Sports

Offseason In Review: Seattle Mariners

The Mariners signed the reigning AL Cy Young winner and acquired a pair of 2021 All-Stars via trade. That it still felt like a bit of an underwhelming offseason speaks to the manner in which expectations have increased for the AL West up-and-comers.

Major League Contracts

2022 spending: $23MM
Total spending: $117MM

Trades and Claims

Extensions

Notable Minor League Signings

Notable Losses

Buoyed by an exciting young core and a surprisingly strong bullpen, the 2021 Mariners were in contention until the very last weekend of the season. After an accelerated rebuilding effort that left the club with one of the game’s top-ranked farm systems — the best system, according to some outlets — last year’s 90-win showing cemented the Mariners’ status as a win-now club.

With that shift to a win-now mindset came heightened offseason expectations. The Mariners entered the winter known to be looking for a right-handed bat, ideally an infielder, and reinforcements for a rotation that is awaiting the arrival of several top prospects but had at least one, if not two short-term vacancies.

First and foremost, however, the Mariners had a decision to make on Kyle Seager, the longtime heart and soul of the franchise. After an emotional sendoff at season’s end and some controversy surrounding the communication from the team — or lack thereof — regarding his future, Seager’s $20MM club option was declined. He was paid a $3MM buyout and ventured out into the free-agent market on the heels of a 30-homer season. But rather than search for a new team and a fresh start, Seager instead somewhat surprisingly called it a career at just 34 of age.

The decision to decline Seager’s option was seen as something of a foregone conclusion, but it still stung for Mariners fans and the clubhouse. Seager had been one of two contracts of note on the books, however, and in the end, the team’s most costly players both departed. The other, Yusei Kikuchi, appeared as though he might stick around for one more season after the Mariners declined a quartet of club options on him, triggering a $13MM player option for the 2022 season. Instead, Kikuchi declined the option and eventually cashed in on a three-year deal with a Blue Jays team that appeared unfazed by his struggles down the stretch in 2021.

With Seager and Kikuchi off the books, there was seemingly no limit to what the Mariners could do in the offseason. Between the departure of that pair and the rebuilding effort that had cleared out the long-term payroll, the stage appeared set for the Mariners to spend at the top of the free-agent market and/or take on ample salary in a trade.

That led to natural speculation about the historic crop of free-agent shortstops, but president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto made clear early in the winter the organization had communicated to incumbent J.P. Crawford they were committed to him at the position. Rather than move Crawford from his position, Dipoto voiced interest in versatile free agents— “adaptable,” as he put it — and even took the unorthodox step of name-checking the likes of Javier Baez and Marcus Semien when making those comments. Seattle was also quickly connected to Kris Bryant, who has increasingly bounced around the diamond in recent years, and Trevor Story, whom they coveted as a potential second baseman.

Semien and Baez, however, came off the board early, with Semien inking a surprising seven-year deal to join the division-rival Rangers and Baez landing six years and $140MM (plus an opt-out) in Detroit. Seattle, meanwhile, indeed landed some adaptability and kept its options open while making its first acquisition of the year. Adam Frazier, acquired in a trade that sent reliever Ray Kerr and 2021 twelfth-round pick Corey Rosier to San Diego, is a viable option at either second base or in left field.

Long a steady producer at the plate, Frazier hit at career-best levels with the Pirates before being traded to the Padres and regressing to well below his career norms. He was an odd fit for a Padres team that didn’t have a need clear at second base or in left field in the first place, and the .267/.327/.335 batting line he posted in 57 games with the Friars proved underwhelming. The Padres, needing to jettison payroll, traded Frazier for a good bit less than they’d surrendered to acquire him — and the Mariners stood to benefit.

Even including last year’s rough 211 plate appearances in San Diego, Frazier carries a .281/.343/.416 batting line in 1829 plate appearances from 2018-21. For a Mariners club that posted the fourth-highest team strikeout percentage in baseball last year (24.8%), adding a contact-oriented bat like Frazier, who’s fanned in only 12.9% of his career plate appearances, was a sensible move. He’ll help to remedy some of the swing-and-miss issues that so often plagued Seattle in 2021. He’s only controlled through the 2022 season, but Frazier should give the M’s a solid bat to go along with excellent defense at second base.

