Polanco's return brings another key roster decision

June 25th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Daniel Kramer's Mariners Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

ST. PETERSBURG -- An expected roster crunch arrived for the Mariners on Monday, when they activated veteran from a nearly month-long stint on the injured list due to a right hamstring strain ahead of their three-game series against the Rays.

It had long seemed clear that Seattle would option one of its promising rookies, (No. 8 prospect) or , as the corresponding move. But the calculus gained more clarity after Bliss’ huge series in Miami. Plus, Locklear didn’t have as clear of a path to playing time with Ty France returning and Luke Raley being the backup option at first base.

So the Mariners opted to send Locklear back to Triple-A Tacoma for everyday reps on the heels of an encouraging debut stint.

“I love his work ethic, his mentality,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “He's going to hit in this league. He's a big guy, he looks the part and he's going to continue to get better there. But you want that player to continue to play a lot and continue to to develop at the Minor League level. We didn't see the playing time coming here.”

As was the case last week, when Seattle designated backup catcher Seby Zavala for assignment and retained Locklear, the first-place Mariners are balancing player development for one of their top prospects while also fielding their most optimal 26-man roster on any given night. That’s why, in this specific situation, Bliss remained.

“He brings a different feature,” Servais said, “in that he can pinch-run and he's a dynamic baserunner. ... [Bliss is a good option] as a late-game pinch-hitting and defensive and offensive replacement. You want to have more guys that have more versatility.”

Bliss went 6-for-10 with one triple and two doubles over the weekend in Miami, on the heels of a stretch in which he didn’t reach base in over a week. He’s shown that his skillset can directly impact games in a dynamic way.

To further boost his functionality, Bliss also began taking pregame outfield reps on Monday at Tropicana Field, where the bright rooftop lights within the concrete-laden venue warrant extra prep.

No, the Mariners don’t see him working into a platoon, as his arm strength is probably the weakest among Seattle’s position players. But if there’s a chance to bring him off the bench, especially in a close game, they’re creating the possibility for left field to be a spot he can slide into.

“Coming up here, I just want to help the team win,” Bliss said. “Wherever that is, however that looks. Just know I'll get the job done.”

Servais also acknowledged that Polanco’s return would limit Bliss’ opportunities at second base. To that end, the Mariners badly want -- and need -- Polanco to produce at the level he did in Minnesota, which prompted them to orchestrate their offseason personnel strategy around him.

Polanco was billed as Seattle's biggest addition on the heels of a trade that sent four players and cash to the Twins, including Gabriel Gonzalez, the Mariners' No. 3 prospect at the time.

But Polanco struggled mightily before the injury, hitting .195 with a .595 OPS and a 30.9% strikeout rate, way above his 18.8% career clip. That’s part of why his Minor League rehab assignment was longer, as he went 6-for-20 with three homers over six games between High-A Everett and Tacoma.

“Really excited. It took a long time to come back,” Polanco said. “I put in the hard work, trying to get healthy and come back here. Now that I'm here, I'm really excited to be here with my teammates. I'm trying to go out there and win.”

Polanco is earning $10.5 million this year and has a $750,000 buyout for next season, in addition to a $12 million club option. The Mariners aren’t going to just eat that money -- at least not yet. Last year, they didn’t move on from Kolten Wong -- another veteran second baseman with a track record, but who never found his footing in Seattle -- and the remainder of his $10 million salary until the Trade Deadline.

“The encouraging thing we talked about when [Polanco] started his rehab assignment is to go down and play -- and not just feel healthy, but feel good in the batter's box, make sure he's guys timing down,” Servais said. “Certainly, he performed very well down there. He's anxious. It's kind of a reboot for him, [a chance] to kind of start over here.”

So the Mariners will roll with this roster construction until they deem that circumstances have changed. They’ve shown all season that they can and will adjust their personnel based on need, fit and performance.