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The Mariners can improve the easy way or the hard way

Seattle has been coy about their goals for improving this winter. Is that tactical opacity or troubling tepidness?

Colorado Rockies v Milwaukee Brewers
Every photo of Brewers players just reminds me how dang good all their jerseys are good grief.
Photo by John Fisher/Getty Images

The United States Navy popularized the “KISS principle,” an acronym with many possible origins but appropriately clear application. The term has many slight variations, from the “keep it simple, stupid” that I was raised on to the perhaps more ubiquitously usable “keep it super simple,” or even “keep it short and sweet.” In this case, the Seattle Mariners can be the beneficiaries of another variation, fitting for their naval connections: “keep it simple, sailor.”

This winter provides the M’s with an exciting challenge: improving upon a team that won 90 games with young and/or solid under-contract players at most positions. They are the antithesis of the teams they spent most of the 2010s with, which was a hollow starship powered by the cores of three or four waning white dwarf stars, with little specks of cosmic dust occasionally ricocheting into its hull for weal (Denard Span) and woe (Danny Valencia). This club, by contrast, has depth and a diverse, sustainable fuel supply.

While the only public projection system at present is Steamer, that is enough to offer us a mostly-reasonable augury. Seattle has six full-time position player starters projected for >2.0 wins above replacement, which is to say average or better. That is led by 6.0 WAR from Julio Rodríguez and 4.0 WAR from Cal Raleigh, as well as average-to-above-average numbers from Ty France, J.P. Crawford, Eugenio Suárez, and Teoscar Hernández. Likewise, the rotation has a healthy baseline, with four starters expected to post >2.0 WAR, as well as healthy (merited) skepticism for longtime FIP-buster Marco Gonzales. The bullpen looks solid despite the departure of Erik Swanson. This leaves Seattle with a couple clear points of possible improvement:

  • 2nd base - Dylan Moore is projected for part-time duty there and respectable numbers at a 97 wRC+ with 1.1 WAR in 91 games and 356 PAs, but Moore has always been best deployed as a part-time hitter, specifically against lefties. His greatest assets to the club are his ability to play every position, affording others rest days without cratering on either side of the ball. The same goes even truer for Sam Haggerty, whose brilliance in 2022 began to slip into overexposure, particularly against RHPs.
  • 3rd outfielder - Julio and Teoscar make up a strong twosome, but who will flank them is up for debate. Is it Jesse Winker, whose health and defensive limitations might have pushed him out of the organization’s plans, but still projects for a 124 wRC+ in 107 games and 452 plate appearances for a near-average 1.3 WAR? Or Jarred Kelenic, with a near-identical projection for games played and WAR, albeit through better baserunning and defense and a tamer 106 wRC+? Either player would likely be in need of a platoon-mate, though they are the current DH and RF as the roster stands, and have greater track records/cause for belief in improvement. Taylor Trammell and Kyle Lewis are both present as well, though they do not seem to be major considerations in the club’s plans, however they are more compelling than their high minors depth in the infield.
  • Starting pitcher - Do you trust Marco Gonzales? It’s a simple question. And if not, do you trust Chris Flexen as the primary bulwark behind him, as well as the main option should Seattle not be as blessed with rotation health as they were in 2022?

So, we’ve got three spots, broadly speaking, where the Mariners can focus their improvements, and nowhere initially screaming “black hole” as has certainly been the case in the past. None of the club’s major position player prospects are likely to reach the bigs in the next year or two, so there’s no cause to delay acquiring long-term upgrades. If Seattle follows their past paths, borne out of a goal of penny-pinching first and foremost, they will pursue trades, such as their rumored interest in Brewers 2B Kolten Wong, who they refused to outbid 2-years, $18 million with a team option for two winters ago. A solid player who I fervently wanted the club to sign (as did we as a site), is a solid player whose defensive regression at age-31 last year was counterbalanced by a career-best season at the plate.

He projects as a 2.5 win player, and as a lefty hitter could provide a platoon with Moore and/or Haggerty as he has always been in his career. That’s then around a 3-win player, give or take, a fair bet and a quality fit. It might lock up Moore for more usage at a single position than the club would prefer, forcing them to play Wong in more disadvantageous platoons against lefties where he’s (80 wRC+, .280 wOBA) always struggled in his career, but much like Adam Frazier, Wong at $10 million for a single season is an absolutely defensible, easy way to upgrade the team. Similarly, re-signing Frazier, could do the trick, likely providing average or better numbers from second base. But that puts immense pressure on Seattle to sign Brandon Nimmo or Aaron Judge, which ranges from contentious to vanishingly doubtful.

Does Seattle want to continue chipping away at its own farm system, sending out young players who are often treated as interchangeable in the sport but are in fact more or less likely to succeed to acquire proven talent, or take the next step in contending by spending to make dramatic improvements in a single spot, bringing in one of the three middle infielders in free agency projected for >4.5 WAR (Correa - 5.1, Turner - 4.7, Bogaerts - 4.5) to make a more emphatic leap towards challenging the Houston Astros for the AL West title is not a five-dimensional chess move, but it makes the most sense. Each of those three, as well as Dansby Swanson, have strong cases for better health and/or production histories than Nimmo, while Judge, well, if the Mariners sign Aaron Judge, you simply won’t hear a complaint about it from me, but I’m not holding my breath.

The simplest, most efficient, and - while I could hardly care less - most cost-effective way to improve is to add the best possible player at the position the team is currently worst at. That position is second base in my estimation, because of the players currently on the roster, the way the current solutions at that position are most valuable when they can be deployed multi-positionally instead, and the fact that there are more top-tier options in free agency for up-the-middle infielders, whether they play shortstop or second base for Seattle ultimately, than there are outfielders who are meaningful upgrades over Seattle’s in-house options. Marginal upgrades are all well and good, but their opportunity cost is blocking off spaces for dramatic improvements.

As Jerry Dipoto has noted recently, the club is trying to go from good to great, and while he’s expressed a reasonable sentiment to 710 AM’s Mike Salk asking him to “tell me the last premium free agent the Astros went out and signed,” however it’s a bit of a misplaced question. Houston, who infamously were punished by losing their 1st and 2nd round picks in 2020 and 2021 for their cheating scandal en route to their 2017 World Series win, have nonetheless made 17 “1st round” picks in the 13 drafts since 2010, courtesy of clever manipulation of MLB’s previous compensation system. Seattle made just 12 “1st round” picks in that same time period. So yes, Houston may have avoided free agency, trading for stars like Gerrit Cole, Zack Greinke, and Justin Verlander, and then extending the latter. That draft pick system compensation no longer exists in the same framework, and Seattle must adjust to finding lasting success looking forward, not looking backwards.

Don’t overthink this. Sign a star middle infielder. If you’re determined to make marginal upgrades elsewhere, so be it. But go big where it would matter most. KISS, Seattle.