The Frazier acquisition came just five days before Major League Baseball locked out the players and halted transactions for 99 days, but Dipoto and his staff still had time for one notable acquisition — a signing that proved to be the team’s largest strike of the offseason. Just 48 hours before commissioner Rob Manfred announced the lockout, the Mariners announced they’d ponied up on a five-year, $115MM contract bringing reigning AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray to Seattle. The deal, which allows Ray to opt out after the third season, is the largest contract the organization has ever given to a free-agent pitcher.

It marked the culmination of an astonishing turnaround for Ray, who looked like a potential $100MM arm heading into the 2020 campaign before a lost season pushed him to take a one-year pillow contract. That proved to be perhaps the best $8MM the Blue Jays ever spent, as Ray not only rebounded to previous levels but broke out with far and away the lowest walk rate of his career. Ray paired that newfound command with his second-best strikeout rate — a 32.1% mark that was backed by career-high swinging-strike and chase rates (15.5% and 34.1%, respectively).

The Mariners are clearly sold on Ray’s transformation, and while they can’t love the slight dip in fastball velocity and major drop in strikeout rate he’s displayed through his first four starts of the season, Ray has tossed a quality start on three occasions already. That he’s now in a pitcher-friendly home park for the first time in his career bodes well for the lefty; Ray yielded an average of 1.54 homers per nine frames last year even during a Cy Young-winning season, but his new surroundings in the Pacific Northwest could help him to keep the ball in the yard with greater frequency.

Even with time running out before the lockout, the ever-active Dipoto still felt like a threat to make one more splash after signing Ray. The Mariners indeed took a big swing, reportedly making an offer to Story before transactions were frozen. (Jon Heyman of the New York Post reported last week that Seattle had offered in the realm of $125MM). Story, however, was still eyeing a concrete opportunity to remain at shortstop at that point. He eventually took a six-year deal with the Red Sox, agreeing to play second base for the 2022 season. Incumbent shortstop Xander Bogaerts has an opt-out clause at the end of this season, setting the stage for Story to slide over to shortstop in 2023 if (or when) Bogaerts opts out. Story, along with fellow rumored Mariners targets like Baez (Tigers), Semien (Rangers) and Kris Bryant (Rockies) eventually landed a contract of six years or more in length with another team.

Even with the swing-and-a-miss on Story, the Mariners weren’t quite done making pre-lockout deals. Just 13 hours before the lockout, the team announced a four-year, $7.5MM contract extension with flamethrowing reliever Andres Munoz. It was a surprising deal and a risk-averse one by Munoz, who’ll be surrendering three free-agent years. However, for a then-22-year-old reliever — he turned 23 in January — who’d only just recovered from Tommy John surgery and was still a full year from reaching arbitration, it’s understandable if the allure of a life-changing guarantee was too hard to pass up. Munoz can still become a free agent heading into his age-30 season, even if all three options are exercised, but it’s hard not to love the deal for the Mariners.

Munoz, acquired alongside Ty France, Taylor Trammell and Luis Torrens in the deal that sent Austin Nola and Austin Adams to San Diego, is averaging 100.7 mph on his heater so far in 2022 and has fanned 14 of the 27 batters he’s faced. He’s struggled with command at times, but he has some of the best raw stuff of any reliever in the American League. In terms of total guarantee, the Mariners are only risking about what it’d have cost them to sign a fifth starter (e.g. Jordan Lyles), so the upside on this contract is outstanding.

About 2400 hours later, after an excruciating 99 days of strategic leaks, finger pointing and generally unbecoming quarrelling between MLB and the MLBPA, the transaction freeze was lifted. Dipoto greeted a baseball fan base that was ravenous for some Hot Stove activity with what’ll go down as one of his all-time lines, saying in a March 11 radio appearance: “I woke up this morning ready to transact.”

