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Lookout Landing’s 2020 Mariners Offseason Plan: Going Medium

Based on the goals and restrictions the organization has laid out, I’ve made a compelling roster with contention potential in the short and long term.

Texas Rangers v Seattle Mariners Photo by Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

The Lookout Landing Offseason Plan™ has taken many forms over the years. We’ve gone for in-depth wishlists, predictive schemes, total absurdities, and choose-your-own-adventures select-your-scenarios. This year, we’re taking a slight variation on a straightforward outline: today’s plan encompasses a series of moves well within the realm of possibility, based on how the club has spoken and general intuition. They intend to contend for a playoff spot, meaning no more major sells of big league talent. They haven’t ruled out a “big swing”, but intend to give their young players plenty of run once again, meaning moves in free agency and on the trade market will likely be in the middle of the market instead of the top. Specifically, they intend to add around four bullpen arms, likely a veteran starter or two, and have expressed interest in adding a veteran left-handed bat to the lineup.

Seattle’s payroll currently projects for around 28th in MLB, a staggeringly low number for a fairly big market club with a fresh TV deal and naming rights and an ownership group led by communications and tech executives, less impacted than many industries by the pandemic. In short, even a moderate series of expenditures like those proposed today bolsters the Mariners towards contention, and gives their young core the chance to explode further if they can continue improving. The expanded playoffs will remain for at least 2021, making “contending for a playoff spot” a lower bar to clear, but we still have work to do. A future article will highlight what a much bigger swing could look like, but today we’re focusing on something realistic but constructive. Today our goals are threefold: raise the floor of the lineup, upgrade the middle of the rotation, and stabilize the bullpen.

Raising the Lineup Floor

The Moves:

Sign 2B Kolten Wong to 2-year, $24 million deal w/team option

Trade INF Donovan Walton to Braves for OF Ender Inciarte (Seattle pays full $8.7 million contract) and OF Michael Harris OR LHP Tucker Davidson

The Mariners have two clear spots in need of filling at this moment: 2B and LF. As I outlined back in September, these are the spots Seattle doesn’t yet have a prospect inserted (see: 1B, Evan White) or a solid young contributor (see: SS, J.P. Crawford). I believe Dylan Moore is something very solid, and should get the chance to start many games in 2021, but we can’t let a small sample of good be the enemy of a larger sample of, well, good. Seattle has already reportedly expressed interest in Kolten Wong, making this an easier fit. Wong is the jewel of this free agent crew, relatively, as the twice-reigning NL Gold Glove winner fresh off another solid year in St. Louis. Somewhat surprisingly, the Cardinals turned down Wong’s $12.5 million team option, and he has since reportedly rebuffed their multi-year extension offer. Whether that’s an issue of bad blood or lowballing is unclear, but Seattle should have a shot at swooping in and bringing the 30 year old Hawaiian back to the West Coast.

Wong’s career has been mildly interrupted by five different trips to the injured list, albeit all of the 10/15-day variety. When healthy, he’s an average hitter with a bit of a platoon lean, who could benefit in Seattle from the plethora of right-handed hitting options with positional versatility, including Moore and Ty France. Adding Wong would give the Mariners a starting infield every groundball pitcher in the league would dream of pitching in front of, boasting a Gold Glover at every position, including three reigning awardees. It’s a great marketing pitch, but it’s also a huge boon for Justus Sheffield, as well as some of the other acquisitions targeted in this plan. Beyond the hardware, advanced metrics (both DRS and UZR, plus OOZ for kicks) see Wong as the best defensive 2B in baseball over the past three years. Who says old school and new school can’t get along? Wong likely has other suitors, so the financial details could vary on this, but he’s consistently shown above-average baserunning skills, solid plate discipline, and below-average power that is still within normal big league levels. If the M’s can secure a team option at a similar rate ($12 million) with a $1-3 million buyout, there’s every reason to think the deal will work out for both sides. For more specifics on Wong’s fit in Seattle, Michael Ajeto has you covered.

