The San Diego Padres are that rarest of breeds in pandemic-ravaged Major League Baseball, where payroll flexibility is the holy mantra and even large-market owners are crying poverty.
The Padres are aggressively, unambiguously and unapologetically going for it.
This week alone they’ve landed the 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner (Blake Snell), the 2020 National League Cy Young runner-up (Yu Darvish), and the top position player coming out of Korea (Ha-Seong Kim). Padres general manager A.J. Preller has traded 29 players in the past year in dogged pursuit of closing the gap with the behemoths up the road in Los Angeles.
Here in Seattle, fans are watching with a mixture of envy and puzzlement, spiced with the usual doses of impatience and anger. And asking: When are the Mariners going to get in on the action?
The easy answer: Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto is not going to go full Preller this offseason, no matter how much you might want him to.
But I think it’s fair to say that the Mariners need to do some judicious upgrading to have any hope of ending their nearly two-decades-old playoff drought in 2021.
Dipoto has stated his belief that the Mariners are at the point of their rebuild where they’re ready to be competitive. The way he put it in his postseason conference call with the media was this: “I think we’re in a really nice position for ’21, and our goal would be to go out there and contend for a playoff spot. And I don’t think that would be an unrealistic goal.”
Part of his optimism is based on the way Seattle finished the season. Following a seven-game losing streak in August that dropped their record to 7-18, the Mariners played respectable .571 baseball the rest of the way.
But that sounds more impressive than it really is, when you consider that “the rest of the way” was 20-15 over 35 games — a mere drop in the bucket in the genuine 162-game season we all hope returns in 2021. And that was only against teams in the West; the Mariners fattened up their record by beating Texas eight of 10 times.
If the playoffs remain expanded to 16 teams — more than half the league — or even trimmed to 14, that would certainly help the Mariners’ cause. So does the fact that no team in their division is a daunting powerhouse. The defending AL West champion A’s will have their usual defections, most notably shortstop Marcus Semien and All-Star closer Liam Hendriks. The Astros, who have dominated the division in the latter half of the decade, sneaked into the playoffs last year but finished under .500 (just two games ahead of the Mariners). The Astros could lose free agents George Springer, Michael Brantley and Josh Reddick this winter, with Justin Verlander already out for all or most of the ’21 season following Tommy John elbow surgery.
But all one has to do is look at Seattle’s projected depth chart to see that even the modest .500 record that ensures contention in an expanded playoff mode will be hard to come by. Not without some reinforcements, anyway.
The ZiPS projections for the Mariners were posted Tuesday on FanGraphs, and they were not kind to Seattle, to put it mildly. ZiPS uses statistical analysis to forecast performance in the coming year. ZiPS was particularly pessimistic about Kyle Lewis, Evan White, Dylan Moore and Mitch Haniger — all players upon whom the Mariners have pinned considerable hope — and doesn’t see immediately strong impact from much-hyped prospects Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez and Logan Gilbert.
This is where the Mariners’ rebuilding plan got legitimately hosed last year, through no fault of their own. The progress of their young core toward major-league readiness was pushed back substantially by the lack of a minor-league season — though no one is quite sure how far. And players such as White and Shed Long could really have used a full season to work their way through the adjustments all young players must make, with some remedial time in the minors if necessary.
As it was, White put up a .599 OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) with a 46 percent strikeout rate (albeit with elite defense at first base), and Long had pretty much a lost season before injury shut him down. Even Lewis, in a breakout year, hit .139 over the final 23 games of the season with 34 strikeouts in 79 at-bats.
Suffice it to say that Mariners fans will be asked for just a little more patience to allow Kelenic, Rodriguez, Gilbert and other prospects to matriculate through the system. And the growing pains for Lewis, White and other young players aren’t finished.
ZiPS isn’t gospel, of course. Players have been known to outperform their projections. It happens all the time. But you don’t need an analytical model to see the potential pitfalls for the Mariners. Beyond rock-steady Marco Gonzales, their six-man rotation is iffy. I feel good about Justus Sheffield based on his 10-start showcase last year, but Yusei Kikuchi has yet to translate his ample potential into consistent results. It gets even shakier as you move down the list of candidates.
Dipoto has signed starter Chris Flexen off an impressive season in Korea, but he flailed in the majors with the Mets before that. It’s hard to see the Mariners reaching their goal of contention without the acquisition of another starter. Taijuan Walker has a nice ring to it.
Dipoto has indicated that his first priority is augmenting the bullpen, which is a wise decision based on its performance last year. The Mariners ranked last in the AL, and 28th in MLB, with a 5.92 relief ERA. He’s already started the process with the signings of Keynan Middleton and Rafael Montero, but there’s more work to do. They’ve been linked to Blake Treinen, the former A’s All-Star who had a strong rebound season with the Dodgers.
The Mariners could also use an outfield bat while waiting for Kelenic’s arrival, and to hedge against Haniger’s health concerns after missing most of the past two seasons with injury. Right now, they have Jose Marmolejos, Jake Fraley and maybe Long vying to be the opening-day left fielder, which doesn’t inspire pennant fever.
They’re not likely to be moves as sexy as the Padres made. But history has shown that winning the offseason doesn’t always translate to on-field success. Just look at the previous time Preller went for it, landing Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, Craig Kimbrel and James Shields to great fanfare before the 2015 season. It was pretty much a disaster, however. The Padres lost 88 games that year, and 94, 91, 96 and 92 the next four after that before ending their 13-year playoff drought (and nine-year streak of losing records) in 2020.
The Mariners believe their showstoppers will emerge over time as this heralded class of prospects reaches the majors. And they promise they are prepared to make a big strike when the time is right.
Their biggest challenge of 2021 might be getting to the point where they can start acting like the Padres.