The Mariners have a new plan to rebuild and replenish their roster going forward. And it means more trades, roster moves and fewer wins are ahead.
Welcome to the “step back.”
It’s not something familiar to Mariners fans, who have watched as the organization has tried to piece together a roster, at times with duct tape and dreams, while competing for a postseason spot that never materialized over the past 17 seasons.
Phrases like “We feel we can compete now” and “We’re close” were mentioned by any of three general managers who were employed and various other executives in that time. Sure there were times of “salary reduction” most notably after the 2008 Mariners became the first team to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll. It led to the firing of Bill Bavasi and left his replacement, Jack Zduriencik, being asked to move forward as the organization reduced its major-league payroll significantly by refusing to spend on premium players. Basically, it was “We want you to try and win without giving you much help to do so. And also you can’t say that we aren’t helping you win.”
But this new mantra from current general manager Jerry Dipoto is something new.
After the Mariners traded James Paxton to the Yankees on Monday for three prospects, including New York’s No. 1 prospect Justus Sheffield, Dipoto spoke to a variety of media outlets and described the team’s offseason plan of taking a step back in 2019. It was something he hinted to in his end-of-the-season news conference, but wouldn’t commit to without having spoken with ownership about the team’s direction going forward.
What exactly does a “step back” entail? Well, it means the Mariners are going to use this offseason and probably the trade deadline of the 2019 season to reshape — or if you prefer, re-imagine — their roster, trying to move out players in their 30s or players approaching free agency within the next few years in search of younger talent. Obviously, the chances of moving the bloated contracts of Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager and Felix Hernandez are almost impossible.
Instead, Mariners dealt away three contributing players in 2018 — Paxton, Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia — in two trades this offseason. More moves are coming.
“As we start to assess where we are as an organization, (Paxton and Zunino) were only under control for two more seasons — 2019 and 2020 were the end of their time with the Mariners,” Dipoto said. “Without having the ability to extend those players or without wanting to rebuild a core group that was in their 30s by the time we can put together an impact roster, we had tough decisions to make and we made them.”
Expect to hear some version of the words “young controllable talent” said often in the coming months in the future deals.
“Clearly, we’ve opted that 2019 is a year we step back, hoping to take two forward,” Dipoto said. “When I say 2020 and 2021, it’s simply gauging the ages of players we’re building around. As you can see with recent moves around here, Erik Swanson will be 25 and Justus Sheffield is 23 and Dom (Thompson-Williams) is 23, Mallex Smith is going to play his 26-year-old season and we added Jake Fraley, who is 24. If you run through our system, from 22-year-old Logan Gilbert, to 23-year-old Evan White, 23-year-old Kyle Lewis, they all start to line up in the same general time zone. Couple that with guys like Mitch Haniger, Edwin Diaz and Marco Gonzales, we start to build a pretty exciting group that should be all performing in the major-league level in that 2020-2021 window.”
Of that group listed by Dipoto, only Smith and the trio of Haniger, Diaz and Gonzales have legitimate MLB experience.
“One thing I know about impact players is that it doesn’t generally take them very long to make an impact,” Dipoto said. “So we can start being excited about our short- and long-term prospects.”
So who’s next to go?
Well, that could be just about anyone given Dipoto’s proclivity for transaction and his creativity in coming up with possibilities. He would prefer not to trade Haniger, Diaz or Gonzales despite the first two players having the most trade value of Seattle’s current roster.
“We are going to stay open-minded to anything with a general ‘never say never,’ ” Dipoto said. “With Marco, with Mitch, with Eddie, we would have to be blown away to move players like that.”
But it would still be a disservice to the principles of a step back if Dipoto didn’t listen to any potential deal where he could be blown away by the return. Three or four players for Diaz, including an elite prospect and a high-level prospect, well, that can’t be ignored and must be capitalized upon.
The players who the Mariners would prefer to deal can be determined by looking down the roster at their ages or by visiting a site like Spotrac or Cot’s Baseball and looking at the contract status.
The most likely to be traded in the coming weeks is shortstop Jean Segura. Yes, he was an All-Star last season and is a highly productive player with a somewhat club-friendly contract. And that makes him marketable to trades. Segura is owed just more than $60 million over the next four years:
- 2019: $14.85 million
- 2020: $14.85 million
- 2021: $14.85 million
- 2022: $14.85 million
- 2023: $17 million club option ($1 million buyout)
Questions about his ability to continue to play shortstop going forward and a perception of being a bad teammate also are very real. But a team in search of a middle infielder who can play second or shortstop and be an impact hitter might overlook the long-term commitment for short-term help.
A proposed trade reported by the Athletic that had Segura and veteran pitcher Mike Leake being sent to the Padres in exchange for slugging outfielder Wil Myers surfaced on Twitter on Monday. Sources in MLB and close to the Mariners organization said that proposed deal was discussed over two weeks ago and never really materialized. What’s also interesting is that the 27-year-old Myers is owed $73 million over the next four seasons, which doesn’t necessarily fit with the step back.
Both Segura and Leake, who the Mariners would also be happy to trade if given a decent return, have full no-trade clauses, meaning they can veto any trade.
Leake’s contract isn’t ideal for being moved. He’s owed:
- 2019 — $16 million
- 2020 — $15 million
- 2021 — $18 million mutual option with a $5 million buyout.
But a team in search of a reliable back-of-the-rotation starter who will take the ball every five days might take a chance on him despite being about a 1.5 WAR player.
Unless the Mariners take on a sizable contract in return for Segura or Leake, it seems as though any trade involving them would also require taking on some salary. But eating some salary and getting a decent young player in return — that’s “step-back” thinking.
Another trade possibility would be veteran reliever Alex Colome, who turns 29 and is arbitration eligible for this season and next. Colome’s success as a set-up man and his previous success as a closer could make him valuable to teams desperate for back of the bullpen help. If the Mariners are stepping back in 2019, having a set-up man nearing age 30 isn’t really needed. Seattle could also gamble on Colome’s value increasing at the MLB trade deadline in 2019. For the right deal, the Mariners would also be willing to move reliever Juan Nicasio, who is a free agent after 2019, and infielder Dee Gordon, who has two more years left on his contract.
Perhaps the unproductive acquisitions of last offseason could yield something for the future?
The Mariners would love to add a young catcher who could fill Zunino’s spot perhaps in 2020. They will obviously sign a veteran free agent, but if they were able to move Segura, Leake or Colome and get a young catcher who’s on the verge of being big-league ready that would be ideal.
Their middle infield prospects at the higher level also are lacking so a young shortstop or second baseman would be beneficial.
But the real question remains whether the step back will be in 2019 or will there be more steps back in the years that follow?
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