As for the trade, this is a lite-version of so many high-minded salary dump proposals I’ve made over the years. MLB’s lack of a salary cap means salary dumps are never a need, but they do still occur, like Zack Cozart’s trade to the Giants, with the Angels attaching their 1st round pick Will Wilson to get San Francisco to take on the $13 million Cozart was due. I don’t expect Atlanta to be quite so pinchpenny as Anaheim, but they’ve made no great effort to flex financial resources at this time, and suddenly find themselves in a much more threatening division, while in need of upgrading their outfield. The easiest and most rumored path is re-signing Marcell Ozuna, which will cost more than the qualifying offer he just turned down. In any event, Ender Inciarte has no spot in Georgia, particularly at $8.7 million in 2021, with a $9 million option for 2022 and a $1.025 million buyout. The long-time defensive wizard had a miserable 2020, and has been supplanted by top prospect Cristian Pache as the defensive specialist, alongside no-slouch-gloveman Ronald Acuña Jr.. The club phased him out by the end of 2020, and the fans appear done with him too.

Beyond the privilege of taking the $9.725 million off Atlanta’s hands, Seattle would send along Donavan née Donnie Walton, who is Dikembe Mutombo’d in Seattle six ways to Sunday. Atlanta won’t likely find a replacement for Dansby Swanson or Ozzie Albies in Walton, but they will find a competent middle infielder with good bat to ball skills who has drawn rave reviews as a teammate and a leader from coaches and teammates alike. The move is mostly about shedding Inciarte’s salary, but Walton makes for a more useful depth option in Atlanta than he does here. Inciarte, conversely, provides a left field option if the Mariners are unable to extend Jarred Kelenic before the season and/or are unwilling to call him up until they’ve extracted an extra year of control by keeping him down for a month or so.

Seattle’s real impetus for this deal is the prospect attached. I’ve chosen the path of the coward and given two options, but I could’ve just as easily had three or more. Harris is a 19 year old outfielder taken in the 3rd round of the 2019 draft. The switch-hitter has checked all the boxes in terms of makeup and work ethic, and he was a member of Atlanta’s 60 player pool this season, giving Seattle a chance to have some basic data on his growth. If the M’s want a more imminent return, they could plausibly push for one of Atlanta’s many young arms. I’ve listed LHP Tucker Davidson, but they could otherwise push for RHP Bryse Wilson, RHP Jasseel De La Cruz, or even RHP Touki Toussaint and another lesser-known option. All three are starting pitcher prospects forced into bullpen or spot starting roles by Atlanta’s immense rotation depth. The 40-man crunch for Atlanta is significant, so they are incentivized to make some move of this sort or lose talent elsewhere. All but De La Cruz could either slot right into the back end of the M’s rotation or start in Tacoma and work right up. De La Cruz has brilliant stuff, but may be suited for a high-leverage bullpen role a la Andres Muñoz. I’ve listed the deal as though Seattle goes for a high-upside, lower-level player like Harris, but feel free to adjust the bullpen or rotation mentally to your preference.

Upgrading the Middle of the Rotation

Sign RHP Taijuan Walker to 3-year, $21 million deal

Sign RHP Chris Archer to a 1-year, $4 million deal w/team option

The first deal here is the simplest. Taijuan Walker is the most still-a-Mariner non-Mariner to have ever Marinered, and both sides expressed interest in another reunion after a successful short dalliance in 2020. Walker looked healthy and pitched reasonably well in his 11 starts following his near two year layoff. The 28 year old will likely never be the ace some thought he could be in the early 2010s, but between the positive rapport he’s developed with the Mariners staff and player group, and the constructive role he can have in encouraging those players along their own developmental paths, there is value in bringing Walker back beyond his solid play and general fan favorite status. The suspect health track record will likely keep Walker from a bigger payday, as even the days of Tyler Chatwood garnering 3/$39 for an injury and ineffectiveness riddled past seem distant. While some players in Walker’s position might want a one year prove-it deal, he’s missed out on the guaranteed cash and late-arb paydays of many of his contemporaries, so $21 million guaranteed seems plenty fair, without pushing Seattle’s cash in any direction for too long.

The second deal here was trickier. Archer may have many suitors or a complete dearth. Such is the danger of trying to return from surgery to address the dreaded Thoracic Outlet Syndrome. Complications prior to the surgery in June ultimately kept him from pitching at all in 2020, but he should be fresh and ready to go in 2021, whatever that may look like. TOS has among the worst recovery records of any common injury for a pitcher, having helped waylay Matt Harvey and Tyson Ross, among others. It’s not insurmountable, however, as Chris Carpenter and Chris Young can attest, and Archer’s fit in Seattle was something Kate Preusser dug into earlier this winter.

