BRANDON GUSTAFSON

A Closer Look: The good and bad of Mariners’ offseason so far

Dec 28, 2022, 12:40 AM | Updated: 10:15 am
Mariners Teoscar Hernández...
Teoscar Hernández connects in a Blue Jays game against the Seattle Mariners on July 7, 2022. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)
(Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Mariners finally made the playoffs in 2022, ending what was the longest active postseason drought in major North American professional sports. Naturally, there were plenty of eyes on the M’s heading into this offseason with many interested parties wondering what Seattle would do next.

So what has Seattle done? And what haven’t the Mariners done? Let’s look at the good and the bad from their offseason so far.

Additions to the lineup

The Good

The Mariners have made two notable trades as it pertains to their lineup for 2023, adding outfielder Teoscar Hernández and second baseman Kolten Wong.

On the surface and as standalone moves, both are absolutely solid pickups for the Mariners as they provide upgrades at their respective positions over what Seattle has had in recent years. The M’s acquired both without taking away too much from both the MLB roster and the farm system, too, which is a plus.

Hernández is one of the game’s premier sluggers, ranking near the very top of the league when it comes to exit velocity, barrel rate and hard-hit rate. He’ll slide in at right field, replacing Mitch Haniger, who signed a three-year deal with his hometown San Francisco Giants.

While losing Haniger is certainly not a positive – we’ve seen that he can carry a lineup when he’s healthy – that health is a big ‘if’ as he’s missed 269 games since the start of the 2019 season. And while he was spectacular in 157 games in 2021 with 39 home runs and 100 RBIs, Hernández was worth nearly a full point in WAR more than Haniger as he earned an All-Star nod and a Silver Slugger award. Hernández also been more reliable health-wise than Haniger in recent years, and he very well could be the Mariners’ second-best hitter in 2023 behind fellow outfielder Julio Rodríguez. He should hit anywhere from second to fifth in Seattle’s lineup to start next season.

As for Wong, he’s an interesting addition because while he is a clear upgrade over what Adam Frazier gave the team in 2022, it sounds as though he will platoon with Dylan Moore at second base and get the bulk of his at-bats against right-handed pitching.

The numbers certainly show why that’s likely the case as Wong had an OPS of .845 against righties compared to a lowly .441 OPS against southpaws in 2022. Wong didn’t get enough plate appearances to qualify for major statistic leaderboards, but if he had, his .845 OPS against right-handers would have been 19th in MLB last year.

Even with those extreme splits and a down year defensively for the two-time Gold Glove winner, Wong still posted 3.1 WAR, which would have tied All-Star first baseman Ty France for the fourth-most WAR among Mariners position players in 2022.

Is Wong a sexy addition? No, especially considering Moore is slated to take ABs away from him when lefty starters take the mound. That doesn’t mean Wong isn’t a very solid player, though. He could be even more valuable in 2023 than he was last season if he gets his defense back on track, which could happen if injuries were a factor as Wong told one Milwaukee reporter. Additionally, a Wong/Moore platoon should give the Mariners top-10 second baseman play next season in terms of offensive, defensive and baserunning production, especially given whoever starts on a given day likely slots into the bottom third in Seattle’s order.

The Bad

Well, so far, that’s it for the lineup.

While Hernández and Wong both can be key contributors to another contending Mariners ballclub, this is still a lineup with two holes/vacancies: left field and designated hitter. It’s a good start, but this team does need more, which we’ll get to later.

With Hernández and Wong, there’s also the issue of club control, or rather lack thereof. Both are set to be free agents after the 2023 season, which is part of why the trade cost for two very good ballplayers wasn’t very high.

While that’s good in terms of the cost of acquiring the two hitters, it does mean that there’s the risk that next offseason, the Mariners are playing the same old song and dance with these two hitting the open market and the team looking to try and either re-sign them or find their replacements elsewhere.

You can certainly find players to replace their production either through free agency or trade, but you don’t want to risk being left at the altar, so to speak, should you strike out in free agency and not get a trade done with another club.

