Editor’s note: With MLB shut down because of the lockout, The Seattle Times is doing a position-by-position assessment of the Mariners organization entering a 2022 season filled with expectations of success.
Whether you agree with his thinking or find the concept of the Mariners limiting their scope on the free-agent market in any way foolish, Jerry Dipoto has made it clear that J.P. Crawford will be their shortstop when the 2022 season hopefully begins March 31.
In the days after the 2021 season — in which the Mariners exceeded all expectations except for those inside their clubhouse to finish 90-72 and remain in playoff contention to final game — Dipoto, the team’s president of baseball operations, made certain Crawford understood that any rumors regarding the courting of free-agent shortstops wouldn’t result in a position switch for him. It would mean a position switch for them.
“I told him, ‘Hey, you are our shortstop,’ ” Dipoto said at the GM meetings in November.
It meant that the free-agent class of elite shortstops — Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Javy Baez, Trevor Story and to a degree Marcus Semien — would be slashed in half in terms of viability. Correa, Seager and Baez viewed themselves as shortstops, understanding the premium position would enhance their value. Realistically, none of the three seemed like legitimate possibilities for the Mariners.
Correa was seeking a 10-year contract and more than $300 million. Dipoto’s fractured relationship with Seager’s brother, Kyle, loomed as a hindrance. Baez’s free-swinging mentality and swing-and-miss issues clashed with the Mariners’ organizational philosophy.
Dipoto reiterated his decision on KJR-AM (950) a week later.
“I can’t tell (Crawford), ‘This is your position’ and then change my mind because we were able to access a player that we would all count as fortunate to have. We believe in J.P. and what he brings to our team. And we think there are many other ways that we can create impact with the Mariners and other names that fit for us outside of just Carlos Correa.”
Semien never met with the Mariners and signed a seven-year, $175 million contract to play second base for the Rangers, a deal that seemed high in years and value.
So the Mariners focused on Story to play second base. They pushed up until the expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement between the MLB owners and Players Association on Dec. 2. With the owners’ decision to lock out the players, all transactions have been frozen.
When/if a labor agreement is reached, the Mariners can resume their courtship of Story to play second base and serve as fallback shortstop option if Crawford were to get injured.
But for all that Dipoto has said about Crawford being the Mariners shortstop moving forward, he’s never given a time frame for that term. He doesn’t really need to, because Crawford, who turns 27 in January, is under club control for the next three seasons. As a Super 2 qualifier based on MLB service time in his first two seasons, Crawford entered arbitration eligibility a year earlier than most players, meaning he will have four years of eligibility instead of three. He is projected to earn around $5 million in 2022. But that number could jump over the next two years if he continues to remain on the field and increase his production.
When asked about the possibility of a contract extension for Crawford, Dipoto didn’t deny or confirm it.
“He’s here for a couple years,” Dipoto said. “If I had considered the idea of keeping him here longer than then what presently is available, I probably wouldn’t share it at this point. But we do intend on J.P. being here and being a fixture in what we’re doing. We’ll address that at the appropriate time and in the appropriate way.”
Crawford said at the end of the season that the Mariners had yet to mention a possible extension to him or his reps at Wasserman Media Group.
Due to the lockout limitations, it’s possible that the Mariners wait until after the 2022 season to see if his progression continues before offering offer him an extension of four to five years with multiple club options. It gives them one more season of sample size before committing to Crawford beyond their club control.
The team could buy out his last two years of arbitration and the first few years of free agency. The total value would be interesting. Crawford certainly wouldn’t command $20 million per season or perhaps even $10 million, unless his production on offense continues to rise. How much value does elite defense provide, and what does it cost?
After consistent work on his defense since coming to the Mariners earned him a Gold Glove in the shortened 2020 season, Crawford put together his best offensive season in 2021. He played in 160 games, posting a .273/.338/.376 slash line with 37 doubles, nine homers, 89 runs scored and 54 RBI while being named a finalist for the Gold Glove.
Per FanGraphs.com, his career-high 3.1 wins above replacement (WAR) ranked him 15th in MLB and sixth in the American League. It’s the highest WAR posted by a Mariners shortstop since Jean Segura’s 3.7 in 2018 and the third-highest since 2000 when Alex Rodriguez racked up 9.5 WAR.
But what happens if Crawford doesn’t become the Mariners’ long-term shortstop?
They could turn to touted prospect Noelvi Marte in two seasons. Rated as a top-15 prospect in baseball by a variety of sites, including Baseball America, FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus and MLB Pipeline, the 20-year-old Marte is coming off a solid showing in his first year of full-season baseball.
In 107 games (99 with Low-A Modesto and eight with High-A Everett) and 511 plate appearances, Marte posted a .273/.366/.459 slash line with 28 doubles, two triples, 17 homers, 71 RBI, 24 stolen bases, 60 walks and 117 strikeouts. He’s a combination of speed, athleticism and power.
Even on an accelerated development track, Marte likely wouldn’t debut in MLB until 2023. Given his size, which is well over his listed 6 feet 1 and 181 pounds (closer to 6-3, 210) and some inconsistencies defensively (he committed 30 errors in 99 games in 2021), scouts project him as a third baseman.
But will it be with the Mariners?
If the Mariners can’t add impact bats via free agency, or if they make a run at trading for Oakland third baseman Matt Chapman or Pittsburgh center fielder Bryan Reynolds, Marte almost certainly would have to be part of any trade.
Beyond Marte, the Mariners’ next-best shortstop prospect in terms of talent is Edwin Arroyo, who turned 18 in August and was taken in the second round of the 2021 draft out of Central Pointe Christian Academy in Florida. A switch-hitter who is ambidextrous, Arroyo is athletic and slick-fielding but is years away from being a contributor. He might have more value as a trade piece.
Current shortstop depth chart
MLB: J.P. Crawford
Class AAA Tacoma: Patrick Frick, Donovan Walton
Class AA: Jose Caballero
High-A: Noelvi Marte, Mike Salvatore
Low-A: Cesar Izturis
Rookie League: Edwin Arroyo