Yesterday I offered a bare bones primer on what the 2021 Mariners might look like. In some ways, it was conservative; at the rate he’s progressing, Jarred Kelenic could very easily be in Seattle by that spring. In other ways, it was quite optimistic; every prospect of mild to major intrigue probably won’t be healthy and looking like a big leaguer a year and a half from now. I tried (and will again today) to approach it from a perspective of what felt likeliest, both in pure plausibility and what is within the broadest strokes of my projection abilities. We may disagree on what likeliest means and I expect to hear explanations from those among you who do. I made a few assumptions in putting this together, some of which I feel very confident in and others that sparked ambivalence but demanded I pick a side.
Most importantly, this entire exercise assumes the Mariners mean it when they say 2021 is their goal for re-entering competition. It could be 100% spin, but the team has doubled and tripled down publicly on this two-year “step-back”, so for the purposes of this piece those aspirations are being taken at face value. With that in mind I placed less emphasis on players currently filling out the 40-man roster and more those who would be emerging, younger, and/or under lengthy team control. For the most part I think this manifests benignly; if you think Austin Nola or Reggie McClain will be around instead of another UTIL or reliever, I won’t fight you, and I think the broad strokes remain valid. On the other end of things, I tried to be cautious with prospects: if a player is currently in Modesto or lower they were not considered likely bets for Opening Day 2021. More certainly, I assumed Seattle will not pick up the 2021 mutual option for Dee Gordon, or will trade him. One of Domingo Santana or Mallex Smith seems likely to depart, and Domingo’s shorter contract control and defensive limitations made me more confident he’d be dealt somewhere. If traded, he’d probably yield a player or two who would be MLB-ready by 2021, but projecting that is an article in its own right, so any potential return is left out here. Lastly, initially I assumed the Mariners would willingly eat money on Kyle Seager’s contract to move him, trade kicker and all, if he continued to play reasonably well over the next year. I still think that’s likely, but have included Seager in the projections table below for reference.
2021 Mariners Rough Projections
|Player||ZiPS 2021 WAR Projection||BP 2021 WARP Projection||Contract Status|
|Player||ZiPS 2021 WAR Projection||BP 2021 WARP Projection||Contract Status|
|TOTALS||24.5||10.5||~$50M w/o Arb $|
There was interest in some projections for a frame of reference for what would need to be added to make the 2021 squad a contender, and if we take these at face value the answer is... quite a bit. Both systems made their calculations before the season and either underestimate or simply do not estimate a few players who could easily matter. BP projections assume somewhere near a full season of consistent play for each player, making their particularly grim appraisals of a few players stand out sharply. Four of the more interesting relievers Seattle has in the minors do not receive projections at all from ZiPS, while Logan Gilbert receives no prognostication from either system.
On the plus side, financially there should be few limitations for the front office. Around $50 million will be committed to players either under contract (Kyle Seager & Yusei Kikuchi) or in pre-arbitration on a minimum contract. Add another $10 million for the money owed to Mike Leake, Robinson Canó, and Dee Gordon’s buyout, and you’re around $60 million. The arbitration money could vary wildly, but my expectation is it will only be applicable for fairly cheap Arb1 (J.P. Crawford, Marco Gonzales, MAYBE Tom Murphy) and somewhat cheap-to-not-too-expensive Arb2 (Mitch Haniger, MAYBE Omar Narváez, Mallex Smith, Sam Tuivailala). Domingo Santana would be the lone Arb3 player, though in my estimation he’s likeliest to be moved before then.
So what will the Mariners need most? We can use our knowledge of the situation to add some nuance to the preseason projections. SS should be covered by J.P. Crawford. Evan White and Daniel Vogelbach might not be All-Stars at that point, but they’ll be at 1B/DH with a good amount of potential. If Mitch Haniger is around he should still be solid, and if Jake Fraley is healthy he probably won’t be an utter disaster. But elsewhere things are murkier. Is Shed Long a full-time player or a bat-first UTIL? Is Seager around, and what shape is he in? Will Cal Raleigh be ready, and is that enough? Are either of the current M’s catchers trusty enough to count on for another several seasons Who, outside of Marco Gonzales, is going to be a good MLB pitcher?