Of the two, Hernández is likely more of an extension candidate, but at the same time, his production over the last few years could certainly have him wanting to test the open market. Had he been in this year’s free-agent class, there’s a strong case to be made that he would have been the second-best outfielder on the market after Aaron Judge and ahead of Brandon Nimmo given the latter’s injury track record.

Free agency/rest of lineup/payroll

The Good

The Mariners have, outside of signing Trevor Gott and bringing back fellow reliever Casey Sadler on a minor league deal, sat out this free agency cycle. And this cycle has been notable, to say the least.

We’ve seen some megadeals for big money and big years to guys like Judge, Nimmo, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and reportedly Carlos Correa.

There’s been a vocal contingent of Mariners fans who have discussed the team’s spending not just this offseason, but under president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, who joined the team as general manager at the end of the 2015 season. The fact is that this regime has not signed a free-agent hitter to a multi-year deal.

Whether that approach is right or wrong isn’t what I’m addressing. Some fans have seemed to be on the “spend just to spend” train while fixated on where the Mariners do and don’t rank in payroll numbers. I don’t think spending to spend is the right approach because it needs to be for the right player if you’re not a perennial top-dollar team like the Dodgers or Yankees, or a surprising splurger like the Padres. I also think building the core of your roster through prospects and trade is the way to go and gives you the longest window for contention.

Additionally, I think many of the deals this offseason will age really poorly. These stars would have helped the 2023 Mariners and for the next few years, but ultimately they could hinder what you can do down the line. And yes, a move like that does hinder the Mariners’ spending more so than others given what they’re showing they’re willing and able to spend. Whether it should hinder it is a different conversation, but based on what we know and have seen, yeah, it would.

The Bad

All that being said, sitting on the sidelines as other teams – including in your own division – continue to upgrade their rosters does stink. And it naturally makes fans question whether you want to truly go for a title. That’s especially the case for Mariners fans who saw their team make the playoffs for the first time in two decades just a few months ago.

Now, I personally don’t think spending in free agency directly correlates with a team’s competitiveness or drive/desire to win. But it naturally does with many fans.

As mentioned above, there’s no question a Turner, Correa or Nimmo would have helped this team in its quest for its first World Series berth and title. Even some “lesser” moves for outfielders like Michael Conforto or Andrew Benintendi would have been really nice additions, shoring up a position of need and greatly lengthening the lineup. Even those lesser additions would have cost a bit, but that’s the cost of doing business in free agency. Money isn’t everything as we saw Judge and Turner take less to go to more desired locations, but obviously it does play a big part, especially when you’re currently a winning ballclub. And this winning ballclub was still below-average offensively in 2022 despite winning 90 games.

Moves like that could hurt down the line, but if you get a World Series berth and title out of the line, isn’t it ultimately worth it?

Right now, the free-agent market is pretty thin, and based on Dipoto’s comments about finding a right-handed hitter to help in the outfield, there are only a handful of semi-notable names out there in A.J. Pollock, Tommy Pham, Trey Mancini and Andrew McCutchen. Maybe a switch-hitter like Jurickson Profar could be in the cards, but based on what we’ve seen with this team’s free-agency approach, a multi-year deal for Profar – which would be needed given his age and skill set – may not be on the table.

There’s always the trade market for someone we know could be moved (Bryan Reynolds) or an unexpected move (like for Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suárez last spring), but for now, it is understandable to see how this could be seen as a missed opportunity for the Mariners to make a splash in free agency to address their lineup. And as it appears right now, the Mariners haven’t made enough moves and upgrades to really push the Astros in 2023 as many hoped would be the case.

On the topic of spending, again, that doesn’t always equate to success (we’ve seen many teams spend big before quickly crashing and burning), but it is worth noting that the last five World Series champions all were in the top 10 in spending during their championship years, per Spotrac. The M’s were 21st in total payroll last year – which was 10th among the 12 playoff teams – and currently rank 18th for the 2023 season.

Returning players/roster

The Good

The Mariners won 90 games and a postseason series in 2022, and most of that roster will be back in 2023.

