Mariners mailbag: Analyzing the current state of the roster, free agents to watch and more

Noble Horvath

A year ago Saturday, Felix Hernandez made his last start as a member of the Mariners. It was an emotional night at T-Mobile Park with tears, hugs and memories. It seems like 20 years ago. Or maybe it just feels and looks like we’ve all aged about 20 years in […]

A year ago Saturday, Felix Hernandez made his last start as a member of the Mariners. It was an emotional night at T-Mobile Park with tears, hugs and memories.

It seems like 20 years ago. Or maybe it just feels and looks like we’ve all aged about 20 years in 12 months.

An odd and shortened 2020 season is nearing an end with an expanded and odder postseason looming. The World Series will be played in a neutral site — the new Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas — and a champion will be crowned.

The legitimacy of it? Well, that’s up to each fan.

Major League Baseball made it through this season despite the best efforts of the owners to scuttle it before it started and the early fiascos featuring the Miami Marlins and St. Louis Cardinals, teams that didn’t recognize the risks and contagiousness of the novel coronavirus despite being educated extensively on the subject.

Baseball persevered and hopefully the 2021 season will feature a normal spring training, a 162-game schedule and fans in the stands.

As always these are questions from the fine folks that are my Twitter followers.

In preparation for the annual season-preview section, Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto sat down for one-on-one interviews on two different occasions because, well, the situation surrounding baseball and the team had changed. The first interview was March 5 during spring training when the words coronavirus and COVID-19 were not part of our daily lives and nobody had ever uttered the line “in these unprecedented times” or the “new normal.”

During that interview Dipoto was asked about this offseason and the idea of adding veteran talent around the young core that was expected to gain a full season worth of MLB experience.

Question: Would the development – good or bad — affect how you approach your offseason plans to supplement the roster with experienced players?

Dipoto’s response:

“I think it’s almost certain that we will go supplement the roster in some way at the end of 2020 just viewing where the holes are, because once we give those young players the experience level, now we want to support them enough that we can go out and effectively focus on winning games. In 2021, there will be a different feel to the team. And we want to put enough veteran players in the mix to be able to find a balance rather than just sending as many young players as we can to get an education. If we get to the end of the season, and we haven’t done a good job in helping those young players develop, then we have to reassess. Do we go into another season where we’re getting this kind of experience? Because if we’re being honest, there’s probably some players that we’ve already determined. A full season gives us a great start to figure out where we’re going to be in ’21. But I can’t imagine a scenario where we don’t go out and supplement this group in the offseason of 2020. That seems a bit far-fetched.”

About a week before the shortened season was set to begin, Dipoto sat down for a 45-minute interview for the adjusted season preview, which was how the shutdown due to COVID-19 might have changed expectations for 2020 and affected the timeline to success for this rebuild. Many of the same questions that were asked in the first interview were asked again to see if the response or thinking had changed given the circumstances.

Question: We’ve talked about supplementing the roster after the season. There’s been a lot of discussion about team finances going into next year, the predictions that nobody’s making any money and free agency will be filled with one-year deals. You’re not in a bad place comparatively because of lowered payroll and minimal committed dollars. Will you still be active?

Dipoto’s response:

“We were in a much different place. And that was part of our plan to create that kind of flexibility. Now you’ve got 30 teams who are all going through – this year is covered with losses for teams financially, that’s just the way the pandemic has driven the league or the result. And, you know, while we go into next year, not quite knowing what that’s going to look like, just like we are with the young players and the flexibility we have with the foundation we’re building, we do have some payroll flexibility, but we don’t yet know what that looks like. So at the end of the day, that is very much a wait and see. We don’t know what the industry will look like. We don’t know what our situation will look like until we get to that bridge.”

It’s not quite word salad, but it’s a pretty diplomatic non-answer. And really, it’s fair. It would be irresponsible to make any major claims when so much was unknown.

Using the work of Mariners fan Darrin Gossler, who methodically tracks the Mariners’ payroll, Seattle has about $41 million committed to MLB salaries and the projected payroll for the current 40-man roster is right around $70.6 million.

Even in a season with minimal to no financial gain, the continued decrease of payroll from its peak of $171 million after the 2018 season is significant.

If the Mariners are truly serious about starting to generate a competitive team in 2021 to help the array of young (and cheap) players understand how to win games at the MLB level, then it should start this offseason.

Unfortunately, the free-agent class this offseason isn’t great. Seattle’s most immediate need is bullpen help. Unfortunately, we’ve seen that investing big money in free-agent bullpen arms yields nothing more than frustration. Remember Juan Nicasio? Ask the Rockies about the $100 million they wasted on Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw and Jake McGee or the Cubs and their investment in Craig Kimbrel. It’s less predictable than walking up to a craps table and investing your whole paycheck without even knowing the rules of the game.

