All offseason, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s 2020 season and looking forward at what moves each team might have to make to set themselves up for improvement in 2021. Today, Nick Tucker takes a look at the Seattle Mariners!
The 2020 Mariners season ended very differently than I, or most of my colleagues, were expecting it would. I could spend a bunch of words getting into why that is, but we all already know. Pandemic shortened season, small samples, it’s been talked about thousands of times already. The Orioles (25-35) and Marlins (31-29) also finished this year with records that were perhaps more emblematic of the circumstances than they were of the team’s actual overall talent. In my preview for the Mariners 2020 season, I was very clear to state that I believed the Mariners were due for another last place American League West finish. I also said that the biggest joy from this season was probably going to come from watching the odd highlight of Jarred Kelenic committing acts of domestic terrorism against minor league pitching. My girlfriend at the time said she loved me. A lot of people said a lot of things in February that didn’t end up being true.
2020 Record: 27-33, 3rd place in AL West
Team MVP: Kyle Lewis
Team Cy Young: Marco Gonzales
Biggest Positive Surprise: Justus Sheffield’s rookie campaign
Biggest Negative Surprise: Shed Long’s missteps
The bottom line is that the Mariners took advantage of a unique opportunity this year presented to earn themselves a third place AL West finish, wherein they played enough competitive games to allow their fans to wistfully entertain notions of potential playoff games for a few weeks of the season. Jarred Kelenic did send some baseballs into international waters at the Mariners alternate training site, but he didn’t garner the same attention as unanimous Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis. My girlfriend didn’t actually love me, but Justus Sheffield turned in an incredible first full season (which should have earned him at least a top 5 ROY finish, and the fact he didn’t earn even a single vote is honestly disturbing. Seriously, what alternate dimension have we entered where 55.1 innings with a 3.58 ERA and 3.17 FIP with a significantly reduced WHIP from your previous year that results in .8 bWAR over 10 starts doesn’t net you a SINGLE vote?). But in spite of how I wrong I was in some ways, in another way I was entirely right in my preview for this season. I said the 2020 Mariners would show flashes of an up and coming powerhouse. Evan White and J.P. Crawford earned Gold Gloves. Marco Gonzales had a handful of ace quality outings, and Austin Nola turned in such a good first half that he netted the Mariners a wealth of Padres prospects at mid-season. And the Mariners outperformed expectations while still missing key pieces. Mitch Haniger remained in rehab for his terrible awful no good very bad groin injury for the duration of the season, and a broken foot kept 2019 breakout player Tom Murphy from seeing the field.
2020-2021 Offseason Preview
Key Losses: Mallex Smith, Dee Gordon
Areas of Greatest Need: Starting pitching, relief pitching
Fun fact: as soon as Christmas music starts playing in department stores, Jerry Dipoto stands stone still in his local Sears, and as soon as he hears, “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” for the first time, he calmly reaches into his pocket, pulls out his phone, and if you watch very carefully, you’ll see him grow 2 inches taller. This year, I imagine Jerry is a little extra excited to build the team because the last two dead weight players have vacated their roster spots. The Mariners couldn’t wait to be rid of Mallex Smith, and his departure has made room for Jarred Kelenic to earn a roster spot in the spring, even with the presumptive return of Mitch Haniger from injury. Dee Gordon’s exit now allows for there to be a true competition for the second base position, but I’ll get into that a little more later.
But where Jerry will likely be doing most of his work is on the pitching side. The 2020 Mariners posted a team ERA of 5.03, which is not good. BUT, on the upside it’s not the worst team ERA the Mariners have ever posted! That honor goes to the ’99 team with a 5.24, which means the 2020 Mariners pitchers were only a liiiiiittle bit better than a staff trying to cope with the loss of Randy Johnson. Good seasons from the already mentioned Marco Gonzales, Justus Sheffield, and promising rookie years from Yohan Ramirez and Joey Gerber just wasn’t enough to overcome the destructive forces of Bryan Shaw (12 ERs in 6 IP), Dan Altavilla (10 ERs in 11.2 IP), Yoshihia Hirano (8 ERs in 12.1 IP) and Matt Magill (7 ERs in 10.1 IP), and that’s just the bullpen. The Mariners ran a 6 man rotation in 2020 (they plan to do so again in 2021) and that meant that they relied on arms like Nick Margevicius (4.57 ERA, 4.35 FIP in 41.1 IP), and a shaky Justin Dunn (4.54 ERA, 6.54 FIP, in 45.2 IP) to shoulder as much of the workload as they could before handing it off to that bullpen I just mentioned. What it culminated in was the 2020 Mariners finishing with a -49 run differential despite scoring more runs (254) than four playoff teams: Cleveland (248), Milwaukee (247), Cincinnati (238), and St. Louis (240). The good news is that Bryan Shaw and Dan Altavilla have made like trees and gotten the hell off the roster.