Archer’s numbers actually improved in many ways in 2019, as he shook off the sinker-focused approach the Pirates attempted to pigeon-hole him into. Kate put it well here:

Archer’s unfortunate 2019 numbers can also be attributed to the onset of his TOS, although his numbers have been declining for the past few years. But even if he was no longer his dominant, All-Star self of 2015-2017, in 2018 Archer still ate up innings, controlled the zone, and limited damage. His fastball might have lost a few ticks from 2018 to 2019, but it still averaged around 94 mph, and he complements the fastball with a rich arsenal of pitches that seem ripe for Seattle’s pitch-optimization team to get their hands on, including a putaway slider and a changeup that produces a high number of whiffs.

Specifically, Seattle could help Archer shed the sinker he was forced into under Pittsburgh’s Sinkers-R-Us pitching philosophy. Here’s how I imagine that conversation going:
Max Weiner or someone: Hey Chris, we’re gonna have you not throw that sinker anymore, K?
Archer: [does cartwheels out of clubhouse].

Archer had a pretty balanced tendency between grounders and air outs prior to his time in Pittsburgh, when his groundball rate actually declined. Putting him on a club with a good defensive outfield and what might be the best defensive infield in MLB is the kind of “Welcome Back!” gift pitchers dream of after watching Gregory Polanco plod after balls into the corner for the past couple years. Bringing on Archer, whose workload will likely need some management, is a smooth fit for the M’s, who intend to run a six-man rotation already and can afford Archer more rest and recovery between outings than most contenders. The move remains an opportunity as well: helping a former star turn things around is the type of credibility-building move that breeds enthusiasm among other players league-wide and trust within the organization. Gerrit Cole trusted the Astros far more having seen them rejuvenate Justin Verlander, and Seattle can help themselves in the short and long term likewise.

Alternative: LHP Brett Anderson on a 1/$6 million deal is a comparably useful short term move if the M’s are looking for more innings and more grounders.

Stabilizing the Bullpen

Sign LHP Alex Wood to a 2-year, $18 million deal

Trade OF Braden Bishop to Red Sox for RHP Matt Barnes

Sign RHP Kirby Yates to a 1-year, $7 million deal

Sign RHP David Phelps to a 1-year, $1.5 million deal

Here’s where I have a confession to make. I don’t know if Alex Wood will sign a deal knowing he’s expected to be a reliever. If so, perfect. If not, perhaps flip him and Nick Margevicius in the final listing below. Wood is, however, a fabulous fit for the Mariners’ young, inexperienced pitching group. He’s fresh off a title, having danced between starter and reliever for most of his time in L.A. between injuries. Seattle can ask the 29 year old to do a little less, but hopefully get long relief of a high quality that plays up with their defense. Is this running the Juan Nicasio deal back in a way? Yes! But the clock is not ticking as desperately on this team as it was the 2018 M’s. Wood extends the bullpen and the rotation, and gives Margevicius and Justin Dunn time to continue improving, not to mention Logan Gilbert as well.

The next move is for a higher-leverage arm who could also be a non-tender candidate. Matt Barnes is fresh off his worst season in half a decade, after several years as a solid back end reliever with about 10-20% less command than your best reliever should have. That bit him hard in 2020, as he walked more, whiffed less, and otherwise watched as the Red Sox crumbled. For reasons I can’t explain, I could have sworn he was traded to the Phillies, but the BoSox closer will be due around $4.5-5 million in arbitration this year, and the cash-strapped Sox may not want to pay that for the final year of a closer they don’t trust as much. Barnes won’t be available for free, but sending Boston a versatile defender like Bishop to help cover the defensive loss of Jackie Bradley Jr. in the cavernous Fenway center field should do the trick. Bishop is beloved as an individual, but the M’s have a wave of outfield prospects at his heels or closer, and the Rookie of the Year ahead of him alongside a former All-Star and, now, Inciarte. Once again, Seattle gets a short-term upgrade to their bullpen while trading from a position of depth at a low financial cost.

Yates and Phelps are the final external moves, giving Yates a chance to rebuild his value after surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow ended his season in mid-August. If Seattle is non-competitive but Yates returns to form, he can be a deadline deal, but a healthy Yates should be a back end option for the M’s. Phelps has been here before, though his trajectory has been poor since he arrived in Seattle, with disappointing numbers over the past few seasons and the surgery that scuppered his 2018. A deal akin to what Yoshihisa Hirano was offered seems appropriate, which pushes Seattle’s depth relievers all down a slot.

