It all started with rabbit stew.
Yes, the unofficial start of a Seattle Mariners offseason filled with expectations — some realistic and more than a few unrealistic — began with a picture of high-level cuisine from Marmite on Capitol Hill, elegantly plated and looking quite tasty despite any negative thoughts of consuming the Easter Bunny.
Well, the picture was taken by Mark Canha and posted to his Instagram (@bigleaguefoodie), which is linked to his Twitter account (@outtadapakmark), on Thursday night. A known tormentor of Mariners pitchers while with the Oakland A’s, the outfielder/first baseman is a free agent going into the 2022 season.
Was he having dinner with general manager Jerry Dipoto, who is also a known foodie? Are the Mariners courting him to perhaps serve as a right-handed bat for the lineup?
The reaction from Mariners and A’s fans on social media, which is probably not the best gauge of lucidity, was as expected. Some fans were excited about a high on-base-percentage hitter to add depth to the lineup. Others were angry thinking that the Mariners should be looking at bigger names than a 34-year-old veteran with a .244 career batting average. A Twitter search of “Canha” and “Mariners” was equal parts amusing and frightening.
And did one fan actually walk to Marmite to see who Canha was dining with only to find it locked?
Canha posted a pic of a yellowtail dish from Café Juanita on Friday and eggplant zurita from Canlis on Saturday. So maybe it was just an eating tour of Seattle’s fine-restaurant scene from a self-proclaimed foodie and not a free-agent recruitment, though the Mariners have always had interest in Canha and love his “control the zone” approach at the plate.
Still, the speculation and emotional reaction speaks to the “hunger” for action that Mariners fans feel going into this offseason. Imbued by the unexpected 90-win season in 2021, inspired by the final series of the season that featured three sold-out games and the anxiety-filled energy of must-win baseball, there is a demand for offseason action and improvement to the roster.
While most fans want their respective teams to stoke the flames of the hot stove with big moves every offseason, Mariners fans have somewhat patiently waited through three seasons of the “step back” rebuild, where the postseason wasn’t the initial priority, to get to this moment.
Now the offseason intentions of the Mariners’ front office, specifically Dipoto, who was elevated to president of baseball operations, mirrors those of the fans.
“This was always our plan,” Dipoto said in his year-end news conference. “We thought we would start to turn a corner right about now, and I think we did that. Now it’s incumbent on us to go add where we can add and improve where we can improve. That’s not lost on us. We’ll visit every avenue to do that, whether it’s the free-agent market, it’s the potential for trade, but we do have payroll flexibility and we’re going to use it to go out and make the team better.”
For the first time since he was hired in September 2015, Dipoto has the financial freedom to build a roster without being heavily constrained by the current payroll of the roster and the budget limitations set by ownership.
He came to organization with massive yearly payroll commitments to Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Nelson Cruz and was forced to try and upgrade with minimal money, which resulted in seemingly endless trades and roster movement.
The rebuild plan, which he convinced Mariners chairman John Stanton to green-light after the 2018 season, reduced those payroll commitments through trades or contract expiration. And with Yusei Kikuchi eschewing a $13 million club option for 2022 — an early Christmas gift for Dipoto — the Mariners have just $15.2 million in MLB contract commitments for 2022. If you conservatively estimate $25-30 million more in club-controlled salary and $5.25 million in “dead” money, the Mariners have approximately $50 million in commitments.
The Mariners’ highest payroll during the Dipoto era was roughly $175 million during the 2018 season. It’s unlikely that Seattle will bump all the way up to that level in one offseason, instead leaving some wiggle room to add at midseason or after the season.
But it’s not impossible to envision Seattle bumping up to $130-$140 million for a payroll budget. That should be a reasonable starting point.
Dipoto said on his weekly radio show that the Mariners have been discussing potential trades for the past month and pointed to the annual Major League Baseball general managers meetings, which start Monday at the Omni Resort & Hotel in Carlsbad, California, as the real kickoff to the offseason.
“That has turned into more of the trade hub than the winter meetings,” he said last week on ESPN 710. “Most of the discussions and the real heavy lifting in getting trades done starts, even culminates at the GM meetings. Between that time in early November and the start of the winter meetings in early December is where it really gets done.”
