SAN DIEGO – On the third day of these Major League Baseball winter meetings, where Seattle general manager Jerry Dipoto has defied the odds by not making a single move, looking ahead to the Mariners’ 2020 roster and the potential pitfalls helps to fill the time without a transaction.
With most of the early work of the “step-back” plan finished, the Mariners head into this season “focusing on the broader picture” of the rebuild. The micro of winning a particular game or their 162-game record this season isn’t as big as the macro of playing a slew of young players and having them grow at the MLB level.
“How do we get better over the long haul?” Dipoto said. “We need these guys to get the opportunity so we start to mature as a team.”
Based on that philosophy, there would seem to be a conundrum at second base, where Shed Long, Seattle’s starter of the future there, is ready to take over. However, incumbent Dee Gordon remains with one more year left on his contract.
Long filled in at second last season when Gordon dealt with wrist and hamstring injuries. When Gordon returned, Seattle put Long in left field to keep his bat in the lineup. They won’t do that this year. Kyle Lewis is expected to be the starting left fielder, with Mallex Smith in center and Mitch Haniger, if he’s not traded, in right field.
If the Mariners remain true to their plan and philosophy, Long will be the starting second baseman on opening day with Gordon either reduced to a bench/utility role or no longer in the organization.
“Shed had a nice run for us last year swinging the bat really, really well,” manager Scott Servais said Tuesday. “We’re going to give him a ton of opportunity to play at second base. I think that’s his position at the end of the day. Where we are as a ballclub you have to give guys a chance and stick with them. We saw it with J.P. Crawford last year – he played a ton and learned through it. We’re going to give Shed a great opportunity this year at second base, and he is certainly not intimidated, by the league or the situation. He showed very well.”
In his final 20 games, Long posted a .289/.337/.518 slash line with five doubles, a triple, four homers and 10 RBI, with most of them coming in the leadoff spot.
The scenario of Gordon being a sage-like veteran presence but only a part-time player doesn’t seem ideal. While he wouldn’t be a malicious presence in that role, it’s also not one he would enjoy. Gordon is a baseball version of a basketball gym rat. He loves to play the game, exhibiting a passion higher than a typical player.
The situation also isn’t ideal for Long. Given a full-time MLB job for the first time, you don’t want him wondering if a slow start or prolonged slump might lead to Gordon re-taking his job. The ideal situation is to put Long at second base and let him experience the full season of highs and lows without looking over his shoulder.
Adding to the intrigue of the situation is that Gordon and Long are good friends. They work out together in the offseason in Florida, and they’re even represented by the same agent – Nate Heisler of Rep1 Baseball. Gordon even admitted last season he’s blocking his friend’s opportunity. But he won’t want to give up his chance to play and show other teams he’s a viable option with free agency looming.
The obvious solution to avoid potential acrimony or awkwardness is to trade Gordon. It seems simple, but it hasn’t proven to be for the Mariners.
Seattle shopped Gordon heavily at the trade deadline last season. They had serious interest from the Cubs. But Gordon’s hamstring injury at the time scuttled the potential deal. Had there still been a waiver trade period in August, it might have happened.
The Mariners have shopped Gordon since the end of the season, but there has been minimal interest, per multiple sources. Gordon’s age, he’ll turn 32 in April, his decreased production, recent injury issues and the remaining money owed on his contract are all hindrances.
To be fair, when Gordon was healthy, he was productive. And the two major injuries that affected his performance came on fluke plays.
On May 9, 2018, he fouled a ball off his right big toe, fracturing it. In the small sample of 34 games prior, he had a .353/.375/.446 slash line with eight doubles, a triple, a homer, eight RBI and 15 stolen bases. Instead of possibly going on the disabled list to let the toe heal, Gordon had to return to second base full-time because Robinson Cano suffered a broken wrist and had to serve an 80-game drug suspension. A brief stint on the injured list did nothing to help it. The sore toe and a callus issue on his right foot remained all season. He posted a .243/.264/.320 line with nine doubles, seven triples, three homers, 28 RBI and 15 stolen bases in his last 106 games.
In an eerie coincidence, Gordon’s injury in 2019 also came on May 9 when J.A. Happ hit him in the right wrist with a 90-mph fastball. In 37 games before the injury, he had a slash line of .304/.327/.406 with three doubles, a triple, three homers, 19 RBI and 22 stolen bases. An initial diagnosis said there was no fracture in the wrist. Gordon sat out three games and then returned to the lineup, trying to play through the obvious discomfort. It didn’t work. He had three hits in 22 plate appearances and went on the IL with a hairline fracture of the wrist on May 22. After he returned, he posted a respectable .270/.300/.352 line with nine doubles, five triples, 15 RBI and 10 stolen bases in 72 games.
“He can help a team if he’s healthy,” said an opposing scout.
The salary could be construed as the biggest obstacle. Gordon is set to make $13.8 million this season, with a $1 million buyout of his 2021 option. That is not an insignificant sum and something no team would ever take on in a deal. If the Mariners want to trade Gordon, they are going to have to eat some of those dollars. It’s a process they should be familiar with based on the trades made last offseason.
Multiple sources believe Seattle would have to take on more than half of Gordon’s salary to get a team to agree to a deal. The more money the Mariners pay, the better the prospect return might be. But to be clear, it won’t be a high-level prospect. Seattle could also trade for a player with similar dollars owed in what amounts to be a contract swap.
Any potential trade probably wouldn’t happen until late in the offseason or perhaps even during spring training. Second base is not usually a priority when finalizing a roster. It’s often one of the last position spots determined. A trade isn’t impossible, but it’s basically how motivated the Mariners are to move Gordon and how much of his salary are they willing to pay to make it work.
Dee Gordon might have to start the season on the Mariners’ roster, but it’s unlikely that he will be on it at the end.