Surely by now the idea of an entire calendar year without baseball has crossed your mind. There’s contingency plans and hopeful, wishful thinking, but most of us would agree absolutely nothing is guaranteed right now. With all the hurdles still in place before players can take to the diamond again, the idea of year without baseball becomes more and more of a possibility.
For teams like the Los Angeles Dodgers, Cincinnati Reds, and many others, a year without baseball is far more damaging to their organizational plans than others. Because Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players Association (MLBPA) voted to ratify the current CBA by allowing players to accrue service time during the work stoppage, players on the last year of their current deals will become free agents at years’ end. The possibility of the Dodgers playing a single game without Mookie Betts exists. The likelihood of the Reds actually employing Trevor Bauer’s final year of arbitration on the field grows more dim.
This, of course, impacts the Mariners as well. Taijuan Walker, for example, may never play a single inning for his former team. He’ll become an unrestricted free agent in November once again. To a lesser degree, guys like Wei-Yin Chen and Carlos Gonzales may never get the opportunity to prove themselves in Seattle during the twilight of their careers. But as those three names show, the damage done to the Mariners is largely inconsequential.
Instead, Jerry Dipoto and his front office will have a different headache to deal with. Without baseball in 2020, the team won’t know what they’ve got in-hand moving forward. Without seeing guys like Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Shed Long, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn play this season, nobody in the organization will have the slightest clue where the team is at in its current rebuild. This is a problem as Seattle will have money to blow. But should they?
After shedding exorbitant amounts of payroll over the past two seasons, Seattle will once again offload a ton of financial restrictions following 2020. The Mariners will shed almost $30 million in dead money commitments after this season. Guys like Jay Bruce, Carlos Santana and Mike Leake are all still being paid by the club in agreements set forth in the trades that shipped them out of town. The payroll, which will likely hover around $100 million in 2020, will drop closer to $70 million headed into the 2021. Furthering the narrative, Seattle will shed an additional $34.5 million after the 2021 season. Their committed payroll for the 2022 season, arbitration numbers and all taken into account, is roughly $30 million.
Thus, the blessing and curse Dipoto currently has on his hands. The 2020-2021 free agent class isn’t shaping up to be the most impressive class we’ve ever seen. It pales in comparison to the 2018 class, and will likely forever live in the shadow of what’s to come in 2021-2022. But alas, there are some attractive names the Mariners could be attached to. The question is, will the organization be comfortable and confident enough with what they have now to believe it’s time to spend?
Seattle will without question be looking to bolster their rotation in the coming years through loosening the purse strings. Guys like Masahiro Tanaka, Trevor Bauer, James Paxton, Garrett Richards, Corey Kluber and Marcus Stroman may all hit the market this winter. While none of these are ace material, all represent high-upside, solid middle-of-the-rotation options; a necessity when pushing for a division title. The first three listed will almost certainly demand $20 million or more per year in their free agent deal. Richards and Kluber may be a shade more affordable having some question marks attached to durability. No matter how you shake it, the team is going to have to spend.
Then comes the question of JP Crawford? Is he the shortstop of the future for the team? 2020 was going to be a big year for Crawford and the Mariners. The team needs to know if the defense will take a step forward into gold glove status, and whether the stick will begin to play up to its potential. The possibility of neither of those questions being answered looms large and loud. The AL West will hemorrhage shortstops after this season with guys like Marcus Semien and Andrelton Simmons hitting the market. A guy like Semien will command top dollar, but a steady force up the middle is a big piece in building a contender. Can Seattle afford to sit on their hands let opportunities like this pass them by? Then there’s players like Mookie Betts and George Springer, who admittedly don’t fit into the Mariners’ roster construction as well as some of the other aforementioned names, but the point still stands; they’re talented players who Seattle may be forced to let walk right by.
On the trade market, there was going to be opportunities for the Mariners to build upon their foundation this season as some teams fall a little further behind the rebuilding curve. The Pirates have a pitcher in Jameson Taillon who likely won’t be on their next competitive team. With four years of team control remaining, Seattle could have swooped in and offered a package of Noelvi Marte, Sam Carlson and Braden Bishop, for example, to try and pry him away from Pittsburgh. That likely has no chance of happening now.
The front office will now have to lean heavier on the production of the 2021 Seattle Mariners. Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert will get long looks with the team, and some of the aforementioned pieces of the core will be under the spotlight in “show me now” mode. The 2021-2022 free agent class is simply too stacked for Seattle to push it’s rebuild one more year out. The team will be devoid of payroll and will have to make waves in the free agent market, there’s really no other way about it.
Pitchers like Lance McCullers Jr., Noah Syndergaard and Jon Gray will all become available, and it’s assumed the Mariners will be hellbent on acquiring an arm two years from now. But the real prize will undoubtedly come in the form of an infielder. You could make an argument five of the top eight shortstops in baseball will become free agents after the 2021 campaign in Trevor Story, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez, Carlos Correa and Corey Seager. All will be 29 years old or younger and all will likely command between $25-$35 million per year.
With Kyle Seager coming off the books after 2021, there will likely be a gaping hole at the hot corner. Kris Bryant and Nolan Arenado will also become free agents alongside the star-studded shortstop class mentioned above. There will be ample opportunities for Seattle to spend and do-so in a glutton-bellied manner.
From this chair, the Mariners are going to have spend next winter, there’s just no way around it. The team can’t afford to go into 2021 with the same roster they had going into this season. The acquisition of a Trevor Bauer, or a combination of James Paxton and Garrett Richards will be paramount in building the next contender in Seattle. The team can’t expect to sign all the pieces it needs to compete in one single offseason come 2021-2022. There’s 29 other teams bidding for the rights to these superstars, and some of those teams have the luxury of being proven winners. 2020 may be a wash, but that doesn’t mean the rebuild can press pause. The Mariners must believe in what they have, and be prepared to spend sight unseen.