Besides the MLB required meetings for general managers on subjects like rules changes, protocols and other aspects, the top agencies in baseball also will be at the GM meetings for preliminary discussions with GMs on their free-agent clients.
Dipoto figures to be a popular man at the meetings, given his public statements and industry knowledge that he’s looking to spend in a strong free-agent class.
“There’s some depth in this particular class, especially on the position-player side, and it’s exciting to go into a market that is this robust with some flexibility and the ability to land a player at multiple positions on the field,” he said on his show.
And he won’t be reduced to shopping in discount sections and looking for clearance deals on bounce-back players. He can shop in the high-end of free agents if he chooses.
“It’s exciting for us because this is the first time that we’ve really set our sights on finding those centerpiece-type players that can really drive a championship team,” he said. “Hopefully we are able to bring one to Seattle, if not more.”
With Kyle Seager and his 35 homers, 100 RBI and 161 games played moving on, the Mariners will need to find a replacement for his power presence.
“Our primary objective is to increase or improve the depth of our lineup so that that’ll be focus No. 1,” Dipoto said after the season. “We would like to add offense wherever the offense comes from. It would be hard to imagine not one of those players not manning an infield position.”
The Mariners have J.P. Crawford locked in at shortstop and seem comfortable with Ty France as a first baseman/designated hitter. And while Abraham Toro was a solid player and contributor coming over in a trade from Houston, his presence on the roster shouldn’t limit their scope of acquisitions. Adding enough talent to have an overabundance or positional competition is a good thing.
“We probably have more depth than we’ve ever had, at least in our years here,” Dipoto said. “And that’s what good teams have is they have that type of depth. I think moving forward, you’re going to have to really work and earn the plate appearances and the innings.”
There are plenty of hitters available on the market that could fit the holes at second base and third base, including the ultra-versatile Kris Bryant, Blue Jays second baseman Marcus Semien and even moving Rockies shortstop Trevor Story to second or third base.
Dipoto also isn’t afraid to go the trade route to get talent. And with the top farm system in all of baseball, he has the prospect capital to perhaps pry away A’s third baseman Matt Chapman, a player they are rumored to have interest in acquiring, from their AL West rival. MLB sources have said the A’s are likely going to shop the core group of their recent success — Chapman, All-Star first baseman Matt Olson and pitchers Chris Bassitt and Sean Manaea, who are all arbitration eligible — as part of a rebuilding process to help restock a barren farm system.
Dipoto must also address a rotation that has three locked-in starters — Marco Gonzales, Chris Flexen and Logan Gilbert. With Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn proving little in a 2021 season that featured injuries and inconsistency, and touted prospects Matt Brash, George Kirby, Emerson Hancock and Brandon Williamson still unknown and far from finished products, Seattle must add at least one, if not two established starters. Besides possibly bringing back lefty Tyler Anderson as back-of-the-rotation filler on a cheaper deal, there is a thought that Seattle needs to add a front-line starter.
Do they dump $40 million a year on 37-year-old Max Scherzer or offer huge money to Noah Syndergaard, who has pitched sparingly due to injury? Is lefty Robbie Ray, the likely winner of the AL Cy Young, a possibility? Would those pitchers even want to venture to an unproven team?
Seattle liked right-hander Anthony DeSclafani in past offseasons and lefty Eduardo Rodriguez could be a fit. Dipoto doesn’t necessarily have to commit to a long contract with the depth of pitching prospects in the organizations.
With Kyle Lewis’ past knee issues, the Mariners also could look to add a true center fielder to allow Jarred Kelenic to move back to left field and use the designated hitter spot for Lewis and Mitch Haniger and not rush the development of Julio Rodriguez.
With Cal Raleigh’s struggles as a rookie, a minor upgrade at catcher also could make sense.
The past industry thinking was that Seattle must pay more than 10-15% above market value to sign free agents due to the lack of consistent, or really any, postseason appearance in the past two decades, location and travel and other aspects. The Mariners have the money to do that. And it’s why trades might also be an easier avenue to access that talent though it’s more painful for a team to give up prospects than dollars.
“What we did get to 90 wins, the fact that this place was electric for the final three days, truly, this has to be a more appealing place to a major league free agent than it has been in many years,” Dipoto said. “That’s going to help us a lot.”
And, of course, there’s rabbit stew.