He might’ve had to wait three days, but transact Dipoto did. On March 14, the Mariners landed outfielder Jesse Winker in a trade with the Reds, doing so for a prospect package that was a bit lighter than most would’ve expected because they agreed to take on the entirety of Eugenio Suarez’s remaining three years and $35MM. The trade cost the M’s pitching prospect Brandon Williamson, outfielder Jake Fraley, righty Justin Dunn and a PTBNL — later announced as righty Connor Phillips, their second-round pick from the 2020 draft.

In Winker, the Mariners acquired a 2021 All-Star who has emerged as one of the best hitters in baseball against right-handed pitching. Winker will draw his walks against lefties but is generally punchless against same-handed opponents. When holding the platoon advantage from 2020-21, however, Winker boasted a Herculean 169 wRC+ that trailed only Juan Soto and Bryce Harper. During that 2020-21 breakout, Winker hit .321/.417/.619 against righties and .292/.392/.552 overall. He’s controlled through 2023, and even though he’s had a slow start in 2022, Winker has the ninth-largest gap in Statcast’s expected weighted on-base average (.405) and his actual wOBA (.265). He’s upped his walk rate, cut back on his strikeouts and seems due to begin producing sooner than later.

Taking on Suarez surely wasn’t what Mariners fans had in mind amid the early talks of adding a big bat — not after he combined to hit just .199/.293/.440 from 2020-21. Suarez led the NL with 49 homers in 2019, but the ensuing rise in strikeouts looked to have tanked his overall offensive output. He somewhat quietly slashed a much better .238/.335/.524 in 215 post-All-Star-break plate appearances last year, though, and at least early on, he’s been a boon to the Seattle lineup (.271/.377/.525). If Suarez indeed rounds back into form — and remember he’s only 30 — what already looked like a solid get for the Mariners will be all the more strong.

Curiously, however, that trade marked the end of Seattle’s major dealings. Righty Sergio Romo was brought in on a one-year, $2MM contract — but only after fellow right-hander Casey Sadler underwent season-ending shoulder surgery. Dipoto & Co. brought in a slate of recognizable veterans on minor league deals, but none of Billy Hamilton, Steven Souza Jr., Ryan Buchter or Tommy Milone are going to grab too many headlines at this stage in their careers. It was a nice series of depth adds, but as far as impact moves, there’s a sizable gap between Dipoto name-dropping Baez/Semien and eating Suarez’s contract in a salary dump designed to get Winker into the lineup.

Then again, perhaps the front office doesn’t mind if onlookers felt the offseason fell shy of expectations. As previously noted, Suarez is mashing to begin the season, and Ty France has been one of the game’s best hitters. The Mariners’ offense has been one of MLB’s most-productive through nearly three weeks, and that doesn’t even include much in the way of help from top prospects Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic. If one or both of them gets going at the plate, the lineup could be deadly even without one of those marquee free agents.

Seattle’s final move of note might’ve come after Opening Day, but the groundwork for the deal surely was laid during Spring Training. Doubling down on the notion that Crawford is the Mariners’ shortstop of both the present and the future, the team signed the 27-year-old to a five-year, $51MM contract. That figure includes Crawford’s preexisting 2022 salary but tacks on an additional four years and more than $46MM in guaranteed money. Whether he’s thriving based on that peace of mind or would’ve taken his game to new heights regardless can be debated, but Crawford has posted a mammoth .356/.466/.559 slash with a career-best 13.7% walk rate and just a 5.5% strikeout rate so far. He’ll surely regress to some extent, but the arrow on the former first-round pick and top prospect’s bat has been pointing up for the past couple seasons.

Crawford joins France, Rodriguez, Kelenic, Marco Gonzales, budding rotation star Logan Gilbert, impressive rookie Matt Brash, former Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis and a series of yet-to-debut prospects (George Kirby, Noelvi Marte, Emerson Hancock) as holdovers in a core that’ll now be bolstered by veteran additions of Ray, Winker, Frazier and Suarez. It may not have been the cannonball into the deep-end of the free-agent pool for which Mariners fans had pined, but the future in Seattle is unequivocally bright, and the team still has both a deep farm system and considerable payroll capacity to make deadline acquisitions as needed. The end of a 20-year playoff drought finally looks to be in sight.

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