Another winter, another season come and gone, and another year the Seattle Mariners failed to reach their full potential. While there are many reasons for this and more than enough blame to go around, we can all point to the real lack of offense the Mariners produced. The Mariners came in below league average or just about league average in slugging, on-base percentage, OPS, OPS+, and batting average; the Mariners also finished second in the league in strikeouts with 60 more strikeouts than the Colorado Rockies in third. Now, that’s not to say it’s bad to be average, but if a team (or at least the fanbase) sets its sights on consistent playoff appearances and has aspirations for a World Series, average isn’t gonna cut it.
In particular, the Mariners saw a significant drop in offensive production from Ty France, which has led to calls for an upgrade at first base. More to the point, the Mariners are simply not deep enough and not threatening enough after the 4th or 5th spot in the order; Julio, JP, Suárez, Kelenic/Hernandez, and Raleigh made for a fairly threatening top 4 or 5 in the lineup, with a very significant drop off to guys who are more likely to be bench bats and utility guys rather than everyday players. Now the Mariners have traded away one of the power threats in their lineup, replacing the strikeout-prone Suárez with the contact-focused but significantly less-threatening Luis Urías, who apparently the team sees as their everyday third baseman and not as the platoon bat we assumed. But instead of yet another year of a light-hitting infielder playing at a key position on the diamond, I’d like to propose a solution, or at least a step toward a solution: Matt Chapman.
Many of you may be thinking, “Matt Chapman? I want Shohei or Soto or Alonso. This guy isn’t gonna make a difference.” I ask those who think that way to be patient. No one player will turn this team around overnight, but a well-executed plan that assembles players who can pull off the team’s vision makes light work all around. Matt Chapman would be a great addition to take this team in the right direction. His 2023 season was fairly strong; though he did take a step back in some areas, he still brings a powerful bat to add to a lineup that struggled to link together more than two hits. Chapman has excellent underlying metrics that we see in players like Nolan Gorman or the player he’d be replacing, Eugenio Suárez that would make him an ideal addition to the lineup. Furthermore, being a right-handed hitter would make him precious protection for lefties like JP or Kelenic. Though Chapman did have a down year in power numbers, he was still in the 98th percentile for hard hit percentage, barrel percentage, and average exit velocity, so he’s still hitting it hard. Chapman also brings a solid walk rate, graded in the 78th percentile. A Mariners team that was one of the top walking teams in the league in 2022 and dropped to just barely above average while also seeing their strikeouts jump to one of the worst in the league is sure to be able to use the services of a guy who, you know, walks more.
If you still don’t believe that Chapman would be a valuable addition, let me try to convince you with a direct comparison to Suárez.
As you can see, they are damn near clones of each other. Despite playing in fewer games, Chapman has beaten Suárez in all advanced metrics, while Suárez has the advantage in counting stats. Many of you and some of the staff here at LL have been big fans of Suárez and his time in Seattle; adding a copy of him to the lineup could be the first step in lifting the Mariners’ offense out of mediocrity.
Now, it’s not all roses for Matt Chapman. His game has some drawbacks that should be discussed, most notably the strikeouts. When I said he was similar to Suarez, I also meant the strikeouts. Chapman’s whiff percentage is in the 18th percentile, and his K% is in the 16th percentile; certainly not bottom of the league, but perilously close. Chapman finished last year with 165 strikeouts, only five less than the year before, in 30 fewer at-bats and 15 fewer games. So many of you may already wonder if he's striking out nearly as much as Suarez, what would be the point in signing him for a team that’s said their goal is to cut strikeouts? Well, let me explain why I have hope Chapman will rebound to the zone-controller he was with the A’s rather than the apparent free-swinger he’s been with the Blue Jays.