To my eye, C, 2B, 3B, and SP are the biggest areas of uncertainty, and they’re where Seattle should look to stack on significant talent that can help improve conditions during the rest of the “step-back” and into the sunrise of the new contention window. Much like the Mariners teams of the 2000-2003 era, they should not be afraid to dig into free agency and build a roster from every possible source.
As has become increasingly common, despite looking great in the distance, the 2019-20 free agent class is pretty weak. Nolan Arenado, Paul Goldschmidt, Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, Justin Verlander, Aaron Hicks, Miles Mikolas, Khris Davis, and Sonny Gray all signed extensions in the last year-and-a-half, leaving us with slim pickings. The three names below are a combination of good fit and plausible enough to me to be worth diving into.
Top Pick: RHP Stephen Strasburg
2021 ZiPS Projection: Stephen Strasburg
Strasburg is the player that initially piqued my interest for this entire enterprise. The most anticipated pitching prospect in years now has his 31st birthday two weeks in his rearview, and he’s been... very good. His drafting (damn you Yuniesky) was a turning point for the Nationals franchise, his debut was electric, and the furor over shutting him down before the 2012 playoffs still casts a shadow over Washington. He’s been a stellar No. 2 for Washington, but despite excellent seasons often slightly shortened by injury, he has never once in his 10-year career led his team’s pitching staff in either bWAR or fWAR. That’s no real indictment of Strasburg, who has pitched alongside Max Scherzer, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, and Liván Hernández, but it helps frame why one of the better pitchers of the decade is slightly overlooked. That performance earned him a 7-year, $175 million contract prior to the 2016 season, but it notably included both $70 million in salary deferrals and an opt-out this offseason. If Strasburg doesn’t think he can beat the un-deferred 4-year, $60 million left on his contract over the next several seasons, he’ll likely remain in Washington. But he is a Scott Boras client, and more likely to test free agent’s waters than most. If he hops in for a swim, the Mariners should throw him a line.
Strasburg obviously would be first fiddle for the Mariners. By both reputation and performance he’s been and projects to be superior to any member of the current organization. Moreover, at 31, he’s already begun to utilize his excellent secondary pitches at a higher clip. His curveball ranks in the 86th percentile for highest spin rate and has leapt from between 15-20% usage over the past several seasons to 30.3% this year. He’s seen no loss in effectiveness from the pitch despite its increase in usage, and I think he could even utilize his changeup more often as well.
Even as his velocity has dropped a tick, Strasburg is still averaging 94 mph on his fastball, and he’s having one of the best seasons of his career. Just as importantly, he’s on pace for the second 200+ inning season in his big league life, which leads us to the red flags with Strasburg. He’s had injury issues in a way slightly similar to James Paxton, albeit with more black than red in his track record. Every year since 2012, Strasburg has started 22+ games and thrown 127+ IP, but only twice has he started 30+ or thrown 180+ IP. In those seven years, he’s hit the DL for a lat strain, neck tightness, oblique strain, upper back strain, elbow soreness, elbow nerve impingement, shoulder inflammation, and cervical nerve impingement. That all comes after his 2010 Tommy John Surgery. It’s a daunting list, and yet Strasburg has returned each time to be more or less the same guy, with variations of good to great. He remains a strong, imposing 6’5, 235 figure on the mound, with the frame to potentially age more easily than his smaller, higher-effort contemporaries.
Teams and fans have become fearful of the free agent market, but the idea that investing in top-end pitchers, via free agency or extension, leads to catastrophe is somewhat overblown. Jon Lester (6/$155M) has delivered excellent returns for the Cubs. The Nationals assuredly are glad they took on Max Scherzer (7/$210M). Arizona got great numbers from Zack Greinke (6/$206.5M) before jumpstarting their rebuild by dealing him to the Astros. Many of the cautionary tales have still been defensible in terms of value, like David Price (7/$215M) and of course our own King Félix (7/$175M) who remained excellent for the first few seasons before falling off. There are true horror stories, to be sure, like Detroit’s gambit with Jordan Zimmerman (5/$110M), but if you’re going to swing for an ace in free agency, things have and can work out very well in the short and long term.
