured an obvious trade candidate, though ditching players like Mike Zunino and James Pazos didn’t totally feel “necessary”. But from a logical standpoint, ridding the MLB roster of its aging, expensive hitters and superfluous closer was likely necessary for ushering in a new era of prospects.

Ben: I’m leaning towards no here. While I quite like both Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley, the moves that followed the Mariners’ first trade of the offseason and the continued breakout of Braden Bishop negated some of the need for the club to acquire outfield talent. More importantly, in my opinion, is that an organization in desperate need of young pitching—which they did in fact go on to acquire—dealt away arguably the best defensive-minded catcher in all of baseball and replaced him with a guy in Omar Narvaez, who I also am excited about, but whose defensive shortcomings have been well-documented. While it’s hard to argue the case against turning Guillermo Heredia and Mike Zunino into Mallex Smith and Omar Narváez from an on-the-field standpoint, I feel it’s quite easy to argue that Zunino could have worked wonders for the likes of Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Logan Gilbert, and Co. over the next two years, and perhaps even beyond if he proved worthy of an extension. Again, I like the return the M’s got for Z, but don’t think it was a 100% necessary transaction.

Eric: Necessary? No. More fun and creative? Yes. Do the moves allow Dipoto to try to build a team that’s entirely his by design? Yes. In that regard, I’m into it because it’s all on Dipoto and we can finally see if his GM acumen is up to the challenge of building a MLB contender.

Grant: Once Dipoto decided he wanted to aim for 2020/2021 more than 2019, trading James Paxton became inevitable. From there, you can justify everything else — Jean Segura is a win-now player, Robinson Canó will only see his value crater from here on out, Edwin Díaz has much less value to a rebuilding team than a contender, and on and on. If you want to quibble with any one move, you could say that Mike Zunino would be a valuable, steadying force behind the plate for a younger pitching staff, and he would greatly help those young’uns round into form. But on the whole, I’d say the moves were necessary.

Connor: Short answer: yes. The strategy of the past few seasons of “build an 85-win team and hope to sneak in the wild card” was a defensible one given the roster and farm system that Dipoto inherited, and it likely would have worked last year if the A’s hadn’t decided to play roughly .750 ball the last three months of the season. With Houston a perpetual juggernaut and Oakland’s potent, young offense here for the foreseeable future, though, it was clear that the club needed to pivot from its increasingly aging roster. As Ben and Grant have said, trading away Mike Zunino remains a bit of a head scratcher, but each of the others were needed for Seattle to jumpstart its re-imagining.

Denise: For a team that realistically won’t contend for a few years it makes sense to sell high on our players that will provide value this year to a contender. I hated to see Paxton, Diaz and Segura go, but this offseason they became more valuable as a means to build the next future team out of. I don’t like it, but I get it. I like what we got for Paxton, and also our return in the Cano/Diaz trade. However, I feel, as does literally everyone ever, that we didn’t get nearly enough for Segura. It has been said that there wasn’t much else we could have gotten from a team that needed a middle infielder. However, if that’s the case, I feel strongly that we should have just kept him until mid-season. In July we’ll have a clearer picture of who’s actually going to contend this year. What if one of those teams loses a shortstop to injury and desperately needs a replacement? So no, I do not feel like that trade was necessary at all. If we really felt like Crawford and Santana was the best we could get from Segura in the offseason, we should have kept him until we could get more.

Is this team set up for success in 2020? 2021? 2022? How does that timeframe match up with other AL West rivals?