In 2020, Matt Chapman had season-ending hip surgery that cut his campaign down to just 37 games out of 60, and he has not come back the same player. As a result, Chapman saw the highest strikeouts of his career in 2021, topping 200 for the first and only time in his career so far. Hip injuries like Chapmans usually take two seasons to fully recover from, as reported by our frienemies over at Athletics Nation. Strangely, despite the strikeouts spiking up, Chapman wasn’t swinging at more pitches out of the zone; he was having difficulty addressing pitches in the zone and struggled mightily against breaking pitches, hitting a measly .178 against them as opposed to .236 back in 2019. Despite that, Chapman was still in the top 10% of the league in walk percentage and seemed to return even stronger the following seasons. Chapman has maintained a steady walk rate, dropping closer to his pre-injury form, kept the whiffs down, and is hitting the ball the hardest ever in his career, finishing in the top 10% for Exit velocity and top 5% for hard-hit percentage in 2022 and 2023.
What this translates to on the field is Chapman rarely chases badly, draws walks, works the count, and punishes mistake pitches in the zone more frequently than not. Meanwhile, Suárez has continued to post some of the worst K% in the league, finishing in the bottom 10% for the past three years, including in the bottom 5% in 2022, and overall has regressed across the board. Both players are going to be north of 30 come Opening Day, but there’s reason to believe that one player’s career trajectory is headed in a different direction than the other’s—and that’s maybe something the Mariners believe, as well.
With the Mariners cutting ties with Suárez, Chapman is one of the few available third basemen who represents an equal or improved level of defense at the position. Coming off the fourth Gold Glove of his career, Chapman would be fantastic to have out in the field. Chapman at third posted a total defensive runs saved above average (DRS) of 12 as opposed to Suarez, who had an excellent season at third, still only put up a -2. Defensive metrics aren’t infallible, and Suárez gets credit for his durability, but Chapman’s defense stands up to both defensive metrics and the eye test:
What a play by Matt Chapman pic.twitter.com/vfZ5JT2jpo— Talkin’ Baseball (@TalkinBaseball_) June 10, 2023
So what would it cost? Honestly, it’s a pretty low value for commitment, and I feel a lot of bang for your buck. ESPN has Chapman projected at four years $100 million, which is a fair price for excellent defense and an improving bat. The main concern would be his age (he’ll be 31 come April 2024) and how that affects his defense and eye for the zone. The Mariners gave Kyle Seager a similar 5-year $100 million contract, and we see how, near the end, the defense and hitting both begin to decline.
Additionally, the Mariners would have to give up a draft pick because of the qualifying offer from the Blue Jays. 4 years $100 million is probably a little bit of an overpay, especially if a draft pick goes along with it. I propose something more like four years $80 million or four years $60 million on the low end. A 4-year contract fits the Mariners’ current “window” (if we want to call it that) well, and the lower per-year cost will make him easier to move if they choose to move on from him.
It’s likely we’ll see a lot of changes for all AL West teams (except for the A’s, who will change but in bad ways). There will probably be a significant amount of retooling in New York, Toronto, Tampa Bay, Minnesota, and Cleveland. All these teams will be looking to add talent, and because the market is thin this year, borderline elite/excellent players will be harder to find. If the Mariners are serious about contention, this is the kind of move they need to make; signing a veteran with playoff experience to better address a position of need is a sign of a contending team. If they want to keep up in the arms race that is the top of Major League Baseball, they have to make moves to upgrade; sideways moves for bounce-back candidates and former top prospects don’t get you to the World Series, as the Mariners found out this past season. At some point, the team has to sacrifice something and be willing to take a risk while asking for fans to continue sacrificing their patience with the perpetually fringy Mariners.
I care little for the profits of the team when those don’t translate into results on the field. The Mariners and the front office may not realize it, but this offseason is a catalyst. Are you a serious franchise, or is all this a mirage on the horizon for your long-suffering fanbase to buy into? Signing Chapman won’t automatically make the Mariners contenders, but it would at least show that the time, emotions, and money we put into this team are going to a team with some ambition.