Dipoto looks to build around core in 2016
New GM eyeing depth, 'pen help to complement Felix, Cano, Cruz, Seager
SEATTLE -- With a new general manager in Jerry Dipoto, a new field manager in Scott Servais and a new farm director in Andy McKay, change is already well underway for the Mariners heading into 2016. Now as Major League Baseball's offseason officially begins with the conclusion of the World Series, the next question for the Mariners is: How much will Dipoto and Servais overhaul the roster in their first season in Seattle?
The Mariners would appear to already have their foundation in place, given the long-term contracts tying the core group of Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz to the club for the foreseeable future.
Cano is under contract for eight more years and $192 million. Seager has six more seasons and $92.5 million. Hernandez will earn $105 million over the next four years and Cruz has three years worth $42 million remaining.
The Mariners believe those four are the nucleus of a team that should contend, but Dipoto will be charged with surrounding them with the talent to improve upon this past year's disappointing 76-86 record. The new GM says improving roster depth, getting more athletic and restocking the bullpen are his biggest immediate priorities, and he'll pursue every avenue.
Dipoto was aggressive on the trade market with the Angels, and he'll undoubtedly make some moves to find players he feels are suited for Safeco Field that will supplement the big names already under contract.
"Whether it be through the primary market of free-agent and trade acquisition or the secondary market of waivers, smaller trades, Minor League deals, you can come up with a very creative roster balance that will allow this team to contend now," Dipoto said. "I believe that the quality of the core group screams for it. You've got too many good players to believe that you're far away from winning."
The Mariners felt they had the right mix heading into 2015, but things never quite meshed. It will be Dipoto's charge now to fill in the gaps.
"We have a GM that has been in the game, and coming from LA, he's gotten guys in the past," said Cano. "He's seen [the Mariners] from both sides. He can see what we need to improve. Hopefully he goes and gets the right pieces."
Which is precisely what Dipoto has on his mind now. He's hired Servais to replace Lloyd McClendon and McKay to oversee player development, and he feels both will help change the culture of the franchise from top to bottom. But when it comes to this coming season's Major League roster, it will be interesting to see how much turnover occurs in the first offseason for a club many felt was poised to contend last season.
"It's a matter of finding the right hitters who fit this ballpark well and the right players to create a roster," Dipoto said. "I think some of that already exists. We're going to go out and find the right pieces to augment that group."
Arbitration-eligible: 1B/DH/OF Mark Trumbo, 1B/DH Logan Morrison, RHP Tom Wilhelmsen, LHP Charlie Furbush.
Free agents: RHP Hisashi Iwakuma, LHP Joe Beimel, OF Franklin Gutierrez.
Out of options: 1B/DH Jesus Montero, LHP Danny Hultzen, LHP Mike Montgomery, LHP Edgar Olmos, RHP JC Ramirez, RHP Jose Ramirez, OF Ramon Flores.
Rotation: It's always comforting to pencil Hernandez atop the list, as the King remains the centerpiece to build around. Taijuan Walker, who just turned 23, appears poised to be a top-end starter as well after making major strides in his first full year in the Majors. While a second straight injury-shortened season raises concerns, the Mariners believe they have another potential standout in southpaw James Paxton if they can keep him on the mound.
Left-handers: Roenis Elias and Montgomery both showed promise, but need more consistency as candidates for the backend of the rotation. But, the club clearly needs at least one more veteran starter in the mix, and bringing Iwakuma back in free agency figures to be a high priority, assuming he doesn't want too long of a contract at age 34. For depth purposes, don't be surprised if Dipoto pursues another experienced arm, given the Mariners usually have been able to attract pitchers willing to take a shot at building their resume at Safeco Field.
Bullpen: Wilhelmsen solidified the closer's role with two strong months in August and September, and rookie Carson Smith also returns as a quality right-handed setup man, who now has some closing experience of his own. But beyond that, the Mariners figure to be in rebuild mode after a disappointing year for their relief crew. Danny Farquhar pitched better in the second half and should be in the mix of right-handers along with Tony Zych, a hard-throwing rookie who opened some eyes as a September callup. The left side has some concerns after Furbush missed the final two months with shoulder issues, and Beimel is a free agent at age 38. Vidal Nuno helps as a lefty swing man, but there figures to be some new faces in camp next spring to offer help. Right-hander Mark Lowe, who had an outstanding season before being traded to Toronto, could be a candidate to return as a free agent.
Catcher: All you need to know about this position is that Mike Zunino hit .174 in 112 games, was sent down to Triple-A in late August and closed out the year working on his swing with the instructional league team … and still hit far better than the three catchers who replaced him in the final month. Zunino, 24, is outstanding behind the plate and remains the catcher of the future, but it seems certain the Mariners will bring in an established veteran to work with him in the coming year. Alex Avila, coming off a down year in Detroit, is the type of free agent who might fit well as a left-handed hitter with experience. Jesus Sucre is a good catch-and-throw guy, but struggled even more than Zunino offensively and John Hicks and Steve Baron -- two late-season callups -- were overmatched at the plate and figure to get more seasoning in Triple-A next year.
First base: Morrison opened the year as the starter and split time in the second half with Trumbo, who can also play designated hitter or right field. Both will be in their final year of arbitration eligibility next season. Montero worked into the mix at times in the second half as well, but he's out of options and will have to make the club out of Spring Training next year or be exposed to waivers. It remains to be seen if Dipoto will look to upgrade at first or stick with the trio acquired by previous GM Jack Zduriencik.
Second base: Cano got off to the worst start of his career in 2015, but the 32-year-old showed in the second half that he's still one of the better hitters in the game and a huge key to the Mariners' plans. It was no coincidence that once Cano started hitting, the offense flourished. Cano may eventually move to first base or DH, but he appears set at second for the immediate future.
Shortstop: Rookie Ketel Marte replaced Brad Miller in the second half and established himself as a key piece going forward as a switch-hitting leadoff hitter with a good glove. Miller moved to the outfield, but is versatile enough to fill in at short as a utility player. Chris Taylor struggled offensively in his stint with the club, but remains an intriguing prospect in Dipoto's eyes.
Third base: Seager has put his stamp on this position since his 2011 midseason promotion, and the 27-year-old again proved to be one of the Mariners' mainstays. Seager moved into the No. 2 position in the lineup in midseason and hit well behind Marte and in front of Cruz and Cano, while also providing a strong glove in the field and steady presence in the clubhouse.
Outfield: The Mariners underwent another year of transition here. After opening the season with Dustin Ackley and Rickie Weeks in a platoon in left, Austin Jackson in center and Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano in right, only Smith finished the season with the club. Cruz wound up playing more games in right field than at DH, until a late-season quad injury limited his running. Miller converted to center field and will likely get more time to transition next spring. Gutierrez hit extremely well in the second half, but is a free agent, and it is tough to count on him because of his injury history. That leaves the outfield again as a place the Mariners likely will look to add this offseason, particularly with Dipoto's intent on getting more athletic.
Designated hitter: Cruz and Trumbo give the Mariners a pair of right-handed thumpers who can also play in the field. McClendon didn't like a full-time DH, preferring to use that spot to rotate players to keep them fresh, but it remains to be seen what approach Servais takes. Though with an expected emphasis on defense and speed, it's likely Cruz will see more time at DH.