It’s been made pretty clear at this point the Mariners need pitching. I’ll get into why I don’t think trading is going to be the answer in a bit, so instead I believe the Mariners will spend on the free agent market this winter. Let’s start with a longshot. James Paxton obviously has a history with the Mariners. Back in 2015 up until his departure after the 2018 season, Paxton’s ascension was coinciding with the decline Felix Hernandez. He was a fan favorite to the point that a particularly wonderful group of Mariners fans started arriving to Paxton home starts bearing small cards that read “eh” (get it?) that became known as the Maple Grove. Ultimately the team moved on from him because his injury troubles led the team to believe that his future wasn’t with them. And that was true, but potentially only for two years. A healthy James Paxton can absolutely be an ace for a number of teams in the league, and while he wouldn’t be the ace on the Mariners staff, another left-handed arm, and a veteran to boot, is a necessary addition. The only reason the Mariners would be shy on Paxton is the same reason every team will be: injuries. Agent Scott Boras has stated that Paxton feels fully healthy again and is eager to be back on a mound. In his last season with the Mariners Paxton pitched 2 complete games, including a no-hitter on his native soil. It would also be funny to me if the Mariners somehow managed to turn trading James Paxton away into having both Justus Sheffield and James Paxton in the rotation. The Mariners would be foolish not to pick up the phone on Paxton, and if they really want his attention they should offer 1 year for at least $10.5 million.
Paxton may be a bit of a reach for the Mariners, but J.A. Happ is much more attainable. The 38 year old enters free agency on the back of some regression in 2020, but it’s difficult to blame anyone for 2020 performances. Leaving that aside, his 2018 season earned him a trip to the All-Star game, and there are rumors that the Yankees used him in limited capacities to avoid paying performance bonuses. Whether or not those accusations are true, Happ is certainly happy to go anywhere but the Bronx, and Seattle needs a lefty in the rotation. Happ likely comes on the cheap end of the free agent pool, so 1 year $6 million should do nicely.
Former Mariners are apparently the order of the day. Taijuan Walker may be due for his third go in an M’s uniform. Walker was traded last season at the deadline to the Blue Jays and was excellent for them down the stretch. At the time of the deal, it seemed as though the Mariners planned to attempt to re-sign him again as a free agent at the end of the season, and there’s no reason at this point to think that isn’t still the case. There may be a more competitive market for him at this point then there was back in August, but the possibility still exists. The difference this time is that Walker likely wants to land somewhere he’s less likely to be traded from, so the Mariners may offer him a contract on the high side, but security may talk louder for Walker this year. Time will tell. If the Mariners are to be enticing to Walker, a two year contract at $7-8 million a year would get his attention.
Relievers are where things get a little weird for the Mariners. Their history with free agent bullpen arms is checkered, especially recently, and while the Mariners organization may consider themselves a fringe contender, the free agents themselves may not be as inclined to agree, making it hard to attract back-end bullpen talent. So I’m just gonna pick the one I think could be a candidate, Blake Treinen. The Mariners have seen Treinen a lot in the last few years. He gave the Mariners lineups fits and starts in his lights out 2018 season, and the only reason the Mariners were okay with that was because they had an even more lights out Edwin Diaz. But like Diaz, Treinen regressed in 2019. 2020 saw him return to be keying a strong piece in a dominant Dodgers bullpen and he remains a decidedly more reliable option than just about anyone in the Mariners bullpen currently. Treinen doesn’t come cheap, so the Mariners may look elsewhere, but the familiarity the team has with how dominant he can be certainly makes him a viable option. If they want him, or any other decent bullpen arm, 2 years/$14 million is what it’s going to cost.