As I’ve written about before, when it comes to closing the gap with the Houston Astros – who appear primed to remain one of the top teams in MLB for the next few years – some of that will come naturally.

Young players like Rodríguez, Cal Raleigh, Logan Gilbert and George Kirby could all very well take big steps forward next year. In the case of Rodríguez, he was already a 6-WAR player as a rookie and finished seventh in AL MVP voting. We’re looking at someone who could be an MVP as soon as the 2023 season. The other three mentioned above could all be All-Stars (and don’t forget the Midsummer Classic will be in Seattle this summer).

Additionally, both Kirby and midseason acquisition Luis Castillo will be in the rotation starting on opening day. A full season of those two getting the ball every fifth day will be awfully fun to see.

Upgrading the roster doesn’t always come through new additions, and I do think some will realize that next season given the nice core of young talent the Mariners currently have.

The Bad

While those younger players all seem primed for upward trajectory in 2023, what about regression?

That’s a natural question and occurence when looking at any roster, and that’s certainly on the table for the Mariners.

Castillo was very good for the M’s after coming over in a trade, but he had a few “blowup” outings where he didn’t look like a No. 1 starter.

Robbie Ray was the 2021 Cy Young winner but fought with a 5.00 ERA as late as June 6.

Will Suárez continue to be the guy we saw last year and in early years in Cincinnati, or could he be more like he was in 2020 and 2021 when he struggled to make contract and get on base?

France was an All-Star and J.P. Crawford was red hot to start the 2022 season, but both had rather cold second halves of the season, which could have been due to injuries. Which versions of those two will we see?

The biggest “ifs” come from the team’s strength, which is the pitching.

Bullpens are always worth keeping an eye on for regression or improvement, but this comes down to the rotation.

In 2022, the Mariners did something we almost never see in baseball, which is they didn’t have a single start missed due to injury. Yup, no Mariners starting pitcher missed a start or landed on the injured list. That’s almost unheard of!

While a lot of credit goes to the pitchers and training staff for taking care of their bodies and the coaches for utilizing good throwing programs, some of it does come down to luck. As such, it’s unlikely we see something like that happen again next year.

What’s left?

So what’s next for the Mariners this offseason?

The big question now with the free-agent market largely depleted is what trades, if any, the Mariners may make.

It’s easy to point to Seattle’s rotation depth as an area where the M’s could make a move. Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen have both been the topics of trade rumors all offseason given there are four clear starters penned in above them in Seattle’s rotation. Could one of those two veterans be moved to help the M’s get a bat? That could especially be worth watching as the Mariners have a handful of promising pitching prospects inching closer to the MLB level in Emerson Hancock, Taylor Dollard, Bryce Miller, Prelander Berroa and Bryan Woo.

The bullpen returns most of its top arms for next year, but with Erik Swanson dealt to Toronto for Hernández, the M’s don’t have a clear go-to option against left-handed bats. Is that someone already in the organization?

As I’ve noted above, this team needs at least one more bat, and ideally two. If they do want to platoon someone with Jarred Kelenic in left field, who will that be? And how will they address DH? Dipoto has said this year and in previous offseasons that he wants four outfielders so the Mariners can play all four everyday with someone filling the DH spot in any given game. But if there’s a platoon in left field, could the team look for an everyday-type DH like they used to have in Nelson Cruz or Edgar Martinez?

There’s also the possibility of a major splash for Bryan Reynolds, but can the Mariners part with what it would take to get him?

Overall, the Mariners are in better shape now than they were at the end of the 2022 playoffs. How much better is fairly marginal, at least on paper. In the AL West, the Astros are the defending champs and should be great yet again, the Rangers have had two splashy offseasons in a row and appear deadset on competing, and the Angels sure look a lot better, especially if stars like Shohei Ohtani, Mike Trout and Anthony Rendon are healthy.

Even outside their division, there are a number of promising teams across the AL that could make Seattle’s path to back-to-back playoff appearances very difficult, especially out of the AL East.

The Mariners should be very good again in 2023 assuming they’re for the most part healthy, but there’s still more than can – and should – be done.

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A Closer Look: The good and bad of Mariners’ offseason so far