Kate: The Astros’ development system was once referred to by Driveline’s Kyle Boddy as them being on the moon while everyone else is trying to build a rocket. By now, most of the rest of the league is on to what the Astros have been doing, and that gap to the moon should shrink exponentially each year, especially as the Astros pick outside the top-20 in subsequent drafts. It’s hard to tell what kind of an impact losing a first-round draft choice, like the A’s did in Kyler Murray, will have, but with that and a trip to the postseason pushing them back in this year’s draft order, Oakland might find themselves short-handed as the Mariners’ window of competition is opening. The Rangers farm has depth but lacks high-impact talent, and I have questions about their player development. The team I’m most worried about is the Angels, who will have the best player in baseball locked up for the next decade-plus, but who also have a farm that’s focused on high-risk high-reward position players coupled with low-floor pitching. Their system has garnered glowing reviews from the scouting community and is ranked more highly than the Mariners at almost every outlet, due in large part to phenom Jo Adell, who might be a mini-Mike Trout playing alongside the actual Mike Trout. That, plus a pitching staff spearheaded by yet another generational talent in Ohtani makes me concerned that LAA’s star power might blow out the Mariners’ more softly-illuminated lights.

John: Kate and I are often fairly like-minded about things, but our assessments of the greatest future threats in the AL West are divergent. Until I see drastic changes in the way things are run in Houston, the Astros are the prohibitive favorite for the next five years in this division. The rest of the league is on the scene, yes. But the Astros’ commitment to their infrastructure stretches back to the earliest days of the Lastros, and there is a cutthroat commitment to further pursuit of advancement at every level of the organization. The combination of insistence on succeeding at any cost and willingness to push the limits may eventually bite them (as we’ve seen with PED suspensions of both the team’s top pitching prospects in the past two seasons), but their MLB and minor league talent is unrelenting. The ‘Stros pitchers led every level of the minors in K/9 last year, and their success rejuvenating the careers of pitchers like Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole, and Charlie Morton is sure to attract talented free agents. Much as the Patriots have enticed flawed talents for over a decade in the NFL with promises of team success and individual improvement, I fear the only way the Astros are vanquished in the near future is via internal collapse.

With that in mind, there’s plenty to suggest Seattle can compete in their targeted window. They’ve invested more in young position players than pitchers, which tends to offer a better hit rate of performance (or at least a lower rate of injury). I expect little from the 2020 campaign in the standings, and 2021 should be closer to .500 than 90-wins, but the M’s have created a group well-equipped to arrive and grow together, and that’s encouraging. The Rangers are in a difficult situation, with much of their under-25 talent already in the bigs but lacking star talent. They’ll see money coming off the books in the next few years, but their state of limbo seems slated to continue indefinitely. Oakland’s position remains capped by their payroll. The young/early prime talent among their position players is decent, but a team that has little room for error missed in a major way on their selection of Kyler Murray. Despite the emergence of Matt Chapman, the stagnation of players like Franklin Barreto and Jorge Mateo have thrown the future into question, and the A’s may find themselves sacrificing 2021 talents in favor of 2019 and 2020 if their bullpen comes through again this year.

Lastly, in Anaheim, the Angels’ future looks a lot clearer today than it did a week ago. With Mike Trout in the fold, the Angels have over $85 million committed to three players (Trout, Albert Pujols, and Justin Upton) in 2021, and around $65 million to two in 2022. I hear the scouting community on their enthusiasm for Jo Adell, whose athleticism and youth scream potential star. The Angels’ farm is one of the more high-risk, high-reward groups in baseball, with other imposing talents who could emerge with gusto, but LAA’s combination of bad luck and reckless usage of injury-prone pitchers has decimated the present and future of their pitching staff.

Jake: My biggest fear is that the Mariners are targeting a window in a few years that isn’t really open. The best teams in the American League all look like they’ll be juggernauts for the next half decade. The Astros, Yankees, and Red Sox are going to be just as dominant in a few years as they are now. That’s three playoff spots locked up, leaving just a single Wild Card spot to fight for. And the Mariners should have plenty of competition for that last playoff spot with the Rays, Athletics, and Twins all looking like they’re on the rise, plus the White Sox a year or two away from calling it quits on rebuilding. A quick retool is always going to be an easier sell than a years-long rebuild. There’s undeniably more talent in the system, and it should be major league ready all around the same time. There’s much more to be hopeful about but it’ll be just as difficult to overcome the same villains a few years from now as it’s been the last few years.

How do we feel, as a whole, about the team’s off-season?