Trade 1: Please don’t trade for Blake Snell
Now my colleagues and I are supposed to use this section to discuss possible trades the team could execute to improve for 2021. I’m not going to do that. Now obviously the Mariners trading for Blake Snell would improve the team. We all watched World Series Game 6; we know how good he can be. The Mariners have been linked as a possible partner for the Rays to execute a deal and I just spent half a paragraph saying that Mariners pitching is bad and needs to be less bad in the future, and on top of that Snell is a local boy who would probably love to be a Mariner. What’s not to love?!
The asking price is said to be one of either Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic, or Julio Rodriguez. Now, of course the Rays can afford to ask this, because they really don’t have to trade Snell. They have the supply, the demand is high, so the price is whatever they say it is. Jerry Dipoto has been clear to say frequently and publicly that any Mariner is available at the right price. But Blake Snell is not the right price. Mariners pitching is not good right now, but there are other options available to the Mariners that don’t include the loss of potential super stars. Jon Heyman may not understand that, but I do, and I really hope that Jerry Dipoto does too, because I am in no way emotionally prepared to wake up the news that Mariners have traded Jarred Kelenic and cash to the Rays for a slap dick starter whose current team doesn’t think he can pitch after the sixth. Now if the Rays want to lower that asking price and could instead be interested in a nice Phillip Ervin (they won’t) that’d be pretty neat.
2021 Projected Roster
1) Mitch Haniger (RF)
2) Dylan Moore (2B)
3) Kyle Lewis (CF)
4) Kyle Seager (3B)
5) Ty France (DH)
6) Jarred Kelenic (LF)
7) Tom Murphy (C)
8) Evan White (1B)
9) J.P. Crawford (SS)
1) Marco Gonzales
2) Justus Sheffield
3) J.A. Happ
4) Yusei Kikuchi
5) Justin Dunn
6) Ljay Newsome
- Blake Treinen
- Kendall Graveman
- Joey Gerber
- Yohan Ramirez
- Yoshihisa Hirano
- Taylor Williams
- Anthony Misiewicz
- Erik Swanson
The Mariners lack a true leadoff hitter, but the return of Mitch Haniger does return them their best option to fill the spot. J.P. Crawford did show some small promise in the role last season, but his bat remains inconsistent at the best of times. His Gold Glove last year may be a sign that he can shift some of his focus to his plate approach. Jarred Kelenic’s lineup spot could be lower or higher depending on his Spring Training, but I don’t expect it to be higher than sixth on Opening Day. Dylan Moore and Shed Long will likely compete for second base, but just going off their offensive output in 2020, Moore is the clear front runner. Even if you go by who is the better defender Moore takes it in a landslide. If past offseasons are any indication, Shed will likely spend a good amount of time working with Perry Hill, the same coach who turned J.P. Crawford into a Gold Glove winner. If the Mariners outfield can stay healthy this season, Moore shouldn’t have to jump around the field as much as he has the last two years, and might find some comfort in a more regular role. Ty France can play some second base as well, so that will likely be the area of greatest revolution in 2021.
Marco remains the ace of the pitching staff barring something completely unforeseeable. Sheffield’s rookie season coupled with little depth elsewhere in the lineup likely gets him the second or third slot. Ljay Newsome got a handful of bullpen innings in 2020, but he sees himself as a starter and projects to get a shot to prove at some point this season. In the bullpen, Treinen’s name has about as much chance as any other free agent reliever’s does. There aren’t really any relievers linked the Mariners at this time, but there will need to be at least one signed by the Mariners at some point.
I’ll admit, this team is pretty difficult to project, and not just because Jerry Dipoto is playing 13 dimensional chess while I’m playing Candyland, but because the team has reached the awkward middle point of it’s rebuild. There is still so much talent in the Mariners farm that we probably won’t get to see next year and still needs time to develop, and yet Jerry Dipoto has said that he wants to put the team in a position to compete for a playoff spot. With the 2021 playoff format still in question, that’s certainly possible, but how much is he willing to spend to make it a reality? That projected pitching staff certainly isn’t playoff caliber. But if Jerry truly wants this team to compete, at the very least we can expect a really wild winter, to which I say: bring it on.