SEATTLE -- Things have been quiet so far this offseason for the Mariners and the rest of Major League Baseball. With revenues down and financial uncertainty still looming about 2021 as the pandemic continues, free agency and trades have been a slow go to date.
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Mairners general manager Jerry Dipoto says he’s having a normal amount of trade talks with other teams and discussions with free agents, and he believes it’s too early to determine if this winter will be chillier than most. So, what’s up? Here are three things to ponder as we head into the holidays:
1) How much money will the Mariners have to spend on gifts this holiday season?
Compared to many MLB teams, Seattle sits in pretty good shape with its player payroll coming off the difficult 2020. Thanks to Dipoto clearing many of the long-term veteran contracts the past two years, the Mariners have only $41 million committed to five players on long-term deals for ’21.
Kyle Seager is owed $18 million, Yusei Kikuchi will receive $15 million, Marco Gonzales will earn $5 million, Evan White will earn $1.3 million and Kendall Graveman is at $1.25 million, with potential incentives that could kick his deal up to $5 million or so.
The Mariners will likely add on another $6 million-7 million when Mitch Haniger, Tom Murphy and J.P. Crawford agree to terms as arbitration-eligible players. The rest of the 40-man roster at this point consists of young players making the MLB minimum of around $570,000, which adds about $19 million total.
That tallies up to about $67 million at this point on the player payroll, which is a big drop from the days when they were paying almost that much just to Robinson Canó, Félix Hernández and Nelson Cruz and totaling around $160 million-170 million for their 40-man squad.
So, yes, Dipoto should have some financial flexibility, and he's indicated that he’ll have ownership’s approval to use that when the time is right to add key finishing pieces to the club’s rebuilding efforts.
The question, of course, is whether the Mariners feel that time is now. Their young squad took steps forward last year, but it's still waiting to see when top prospects like Jarred Kelenic, Logan Gilbert, Cal Raleigh and others are MLB-ready. And the financial uncertainty around MLB is real, with all clubs coming off significant revenue reductions in the 60-game season with no fans and now heading into a season that could again be dealing with COVID-19 questions.
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So, indeed, the Mariners would seem to have room in the budget in normal times. But how aggressively they and the other 29 MLB teams proceed this winter remains to be seen.
2) What kind of presents can we expect?
Dipoto has made it clear he’d like to add several veteran relievers to a bullpen that had the worst ERA in the American League last season. There are a number of intriguing candidates, including experienced closers Liam Hendriks, Brad Hand, Trevor Rosenthal, Kirby Yates, Mark Melancon, Blake Treinen, Jeremy Jeffress, Brandon Kintzler, Greg Holland, Shane Greene, Tyler Clippard, Brad Boxberger, Sean Doolittle and former Mariner Alex Colomé.
Thirteen of those 14 have more than 50 career saves and the only one with less is the top name in the group, as Hendriks has 40 saves since moving into the A’s closer role two years ago.
That’s just the group that has ninth-inning experience, and there are some quality setup types as well, so the Mariners should be able to land a few experienced relievers to bolster their late-inning options. With such a big group of free-agent relievers, the question likely will be when the first dominoes fall, as players will want to wait until the market price is established in this unique offseason.
Many of those experienced closers are older and don’t necessarily fit in Seattle’s longer-term plans, but perhaps the Mariners will take a run at Rosenthal, who is only 30 years old despite a lengthy career that saw him earn National League All-Star honors for the Cardinals in 2015, then miss all of ’18 following Tommy John surgery before finally looking healthy again last season for the Royals and Padres.
It might be smart to make a play as well for 31-year-old Trevor May, a native of Longview, Wash., who has been very good the past three years as a power arm in a setup role for the Twins.
There are plenty of options, but relievers are the most unpredictable targets in MLB, so it’ll be interesting to see what Dipoto unwraps.
3) Will there be any surprises under the tree?
Nobody wants to get just socks and underwear for Christmas. And while relievers are certainly functional and necessary, wouldn’t it be fun to get a present no one is expecting as well?
That’s a bit of a roster challenge for Dipoto, who has young returners lined up at nearly every position on the field. The Mariners don’t want to bring in veterans to block their up-and-coming prospects, but there is one intriguing possibility.
Why not make a run at free-agent second baseman Kolten Wong, who would add another Gold Glove Award-winning defender to their much-improved infield? The 30-year-old isn’t a big power threat, but he gets on base (with a .279/.358/.396 slash line and 29 stolen bases over the past two seasons in St. Louis) and would add a needed lefty bat to a suddenly right-handed-heavy lineup.
The Mariners are planning to give Dylan Moore a go at second base this spring after his breakout 2020, but Moore’s biggest value may be in his super-utility ability. He could open the season in the outfield alongside Kyle Lewis and Mitch Haniger then be available wherever needed once Kelenic arrives. It’s inevitable that some position will need filling due to injury or underperformance, and Moore is the perfect Swiss Army knife.
The Cardinals surprised many by letting Wong go rather than pay his $12.5 million option for 2021. He wouldn’t come cheap, but the Mariners do have the financial flexibility to make a multiyear offer. If they want to take advantage of the unique pandemic-affected market that figures to have many teams cutting back -- and led to St. Louis choosing not to exercise Wong’s option -- that might be the perfect spot to take a shot.
Greg Johns has covered the Mariners since 1997, and for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohnsMLB.