5 questions facing the Mariners this offseason

October 26th, 2023

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.

SEATTLE -- If the Mariners’ 2023 season was a “floor” amid the window of contention that they believe they reside in, as the front office suggested in its season-ending press conference, then this offseason represents a major marker in the scope of the club’s longer-term trajectory.

The Mariners again fell short of the Astros in the American League West and watched the Rangers surpass them in the division, all the way to a World Series berth. Falling short of heightened expectations -- and with more pressure heading into 2024 -- makes them one of the most intriguing clubs to watch this winter.

Here are five questions they face:

1. Will they be in on Ohtani?

The sweepstakes for the most anticipated free agent, arguably all time, is made all the more fascinating given that Shohei Ohtani won’t be able to pitch next season due to elbow surgery, and that other than his repeated desire to win after six seasons with the uninspiring Angels, nobody really knows what he seeks in free agency.

Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto indicated as much in a radio hit with 710 Seattle Sports earlier this month, saying, “I can’t tell you that we’re going to go sign the greatest free agent that’s ever lived because I don’t know if that person is willing to be here. Every street has two ways.”

Mariners fans made a bold pitch to Ohtani during July’s All-Star Game in Seattle, and they haven’t let up since.

Ohtani is expected to net a lucrative contract, but its structure could be just as curious. Will he want a long-term deal or a shorter pact with a higher annual value and opt-outs? Just as uncertain is if Mariners ownership would be willing to spend on such a deal, even if Ohtani views Seattle as a long-term winner.

The Mariners will have a seat at the table, but their status with the Japanese superstar -- much like everything else centered on Ohtani -- remains a mystery.

2. Who will they sign or trade for?

Beyond Ohtani, this year’s free-agent market for hitters is bleak. Even on the heels of a streaky season, Teoscar Hernández will probably be among the top tier of available bats. Matt Chapman -- who Seattle attempted to trade for in 2022 -- would make sense, but that’d create a logjam at third base, where Eugenio Suárez is under contract for one more year. Some have suggested Cody Bellinger as a fit, though the Mariners didn’t pursue him last winter.

“It’s not as robust a class as has been the case in the last couple of years,” Dipoto said. 

This shape of this class will almost certainly force the Mariners to zero in on the trade market.

The flashiest name that’s been floated has been San Diego superstar Juan Soto, who will be a free agent at season’s end and almost certainly will test that market, meaning he’d be a one-year solution, one that’d cost a prospect haul. The same could be said for Pete Alonso, but all indications are that the Mets won’t deal the three-time All-Star this winter.

Other potential fits could be Tampa Bay’s Yandy Díaz, Cleveland’s Josh Naylor and San Francisco’s Lamonte Wade Jr., all first basemen and all with teams that also tend to trade.

3. Who will they trade?

The Mariners’ farm system has transformed from pitcher- to hitter-heavy in recent years, though their top-end prospects are in the lower Minors, which could create challenges with trade partners seeking more immediate impact. Seattle was also reticent on dealing those prospects at last year’s Trade Deadline, though that was as much attributed to the club hovering around .500 all year to that point.

It all points to the Mariners potentially being in the precarious position of dealing some of their young starting pitchers, a notion that was essentially off the table last offseason. It might not be as inconceivable this winter.

“We will always have to make tough choices, when you think you're strong in one area to help another area,” Mariners GM Justin Hollander said. “I don't think that's something we're super excited about doing is taking a strength and turning it into a weakness.”

4. Do they have enough pitching?

Speaking of, Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo were vital to the Mariners remaining in contention late into the year, but it was clear that both were gassed in September. George Kirby was even being monitored more closely down the stretch. 

The Mariners have been mum on Robbie Ray’s return timeline, suggesting that anything he offers in 2024 will be a luxury rather than an asset. Marco Gonzales is expected back by Spring Training, as is Emerson Hancock. But for a group that didn’t suffer any injuries the year prior, 2023 showed that their elite depth was nonetheless vulnerable.

“You have pitching until you don't have pitching, and you better be careful,” Hollander said.

5. Which free agents could return?

The Mariners only have two, Hernández and catcher Tom Murphy. 

It’s a strong possibility that they extend Hernández a qualifying offer, but just as strong that he declines to test free agency. 

Murphy suffered a season-ending thumb injury in early August, but just prior, Dipoto said that the club intended to explore an extension with the 32-year-old. However, if healthy, after a borderline career year, he’ll be coveted elsewhere, too.