Offseason intrigue: Free agency, Lewis, Julio

October 11th, 2021

SEATTLE -- When have the Mariners carried this much optimism heading into an offseason?

Sure, the highs were high after recent runs in the 2010s, but not quite like this. A 90-win season that caught the Majors by surprise among a young core of players that management has publicly said it will continue to add to can do that.

Seattle heads into the winter with a foundation of players who figure to be here for the long haul, the No. 2-ranked farm system that it will continue to dip into and stable direction after general manger Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais received multiyear contract extensions last month.

But for as much clarity as the Mariners have, they also face plenty of questions, most notably related to the personnel they’ll field in 2022. Below are the five most pressing that they'll answer this offseason:

1) Will they spend, and if so, how/where?

Dipoto has said for years that the Mariners will strike in free agency when the time is right, and he reiterated those intentions last week, saying that he’s received approval from ownership to significantly increase payroll. He also outlined that the Mariners intend to do so via an impact infield bat and within the starting rotation.

But how will he allocate the increased financial flexibility?

Just because there are a bevy of power-hitting infielders on the market doesn’t mean that the Mariners will throw nine-figure offers at the likes of Trevor Story, Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa and the rest of this loaded class, unless the fit and cost is right. It’s not to say they won’t land one of those All-Stars, but this is a front office that for years attempted to get out from under a 10-year deal that the previous front office gave Robsinon Canó. Finally moving on from that money owed three years ago was arguably the biggest jumpstarter to this rebuild.

“I think it's a very talented group of free agents and we’ve talked, we want to make our lineup longer,” Dipoto said. “There's chances to do that on the free-agent market, [if] there's opportunity to do that, we’ll look under every stone like we always have. And at the end of the day, we do have we have such a good foundation in place and we know that that there's a tipping point for this team. And if we can tip it, then we're going to try as hard as we can to do that.”

A Canó-type deal can set a franchise back if it doesn’t pan out, and people close to Dipoto have pointed out that he had significant pause to giving Albert Pujols a 10-year, $250 million contract in 2011, when he was GM of the Angels, ultimately ceding that decision to those higher in the pecking order.

There’s also a very strong possibility that the increase in payroll comes from trades, especially if the Mariners aren’t able to lure a Bryant away from San Francisco or a Correa away from Houston. They almost certainly won’t out-bid the Yankees for one of those players. One hypothetical would be dealing for -- if there are such players available -- a Matt Chapman-type, an impact bat that has multiple years of arbitration eligibility at a higher cost, but as such, would be a shorter commitment.

2) What’s up with Kyle Lewis?

It’s unclear, given that Lewis has declined to speak publicly since tearing his right meniscus on May 31. His efforts to return seemed to run more against the clock of the season winding down than anything, but Dipoto’s comments last week on the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year painted a far more sobering picture.

“I think we have to go into next season planning on whatever Kyle is able to deliver is a bonus for us,” Dipoto said. “He's had a really rough go here with his knee, and through no fault of his own, missed a good part of this season. He'll be a huge part of what we do, but we can't push very hard on the pencil until we see him play.”

Essentially, the Mariners will proceed as if Lewis won’t be playing center field next season -- at least until they see how his knee responds in camp. It’s also clear after Jarred Kelenic had multiple stumbles filling in for Lewis that he doesn’t profile there as strongly as left, either. So, center could be one they address this offseason via free agency or trade.

Had Lewis returned in 2021, he would’ve been DH’ing most days he played -- and that could certainly be the case in ’22 depending on where his knee is at, which remains a pretty significant unknown.

3) How will Julio contribute?

Dipoto made it clear on Julio Rodríguez making his Major League leap in 2022: It’s not if, but when.

Rodríguez recently said that he’ll enter Spring Training intending to compete for an Opening Day roster spot, and while that might sound lofty given that the 20-year-old still hasn’t reached Triple-A, Dipoto didn’t rule it out the way he did Kelenic making that very same leap at this time last year.

“There really is no unrealistic expectation,” Dipoto said. “He's so talented. … Now, it’s tough to sit here on Oct. 7 and pinpoint what that means for the start of his 2022 season, but I wouldn't put anything past him.”

Rodríguez had a monster 2021, hitting .347/.441/.560 (1.001 OPS), winning a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics and earning a promotion from High A to Double-A. Most players at his stage benefit from seeing the bevy of breaking balls at Triple-A before reaching the big leagues, but also, how the Mariners address their outfield personnel this offseason could impact Rodríguez’s timeline.

“Some of whatever opportunity is available to him on the front end is going to be dictated by what we're able to do in the offseason,” Dipoto said. “Our team is going to look a little different on opening day of Spring Training 2022 than it looks today, so where the pieces fall between now and then will go a long way toward determining what the front-end opportunity looks like with Julio. But I would be stunned if Julio doesn't play a role, and a pretty significant role, in our 2022 season.”

4) How will they handle first base?

It sure seems like Ty France has as strong a grip on that gig as could be, especially given that he emerged as one of the AL’s best defenders there and that Evan White still has looming uncertainty on his surgically-repaired left hip.

“I can say we're hopeful, but there is no certainty until we get further into the process and [White and Lewis] get back to baseball activity,” Dipoto said. “I really can't make that kind of determination until then.”

France, who the Mariners’ MVP last season, is a bat that necessitates everyday playing time, and White -- despite his Gold Glove Award efforts in 2020 -- still hasn’t consistently produced at the plate. Even if White fully recovers by Spring Training, France has become a huge insurance policy if the Mariners determined that White, who’s hit .165/.235/.308 (.544 OPS) over 306 big league plate appearances, could use more Minor League seasoning.

5) The bullpen was nails -- now what?

The Mariners’ relief corps, by WAR, transformed from the the Majors' worst to one of its best in just one year, thanks to its many under-the-radar additions last offseason, notably Paul Sewald and Drew Steckenrider. But that big turnaround also speaks to the volatility in any given bullpen, and the Mariners are cognizant of the possibility of regression.

“We all understand how bullpens work though,” Servais said. “They go up and down. You can have four or five guys that are killing it, then all of a sudden you show up the next year, and you have a couple injuries, lack of performance, this guy's fastball isn't this It can change in a hurry. So you need a lot of depth. And that's what excites me about our bullpen because we do have depth, and we're adding to it.”

Even so, the Mariners have a pair of reinforcements back from Tommy John surgery -- former All-Star Ken Giles, who they signed last winter, and 100-mph flamethrower Andres Munoz, who made his Mariners debut in the regular-season finale.

Once the Mariners get through their non-tenders, it’s possible that they could explore the Minor League free-agent market to invite additional arms to camp, like they did last year with Sewald, Steckenrider and JT Chargois. They’ll keep their options open.