I think there is more to be gotten from Strasburg, and that this year is a hint at that potential. Seattle has done a remarkable job overhauling their farm, but they need impact from their spending in free agency, not just fliers. Considering the financial flexibility the Mariners have and the lack of comparable talent coming to free agency this year or next, this may be their best shot at nabbing an ace to anchor the rotation. In referring back to the 2021 roster above, I see a few positions where they have a decent shot at outperforming the projections, namely through strong play by Evan White, J.P. Crawford, and any of the many outfield prospects. It would take a greater degree of improvement to spin an ace out of what the organization has by 2021, and for that reason I see this as a spot to maximize the improvement made on the roster with an investment.
Alternatives and/or Additional Moves: RHP Zack Wheeler, C Yasmani Grandal
2021 ZiPS Projection: Zack Wheeler
If you’re a fan of the concise case, one, I’m sorry, how did you make it through that, and two, Wheeler could be seen as Strasburg-lite. He’s just 29 years old, slightly smaller at 6’4/ 200, and was taken 6th overall in the same 2009 draft as Strasburg. Four years later he debuted with the Mets, and when healthy he’s shown flashes of being a Top-15 starter in baseball. The last two seasons, it’s largely clicked, and Wheeler is en route to hitting free agency much like Patrick Corbin did this past winter. Seattle was rumored to have interest in dealing for Wheeler last July, so this could be their chance to strike at last. The reward could be significant - as a younger northpaw with elite heat, he’s mostly used his fastballs to get by. Despite some unlucky results this year with a pretty lousy defense behind him, the peripherals are good for a guy yielding weak contact for the third straight season. What Wheeler will garner in free agency is the big question mark, and could change dramatically down the stretch. He’s had Tommy John twice already, which could shy teams away and lead the team willing to commit to get a steal, but there’s more risk of burnout on Wheels than many other players with his talent.
2021 ZiPS Projection: Yasmani Grandal
The other player that jumps out is a guy at a position where the Mariners aren’t too bad off. While Wheeler and, to my understanding, Strasburg, would both be Qualifying Offer-eligible and therefore cause the Mariners to forfeit their 3rd-highest draft pick upon signing, Yasmani Grandal will not. He went through that rigamarole last year, leading to his underwhelming 1-year/$18.25M deal with the Brewers. There’s not too much complexity to this signing: Grandal has been one of the top-3 catchers in baseball for the the past five years thanks to brilliant defense and above-average bat-work. He’ll turn 31 in November, but he’s not shown any signs of regression and the projections like him to continue being trusty. The Mariners have had good fortune with Omar Narváez and Tom Murphy this year, but one is brutal defensively and the other is running a >30% gap in the bad way between their strikeouts and walks. Having two switch-hitting catchers is also fun as a concept to me personally, assuming Cal Raleigh makes it to the bigs, and this signing gives Seattle a little flexibility to deal their receivers to fill holes elsewhere.
Honorable Mentions: Gerrit Cole: best pitcher on the market, most likely goes somewhere else for more money/immediate competitiveness. Anthony Rendon: same but substitute “position player”. Madison Bumgarner: excellent track record but a couple years of decline after HEAVY workloads, surplus value diminished when not hitting. Marcell Ozuna: High-reward potential buy-low candidate, but plays a position of lesser need. Josh Donaldson: Producing well, but already 33, and not necessarily as likely to dramatically upgrade over alternatives long-term.
For the Mariners to get to where they say they want to be in 2021, they’ll need to add significant impact, and for all Jerry’s trading magic the names above are the most straightforward way of doing so. They can make these additions without hamstringing the development of their youth. As we’ve seen just last offseason with Robinson Canó and again this deadline with Greinke, for as much hand-wringing as goes into veteran contracts, many players signed perform excellently for their teams before being moved. They do not need to constrain a rebuilding team, and beyond a reasonable “it’s not your money” perspective, signing good players is good business and leads to good baseball. In the 2020-21 offseason, there will be another crop of talented players, including J.T. Realmuto, Kiké Hernández, James Paxton, DJ LeMahieu, Marcus Semien, Trevor Bauer, and possibly even Japanese star Tetsudo Yamada. Some will make it to free agency, and others will not, but it will be important then too for Seattle to be active and savvy. Even one or two good signings won’t matter if the development doesn’t surpass the expectations of the projection systems. But improving starts now, and it continues this offseason. Hopefully with a new ace in tow.