Stecker: It’s been a quiet Mariners offseason, and that may be for the best
The Seattle Mariners’ payroll has been slashed during their rebuild.
They got out from under Robinson Canó’s albatross of a contract. They let Nelson Cruz leave in free agency. Félix Hernández’s final seven-year, $175 million deal with the team is now a distant memory.
As a result, the Mariners according to Spotrac were 21st in MLB in payroll in 2020 and rank 25th going into next season with a total that is less than a third of the current highest payroll belonging to the Dodgers.
They didn’t just shed money for the sake of it, however. Through the wonders of the trade market, general manager Jerry Dipoto dealt veteran after veteran – in multiple cases acquiring new veterans with big contracts only to flip them a few months later – usually in a manner that freed up money and added a promising young player and/or prospects who could factor into Seattle’s future. Yeah, the payroll was shrinking for ownership, but the best Mariners farm system in recent memory was being built at the same time.
Now that the first of several waves of talent (as Dipoto likes to refer to them) from the farm system has arrived at the MLB level, this offseason is the perfect time for the Mariners to start taking on bigger contracts and make some splashy moves, right?
Yeah, I was never expecting that, though I know from watching Twitter all day most days that some were. It’s not that I’m pessimistic and figured the M’s would want to keep their payroll low rather than “go for it.” It’s that when people asked what big moves the Mariners should make going into the 2021 season, my response was to look at the roster and go “Why?” That’s because there is still so much to learn about a team that is far from cementing its core, and I’d much rather the M’s establish a core that can get them in the playoff race before they make blockbuster deals in trades and free agency.
Rebuilds require optimism
This is where I’m going to lose some people: You have to look at the Mariners’ current roster with rose-colored glasses.
I know, that really isn’t a smart request when fans who were born the year Seattle’s playoff drought started are now old enough to be college students (19 years and counting). But because the Mariners’ roster at this stage has so many players who don’t even have a full season’s worth of MLB experience, the front office still needs to do its due diligence and give these players the chance to show if they can live up to their potential. And if that means waiting a little while longer to figure out which positions you should be targeting to make big moves at, so be it.
Think we know what 2020 Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis is? Well, he has all of 317 plate appearances in the big leagues. Ready to sell on J.P. Crawford? He just turned 26 and hasn’t played 100 MLB games in a single season yet. Worried about Evan White’s bat? Yeah, me too. He also hasn’t gone to the plate even 200 times in a Mariners uniform.
That’s three players who are written into the 2021 Mariners lineup in pen, not pencil, who Seattle still has much to learn about and try different things with, and they’re not the only ones. I would think in most cases the Mariners aren’t looking at a starting position and asking if they can find a better player to immediately plug in through trade or free agency. Rather they’re looking at the potential of the young players they have and are being patient to see how much of that potential they’ll live up to.
Those that prove they can be valuable MLB players will become part of the Mariners’ core. Once you get an idea of how many of those positions are settled – hopefully it’s the majority and you start winning some games – that’s when you start spending money to fill holes. And if you make a splash at that point, it should have a much more immediate impact on your quest for postseason glory.
What could have been
So you wanted the Mariners to go big this offseason? OK, let’s take a look at what has been out there.
First up, superstar shortstop Francisco Lindor. The Mariners could have tried to trade for him like the Mets did, but he’s set to be a free agent after the year. So instead of dipping into your prospect pool now to acquire him for just one guaranteed season, putting your hopes into the slim chances you can convince him to sign an extension and forego teams competing for his services in free agency, you only have to wait one more year to join that same bidding war. By that time you’ll be one year farther along in the rebuild, plus it doesn’t hurt to see during that time if something resembling the rose-colored glasses version of Crawford appears. And even in that case, there’s nothing preventing you from moving Crawford to second base if you’re able to get a shortstop of Lindor’s caliber.
Sticking with trades, what about Blake Snell? He cost the Padres a significant four-player package that included Luis Patiño, MLB Pipeline’s No. 23 prospect, and that’s not something the Mariners in their current state should have tried to match. While Snell is a Cy Young Award winner and would be a great story as a local product coming home, his track record really isn’t one of a true ace who would turn the M’s into a contender right away. There’s so much unsettled about the pitching staff, too, with Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn on the MLB roster and Seattle’s list of top prospects including first-round picks Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and Emerson Hancock. The Mariners could add an ace now if the right opportunity came along, but I also see no problem in them getting a better understanding of their numerous young rotation hopefuls first. There’s almost always going to be a top-level starter available somewhere, and that means there’s no sense of urgency to get one as they come off a .450 winning percentage in 2020.
Free agents? Marcell Ozuna or George Springer would be nice and all, but I wouldn’t break the bank for them when you have Lewis and a returning Mitch Haniger in the outfield plus the prospect trio of Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodríguez and Taylor Trammell awaiting. If there’s one place I’m definitely going to use those rose-colored glasses, it’s the outfield.
I would have considered D.J. LeMahieu (who has returned to the Yankees) at second base, but it would be a case of sinking a lot of money into a player when your core isn’t set, and he’s 32 years old. Sign me up for seeing what Dylan Moore does when given a chance to start, then reassessing the options at midseason or next offseason.
I will admit those are really only big names that I brought up and there are valid concerns the Mariners aren’t being opportunistic enough during a slow offseason. They haven’t made many moves at all and there are middle-tier players worth targeting, especially for the bullpen. There’s still time for that tune to change, but I like how Seattle’s rebuild has gone thus far and while I’m probably in the minority on this, I’m OK with the Mariners going into the season with what they have and seeing how the first few months shake out.
Yeah, the theme here is “wait and see.” I know it’s frustrating for Mariners fans who are tired of being told “not now, later” to watch Padres and Mets fans have all the fun, but Seattle’s rebuild hasn’t hit the stage of winning yet. There were really promising signs during the shortened 2020 season, though, and the Mariners turned some heads by finishing third in the AL West. If the team can get things pointed in the right direction over the first half of 2021, the timing just may be right for Dipoto to get to work around the trade deadline.
What really matters
An issue I’ve seen pointed out (hat tip here to Dome and Bedlam’s Nathan Bishop, who had a recent series of well-reasoned tweets from an opposing viewpoint that inspired me to write this column) is that Dipoto has said throughout the rebuild that he expects the team to compete for the playoffs in 2021. He said it when the whole endeavor began in 2018 and he repeated it after the 2020 season.
I think when Dipoto said in October that the goal was to compete for a playoff spot in 2021, he was using his rose-colored glasses. And I don’t necessarily disagree, either. I mean, yeah, there’s a playoff team somewhere in there if a lot of things break the right way for Seattle. I also don’t hold his feet to the fire for saying something like that because I don’t expect a general manager whose baseball team is three years into a rebuild to say, “You know, next year we’re probably not going to compete for a playoff spot.” That would be a lot more newsworthy.
Regardless of the intent behind what Dipoto said – and I’m going to lose more people here – I don’t care about his estimates of when Seattle’s playoff drought could end. I care about the results of the Mariners’ rebuild, the trajectory they’re on, and what the right decisions are now.
I could get into excuses, and the impact the pandemic had on the 2020 season, shortening it to just 60 games and canceling all minor league play, is a pretty good one for a team that has invested so much in its farm system. But even if that had not happened, my thought process would be the same. The Mariners’ rebuild has been remarkably smooth since it started in 2018. The trajectory it’s on is pointed upward. And while at some point they will need to add proven and even star players – and don’t rule out the right opportunity or two coming along before opening day because there are still months to go – there’s nothing that says that point needs to be right now.
Figure out the core. Start winning some games. Then, make a splash and go for it.