These moves upgrade Seattle’s immediate roster without sacrificing any of their long-term depth. Just as important to the front office and executives, if less so to fans, these moves keep Seattle’s long-term financial commitments low while boosting their payroll to something closer to average.

Projected Lineup (Italics for new additions)

C: Tom Murphy
1B: Evan White
2B: Kolten Wong
3B: Kyle Seager
SS: J.P. Crawford
OF: Kyle Lewis, Mitch Haniger, Ender Inciarte
DH: Ty France

Bench: C Luis Torrens, UTIL Shed Long Jr., UTIL Dylan Moore, OF Jake Fraley

Projected Pitching Staff

SP: Marco Gonzales
SP: Yusei Kikuchi
SP: Justus Sheffield
SP: Taijuan Walker
SP: Chris Archer
SP: Nick Margevicius

Bullpen: RHP Matt Barnes, RHP Yohan Ramirez, RHP Kendall Graveman, RHP Kirby Yates, LHP Alex Wood, LHP Anthony Misiewicz, RHP David Phelps, RHP Andres Muñoz

Projected Record/WAR (FanGraphs Depth Charts/Steamer, Approx.): 77-85 | 29.0 fWAR

Final Payroll (Approx.): $112.5 million

This is an ultra-cheap roster still, with the final payroll number clocking in around what would’ve been 20th-21st in MLB back in 2019. At the same time, as you can see from the rough projection I’ve made off the Steamer-based FanGraphs Depth Charts projections, this isn’t a clear-cut contender. Part of that is a projections limitation; the bullpen in particular is a nightmare to attempt to properly project, as is the impact of likely call-ups like Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert, who have lost a full year of data but not necessarily development. What Seattle should have is a far better bullpen than in 2020, as well as a lineup that can actually be a threat. The defense will be among the league’s best, and the rotation should have every opportunity to shine again, albeit still condensed with No. 3-4 starters more than any true aces. Overachievement can come from a few places, most notably full returns to health from Mitch Haniger, Yates, Murphy, Muñoz, and/or Archer. Conversely, underachievement is a clear risk if injuries waylay that group, or if young players like Lewis, White, Crawford, France, and Sheffield either fail to step forward or maintain their success. If this is how the Mariners 2020-21 offseason went, I would be pleased though not over the moon, but I want to leave it with one (and a half) more suggestions.

Secure the Future

Sign OF Jarred Kelenic to a 7-year, $69 million deal with three team options raising possible value to $110 million

Do this. Do this. Doooo this. It’s entirely possible Kelenic is unwavering, and he may not be wrong to hold off. Early extensions are the new gatekeeping tactic for teams to dangle over their qualified prospects to get them promoted to the big leagues. We’ve seen Seattle do this with Evan White, the ChiSox do so with Luis Robert and Eloy Jimenez, and we’ll no doubt see it often, perhaps even this offseason. For the Mariners, though, it makes every last bit of sense to meet Kelenic on something close to his terms like this. It would be the richest extension ever for a player yet to debut, but there is not really a world in which Jarred Kelenic is a bust and the Mariners’ whole plan works out swimmingly anyway. The Mariners should be in for a pound on Kelenic and ensure his career gets started Opening Day, 2021, and that he can spend the next decade or more, comfortably in Seattle.

If Seattle is fully unable to extend Kelenic out of the gate, there is another reasonable extension candidate they should look into...

Sign LHP Justus Sheffield to a 5-year, $25 million deal with two team options raising possible value to $50 million

The term “prospect fatigue” has a photo of Sheffield and J.P. Crawford standing arm in arm next to it in the dictionary, but both players appear to have established themselves as solid contributors for the Mariners. Either could be an extension candidate, but I’ve chosen Sheffield over Crawford due to a touch more confidence in his long-term utility. Top Sheff’s contract status should have him eligible for free agency after 2025, meaning the initial deal Seattle offers would buy out all of his remaining team control, giving Sheffield a clear guarantee of a raise over the next three seasons and $25 million (plus a few million in a buyout option) guaranteed, securing Sheffield’s financial future thoroughly. In return, Seattle would lock in Sheffield through at least his age-29 season, with the potential to have him through age-31 in 2027. Sheffield is younger than Marco Gonzales, who received a similar extension, but lacks the track record. Even if Kelenic agrees to an extension, both these deals make sense. In the event that they come to pass, the final payroll would look slightly different, but still below the MLB median, yet the future would look even brighter.

Final Payroll (Approx.) w/Extensions: $127.35 million