While some teams were forced into serious and difficult decisions about keeping arbitration-eligible players for 2021 and the financial ramifications those contracts might present, the Mariners had no such debates or conundrums.
On Wednesday afternoon, about 4 1/2 hours before the 5 p.m. deadline, Seattle announced that it had tendered guaranteed major-league contracts to 34 of the 39 players on its 40-man roster, including outfielder Mitch Haniger, catcher Tom Murphy and shortstop J.P. Crawford, who were all eligible for salary arbitration. The remaining five players – Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Kyle Seager, Kendall Graveman and Evan White – were already signed to MLB contracts.
For club-controlled players making the MLB minimum of just over $550,000, it’s an automatic decision because of the minimal financial investment, unless there are extenuating circumstances like injury or off-field issues.
But in this COVID-influenced offseason, where so many teams are claiming financial hardship from a shortened season without fans, players that were eligible for salary arbitration and able to make more than the minimum based on past performance were far from certain to be offered contracts.
Because of the roster purge by general manager Jerry Dipoto after the 2018 season when the team decided to go into a rebuild mode, referred to often as “The Stepback,” the Mariners didn’t have a glut of arbitration-eligible players on their reduced payroll.
Of Seattle’s trio of arbitration-eligible players, only Haniger presented a possibility of being non-tendered and that was minimal.
An All-Star in 2018, Haniger suffered a ruptured testicle on June 6, 2019, when he fouled a pitch from Justin Verlander into his groin. He hasn’t played since that painful day, undergoing three surgeries (testicle, adductor muscle and microdiscectomy) from that initial injury.
There was some thought that the Mariners might non-tender Haniger if his health was still an issue. But per his recent postings on Instagram, Haniger has returned to full health and resumed baseball activity.
Dipoto said in his end-of-the-season news conference that if Haniger was healthy, he would be the starting right fielder for the 2021 season.
Haniger, who turns 30 on Dec. 23, is in his second year of arbitration eligibility. He and the Mariners agreed upon a $3 million salary last season. He received just over $1.1 million for the prorated 60-game season. Per the MLB collective-bargaining agreement, a team must pay him at least 80 percent of his salary from the previous season. It’s likely the Mariners will pay close to $3 million in 2021.
If he can return to his All-Star form of 2018 – .285/.366/.493 slash line (batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage) with 38 doubles, four triples, 26 homers and 93 RBI — it would be an incredible bargain and represent a major trade chip for Seattle.
Like Haniger, Murphy missed the entire 2020 season because of injury. He suffered a fracture in his left foot after fouling a ball off it during a summer-camp intrasquad game and taking a foul tip off it the next day. The break was slow to heal and caused discomfort for Murphy when he tried to squat behind the plate.
By early August, it was clear that Murphy would not return during the season. Seattle sent him home to rest the foot and get fully healthy before resuming offseason activity.
After bouncing between the minors and Class AAA with Colorado, Murphy had a breakout year in 2019, playing in 75 games and posting a .273/.324/.535 slash line with 12 doubles, 18 homers and 40 RBI. In his first year of arbitration eligibility, various projection systems for determining arbitration figures have Murphy making around $1.5 million to $1.7 million in 2021.
Crawford, who turns 26 in January, is set for a nice pay raise in his first year of eligibility after earning a Gold Glove at shortstop this season. His value as a defensive player has steadily increased the past two seasons, placing him among the best in MLB. Unfortunately for him, his inconsistency at the plate is a bit of a detractor. In 146 combined games from 2019 and 2020, he’s posted a .237/.322/.359 slash line with 28 doubles, six triples, nine homers, 70 RBI, 11 stolen bases, 66 walks and 122 strikeouts.
Still, some projection systems have him making up to $2.4 million, though it seems likely the Mariners will settle for something closer to $2 million and then use this season to determine if they might want to offer him an extension to buy out the last two years of arbitration eligibility and his first year or two of free agency.