BRENT STECKER

Are Mariners right about free agency? AL West rivals will test that theory

Dec 22, 2022, 12:42 PM
Mariners Angels Shohei Ohtani...
Angels DH Shohei Ohtani checks his bat during a game against the Mariners at T-Mobile Park on Aug. 7, 2022. (Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alika Jenner/Getty Images)

It wasn’t that long ago that this offseason was being called the most important in Mariners history.

Coming off back-to-back 90-win seasons and seeing the fruits of the only real rebuild the franchise had ever truly undertaken, it was easy to look at the class of free agents and dream about what heights the team could go to in 2023 if Seattle added a big name or two.

How much would a Trea Turner transform the offense? Is Xander Bogaerts the kind of hitter that the Mariners been missing in the middle of the lineup? Or what about going for broke to pair Aaron Judge with Julio Rodríguez in the outfield? Imagine the possibilities.

Well, imagining is about as far as any of that ever got. As the new year approaches, the Mariners have been a non-factor in a period of free agency that has seen massive amounts of dollars and years shelled out to stars. That’s not to say they’ve done nothing this winter. Seattle has gotten better because the trade for Teoscar Hernández, should he stay as healthy as he has throughout his career, is an upgrade over Mitch Haniger as a slugging outfielder. Same for Kolten Wong over the man he replaces at second base, Adam Frazier.

Those are the extent of impact moves made by Seattle this offseason, though, and while president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has said he hopes to add another bat or two, it’s clear that the M’s will be looking for steps forward by their returning players – and most especially further development by youngsters – as they try to chase down the World Series champion Houston Astros in 2023.

I do think the Mariners are getting closer to Houston, which has lost 2022 American League Cy Young Award winner Justin Verlander, catcher Christian Vázquez and utility man Aledmys Díaz this offseason, as well as replaced first baseman Yuli Gurriel with José Abreu, the 2020 AL MVP who will turn 36 in January. Close enough to erase the 16-game advantage the Astros had over Seattle in the standings in 2022? Maybe not. But perhaps enough to be the difference in a playoff series – remember that Houston had just a plus-4 run differential over the M’s in its three-game ALDS sweep.

MLB Network’s Morosi: How much closer are Mariners getting to Astros?

The trick for the Mariners will be getting back into that position in October, though, and this is where I think Seattle’s stance on free agency is going to be tested. Because two other teams in the AL West have looked to the open market to close some gaps of their own.

The Angels aren’t messing around

One of the last remaining impact bats left in free agency coming into this week was Brandon Drury, who had a breakout 2022 season with the Cincinnati Reds and San Diego Padres, winning the National League’s Silver Slugger as a utility player. He seemed like an intriguing fit for Seattle as someone who could be take at-bats as a corner outfielder against left-handed pitching, provide rest days to the Mariners’ infielders, and otherwise be a designated hitter.

Adding Drury would have changed some opinions on Seattle’s offseason, even if there is well-founded doubt about him repeating his 2022 output (he performed much better with the Reds, who play in a hitter-friendly ballpark, than after his trade to the Padres, whose home park is plenty spacious). Instead, it was one of the Mariners’ division rivals who picked him up, and suddenly it’s the Los Angeles Angels who are raising eyebrows with their offseason.

Before signing Drury, the Angels made trades for two offensive additions, Hunter Renfroe and Gio Urshela. They also signed starting pitcher Tyler Anderson, who built off of a strong couple months with the Mariners in 2021 with an All-Star campaign for the Dodgers last season, as well as reliever Carlos Estévez.

Will these additions get the Angels in the playoff conversation? Honestly, maybe. When you have Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani on the same roster, it’s certainly possible. And if Antony Rendon, who has missed essentially two-thirds of the last two seasons due to injury, can stay healthy and produce like he did in 2020, the Los Angeles offense could be a real problem. Lest we forget the 27-17 start the Angels got off to last season, too.

Los Angeles has struggled to develop its own talent over its current eight-season playoff drought, but it hasn’t been shy in free agency in recent years. The Angels’ offseason has maybe gone under the radar this year, but if their mix of trades and signings prove to produce a winner in 2023, they could be pointed to as a ‘what if’ for one path the M’s didn’t go down.

The Rangers take another step?

Texas took a big swing last offseason, signing not just one but two of the marquee available shortstops in free agency. The additions of Corey Seager and Marcus Semien helped the Rangers move the needle some, going from a 60-102 record in 2021 to 68-94 last season, but clearly there was more work to be done.

Well, how about adding the most impressive pitcher in the game?

That’s what the Rangers did, making a huge splash in the form of a five-year, $185 million contract with two-time National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom.

If there’s one thing the Rangers aren’t being about their own rebuild, it’s patient. After all, deGrom is 34 and has had all kinds of arm troubles over the years. Texas is surely hoping his addition pays off quickly.

In addition to DeGrom, the Rangers signed left-hander Andrew Heaney, giving them a much more formidable rotation than it did in 2022. Those two combined with Martín Pérez, who was an All-Star for the first time last season, gives Texas a strong trio to lead its pitching staff.

The Rangers have some good hitters, too. Along with Semien and Seager, both Adolis García and Nathaniel Lowe are coming off strong 2022 campaigns.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, but maybe a contending roster can be built in two offseasons. If a few breaks go the Rangers’ way, it’s plausible they’ll be a factor in the division. At the very least, good luck to their opponents whenever it’s deGrom’s day on the hill.

Where does this leave the Mariners?

Seattle’s offseason isn’t done, and a need for more offense remains. Whether or not they add one or two more bats, concerns about the Mariners’ reticence in free agency, specifically when it comes to hitters, have been raised over the last few months – and frankly for good reason.

The M’s have had success in developing their own talent and it’s understandable that they want to stick to that method. They deserve credit for getting as far as they did in just their fourth season after starting a rebuild – that’s a remarkably quick turnaround from a tear down, and especially so considering a full season of minor league play was wiped out in 2020, which hurt them more than just about any other team because they were so reliant on development at that time. It also makes sense why the extensions they’ve signed Julio Rodríguez, Luis Castillo and J.P. Crawford to plus the eventual raises that will come for players like Logan Gilbert, George Kirby and Cal Raleigh in arbitration have the team keeping a close eye on their future payroll.

There’s no question, though, that signing a big name or two in free agency could have gone a long ways toward making Seattle a true World Series contender in 2023. That’s not to say the M’s don’t have a chance at that next season, but it’s unlikely they’ll be looked at as a favorite, and in fact probably still won’t be picked by many to win the division.

Meanwhile, some notable teams to add in free agency this offseason lie in Seattle’s own AL West, and even with a different schedule format in 2023, it’s only going to make it harder for the M’s to improve upon last season’s 90-72 record.

As much as the Mariners are chasing the Astros, they’re now being chased by the Angels and Rangers, only further complicating a return to the postseason in 2023.

Has Seattle been right to largely sit out the frenzy of free agency this winter? The answer may lie in how they do next season compared to those two division rivals.

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