Still, you can’t continually shop the waiver wire and recently designated for assignment market to fill out your bullpen. It’s like going to garage sales in search of the next big find for “Antiques Roadshow.” Sources indicate that Dipoto told season-ticket holders that he will address the bullpen through free agency this season. But will it be retreads and bounce-back candidates or proven, effective relievers?

On MLB Trade Rumor’s list of projected free-agent relievers next season, there is one under the age of 30 – right-hander Keone Kela, who has had issues with teams. The best of the group is Oakland closer Liam Hendriks. But it would be unlikely Seattle offers anything more than a two-year contract with a club option to any reliever.

The Mariners also need to add another starting pitcher for the next few years unless you are comfortable with the current rotation beyond Marco Gonzales and Justin Dunn. The Mariners made it clear to Taijuan Walker that they’d like him back. Would they offer a three-year contract with an option for a fourth to the 28-year-old Walker? Seattle will almost certainly check in on Trevor Bauer, who lives in the area in the offseason. But his value has gone up steadily with his Cy Young-level performance this season. It might be wiser to invest real dollars in a front-line starter than continuing to try and find cheaper options projected for the back of the rotation. If you believe you are going to be a playoff team, you need to have at least three legitimate guys to navigate through a postseason. Looking at the current roster, does any pitcher beyond Gonzales fit that criteria?

I don’t think one playoff berth would attract better free agents. A sustained level of success might make an organization somewhat more attractive. But the Oakland A’s have made the postseason 10 times since 2000 and they rate pretty low on the attractiveness scale with the warts of minimal payroll budget and awful facilities too glaring to overlook.

I’ve often said the Mariners would have to pay 20% over the expected value to sign a top free agent. When they signed Robinson Cano, they paid more than that, signing him to a 10-year, $240 million contract when Cano’s best known offer was seven years, $175 million from the Yankees.

When they signed Nelson Cruz, their best free-agent signing ever, the Mariners were the only team to offer a guaranteed fourth year at $14 million while other teams wanted to limit Cruz to three years.

Besides the postseason drought, there are other things that work against Seattle — the location, the weather and the travel. These are all known aspects that are discussed within player circles, particularly players who reside on the East Coast and in Florida. Yes, the weather is perfect in Seattle in July and August, but players seem to remember the cold of April, May, June and September more. Many players, particularly hitters, prefer playing in the heat.

The Mariners’ crazy travel schedule where their shortest flight is 2 1/2 hours and their division includes four-plus hour flights to Houston and Dallas are not enjoyable. In the search for down time, the shorter flights of other teams on getaway days matter to players.

The stigma of T-Mobile Park being a place that robs hitters of homers and extra-base hits is gone. The moved in fences, changing climate and even wind patterns due to the city buildings have made the field play more fair.

Other than money offered, there isn’t one aspect that will make a team universally more attractive. Yes, the Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs and Yankees have tradition, they also have some of the largest player payrolls.

I guess it may depend on what your definition of legitimate is because I don’t know that I consider Marwin Gonzalez in the same tier as D.J. LeMahieu or Trevor Bauer.

Is a legitimate free agent a guy with name recognition, past success, projected success or high demand?

As I said earlier, the Mariners will certainly check in on Bauer and see what he’s looking for in a contract. He certainly has performed at a level to get well over $150 million.

It would be a logical investment because while Emerson Hancock may have the potential to be a front of the rotation starter, he’s probably still two years away from making his MLB debut let alone being a reliable top-end starter.

If you are LeMahieu, it would seem like you go searching for the best opportunity to win. I wouldn’t be surprised if he re-signed with the Yankees given his success and fit.

So that talk was from the folks at ESPN 710, who felt the Mariners should make a run at Lindor, whom they could’ve drafted in 2011 but passed on for Danny Hultzen.

My initial thoughts are this … unless you give Lindor at least $250 million why would he even consider Seattle?

The class of free agents after the 2021 season will feature four All-Star shortstops:

  • Lindor
  • Carlos Correa
  • Corey Seager
  • Javy Baez

That means the Cubs and Dodgers will be in search of a shortstop. You have to think that two of these four will end up with those teams. The Dodgers have already considered trading for Lindor before they got Mookie Betts. If you are Lindor, this would seem like the perfect destination. The Phillies and Giants will also be in need of a shortstop.

I guess after next season you will have a complete understanding of who Crawford is or isn’t as your shortstop. And making a run at one of those players might be logical. Baez’s contact issues are a red flag while Seager’s numerous injuries and future at shortstop would also be of concern.

Lindor is the best of the group and everyone knows it. Again, if other teams are vying for his services, Seattle would have to overpay to get him. How much are you willing to overpay at the cost of possibly not signing other players or extending current ones?

The results of this offseason workout plan will be revealed at a later date.

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