Exactly a year and a day ago, the first use of the phrase “step back” was used in the context of the Mariners’ potential plans for the offseason.
It came at an end-of-season news conference with general manager Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais on Oct. 1, 2018.
But it wasn’t Dipoto who used it. At that time, the Mariners weren’t sure to what level they would commit to such an idea. Dipoto had, however, persuaded managing chairman John Stanton and CEO Kevin Mather that a change of philosophy was needed.
Mariners radio reporter Shannon Drayer asked: “If a teardown doesn’t make sense, is there consideration of a step back, meaning something two years out, along those lines?”
Dipoto’s response: “Sure. I mean, that has to be a consideration. We are, you know, our goal is to win the World Series as soon as we can, and if we’re not going to win it in 2018, then our goal starting with meetings this morning and as we move forward are to determine what our best timeline is.”
Just over a month later, the Mariners traded Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia and a minor-league pitcher to the Rays for Jake Fraley and Mallex Smith.
The “step back” had started, and it became the descriptor of a plan to overhaul a roster, removing veterans and large contracts for prospects and players with club control. James Paxton, Robinson Cano, Jean Segura, Ben Gamel, Alex Colome, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos all were traded away. Other contributors were not tendered contracts.
Given the roster they put out to start the season, and the plans they had for the season, the Mariners weren’t supposed to be good. And they weren’t.
Seattle posted its worst record since 2011, going 68-94 and finishing last in the American League West, 39 games behind the Astros.
It’s now a year into a plan that has shifting dates of when success will be achieved, depending on who you talk to within the Mariners.
What should be expected as they prepare for season No. 2 of a rebuild they probably should have attempted in 2005, 2009 or 2012?
The heavy lifting of gutting the roster is done. The Mariners have just three players remaining on the roster with MLB guaranteed contracts — Kyle Seager, Dee Gordon and Yusei Kikuchi. Of the three, only Gordon is a strong trade possibility this offseason.
Despite the strong end to his season, a poison pill clause in Seager’s contract makes him almost impossible to move. Kikuchi is going to be with the team going forward.
A large portion, probably 75% of the opening day roster for 2020, is already in the organization and under team control.
That’s why Dipoto said the team will be “less active” this offseason. To be fair, Dipoto’s concept of being less active would be “extremely active” to other general managers.
“We are likely not to be very engaged in the trade market,” he said. ” … Could opportunity jump up and grab us? Possibly. So I don’t want to shove it off as it’s no chance at all, but very unlikely. This will be a little different offseason that you’ve seen from us and, uh, particularly than last year’s looked like.”
It seems likely Dipoto will try to trade Gordon and outfielders Smith and Domingo Santana. Gordon, in the final year of his contract, blocks Shed Long from playing second base on a daily basis. While the Mariners have touted Long’s versatility by having him play left field, he isn’t good defensively at either position. They already have a utility player in Dylan Moore. Having Long and shortstop J.P. Crawford playing side by side every day would benefit them in the future.
Gordon is owed $13.5 million in 2020 with a $1 million buyout for a 2021 option. The Mariners would likely eat half that money owed in an effort to move him. Though he has underperformed due to injuries the past two seasons, a team, particularly a National League team, might take Gordon for around $7 million and a one-year commitment.
Santana was outstanding early, driving in runs at a tremendous rate. But his bat cooled, his strikeouts piled up and an elbow injury sidelined him for much of the last two months. He’s in the second year of arbitration eligibility and the $1.95 million he was paid in 2019 would likely double next year. Santana is a horrendous outfielder. His best position is designated hitter. And the Mariners have Daniel Vogelbach slotted into that spot.
“I will make those decisions as the offseason comes,” Dipoto said. “ … If I’m being honest, I don’t have a definitive answer for you on Domingo. Dee’s case is a little bit different. He’s a veteran player, he does fit with this group. If there is a young group starting to build around him his versatility is going to come in handy.”
Trading Smith isn’t a priority. He enters his first year of arbitration eligibility this season, meaning Seattle has three more years of club control before free agency. He had a subpar season in the field and at the plate. His trade value has never been lower.
The infield is basically set with Seager at third, Crawford at shortstop, either Long or Gordon at second, Austin Nola at first, Dylan Moore as the utility player and Vogelbach at DH.
Nola played his way into the Mariners’ plans this season, hitting .269 with a .796 OPS in 79 games. His ability to also play second base and catcher add to his value.
The catching tandem of Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy provided the Mariners the most production from that position in two decades.
The outfield slots out to have Kyle Lewis in left field, Mitch Haniger in right field and a competition between Smith, Braden Bishop and Fraley with perhaps a candidate out of the organization. Lewis, a former first-round pick, had a brilliant September, hitting six homers in his first 10 games and posting a .596 slugging percentage.
“I think Kyle has given you every reason to believe that he’s ready for a longer audition than just September,” Dipoto said.
Touted first-base prospect Evan White will compete for a job in spring training but will definitely be called up by midseason.
The pitching rotation will have Kikuchi, Marco Gonzales and Justus Sheffield. Justin Dunn will compete for a spot in the rotation with a couple of low-end free-agent signings.
“We’ll look to address some of the starting rotation,” Dipoto said. “We’re going to go into this season with probably one, maybe two pitchers on the free-agent market who may not be here right now.”
And the bullpen? Well, that’s anyone’s guess. There will be a few pitchers who return because they’re cheap and have high velocity. But the Mariners will bargain shop for relievers.
“We’ll look to add what I would call opportunity buys in the bullpen,” Dipoto said. “Not too dissimilar from what we did a year ago. Maybe look at one or two spots down in the bullpen with that.”
The late season call-ups of players like Lewis, Sheffield, Dunn and Long provided energy and interest to an otherwise forgettable season. The Mariners still have more on the verge. Their two top prospects — outfielder Jarred Kelenic and pitcher Logan Gilbert — could be in Seattle by the end of 2020.
“What we’re trying to get to is by midseason next year is, is introducing that next layer of young players who are already in our system,” Dipoto said.
“We’re going to give them the opportunity. With JP and running through with Shed, Kyle Lewis, Justus Sheffield, Justin Dunn, Jake Fraley, continue to give them the opportunity and then start to make our way toward guys like Evan White and Cal Raleigh and Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert.
“That is what we have been talking about now for about a year. And we feel like we’re closer to it than we’ve ever been.”