Matthew: I feel better about the Mariners’ future than I did at the end of the 2018 season, even while feeling significantly worse about the 40-man roster. I’m glad the front office fully committed to the re-build rather than just making convenient deals, and I’m genuinely more excited about the farm system than I’ve ever been in my life. Most of that excitement hinges on new arrivals like Justus Sheffield, Jarred Kelenic, and Shed Long. Crushing on the new kids often comes naturally, so long as they don’t do anything drastic and cause the school to turn on them. So far, so good with all three, and that doesn’t even mention Spring Training standout Jake Fraley or ex-New York farmhands Justin Dunn and Dom Thompson-Williams.

Still, it feels like the Mariners could have gotten way more in return from the Phillies. While there’s a chance the trades with the Brewers and White Sox leave the Mariners looking like bandits, the sheer volume of acquisitions does open up the door for embarrassment. From a baseball perspective, where everything is painted with the rosy hues of next decade, I think we’re chill.

There is however, the stench of the Lorena Martin scandal lingering over the offseason, as well as blatant cost-cutting from a billion dollar company that still charges questionable ticket prices. I certainly do not love that.

Denise: Look - a lot happened the past few months. Half the players we acquired this offseason probably won’t even be here in three years. Remember when the future of the Mariners was the “big three?” With the loss of Paxton, those guys are all gone now. It’s hard to count on anything not immediate in baseball. I know how I feel personally is that most of the players I loved are gone, and even though that was necessary for rebuilding, it’s still tough to see them go. It sucks to see the huge names go, but it also really hurts to see someone like Ben Gamel, who just made baseball more fun, go.

Eric: There is certainly a lot of pain and heartache seeing players like Paxton, Canó, Cruz, Zunino, and Segura playing with new teams, and even lesser-known names like Gamel and Heredia. It’s hard to let go of that previous core of the team. But, there is a certain joy in rebuilding and trying new things. There is so much to be excited about in the farm system, a previously barren, salted-earth wasteland according to every scout in baseball. It’s easy to be skeptical about Mariners prospects, but we’ve never seen what this particular iteration of the minors development staff can do. Therefore, it’s only fair to be open-minded about the success of players like Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, Logan Gilbert, Sam Carlson, and more. Surely there will busts. There always are. This is a game of failure, after all. But, until then, it’s more fulfilling to dream on potential success than to prematurely dwell on darkness.

John: I am excited, individually, about many of the players acquired this offseason. It was exciting watching Spring Training with an eye to the future, not with fingers-crossed that everyone would somehow emerge healthy. There’s a lot that stands between this team and success, however, and most of that hinges on the players acquired and the players already here in the minors maximizing their talent. That’s a longshot in any circumstance, and it’s Plan A now. There won’t be terrible baseball in Seattle this year or in the next several, as we’ve been spared the grisly Orioles and Tigers present/future, but I felt wary at the time of many of these trades and feel wary now. The Mariners bet on themselves in development, but only part-way, and I fear the path they’ll walk in a few years will look mighty familiar unless things break very right.

Amanda: If you had told me last November that I’d feel good about the direction of the Mariners, I would have scoffed derisively. However, when it comes to the players in the organization I have no complaints. It’s been really tough to say goodbye to some favorites this offseason (I’ll always miss you, Edwin Díaz). It’s also been easy to fall in love with the new guys and the prospects. I feel fine with the major league roster as is for the retooling of the organization, even if the pitching staff, and bullpen in particular, make for some unpleasant nights. I survived the bullpens of 1997 and 1998; I can survive anything.

When it comes to off the field matters, I’m not happy with the organization. Kevin Mather is still the CEO and I still feel unsettled about the Lorena Martin situation. Ticket prices make it unlikely I get up there for more than a game or two, if I make it at all. The lure of $11 seats and the prospects in Tacoma may overwhelm my desire to watch the big league club in person.

Kate: Same for me. I’ll still follow the team, but I’m thinking about taking all the money I’d usually spend on going to the park and instead saving up for a trip to West Virginia to see the Power in action. Take me home, Kevin Mather-free country roads.