Editor’s note: This is one in a weekly or semiweekly series called “The Player Plan,” analyzing key Mariners players or prospects, looking back on their 2020 seasons and ahead to the offseason and 2021.
Even with all the differences in the delayed and shortened 2020 MLB season due to the spread of COVID-19, when the Mariners made their final out in their final game Sept. 27 in Oakland, the next day would be the same for Kyle Seager as it had been for the previous nine seasons — no postseason.
On a team with most players under 27 and with Felix Hernandez departed via free agency, Seager was the third-oldest player and easily the longest-tenured Mariner on the roster.
With the Mariners in the midst of the “step-back” rebuild, it’s been clear for a while Seager isn’t a part of the future. But he’s also stuck in their present. Despite consistent efforts by general manager Jerry Dipoto to trade him over the past few seasons and Seager’s desire to play for a team closer to contending, he’s remained. That’s largely due to his contract’s “poison-pill” clause, which turns a club option of at least $15 million into a player option in 2022, and his own inconsistent and diminished production at times, particularly given his salary.
Through it all, Seager remained professional and understanding. He’s tried to become more vocal in his leadership, understanding that providing an example isn’t enough for so many teammates with minimal experience.
Barring an unforeseen trade, Seager will be back for the 2021 season. Internally, players, coaches and management believe they are a contender for an expanded postseason. The strong improvement at the end of 2020 and some expected additions to the bullpen and rotation provide that optimism.
Seager was a little more measured in a video call at the end of the season.
“We definitely made some strides,” he said. “We’ve got some pieces that you got to see moving forward. What’s good and bad about 60 games is you have a little rough stretch, or you catch fire for a little stretch, it can kind of skew the numbers big time in that sense. But 60 games are enough of a sample where guys can see, ‘OK, well, I was doing this and it worked, or I need to change on this, or I can make the adjustment here.’”
Looking back at 2020
The season was supposed to be Seager’s first opportunity to showcase his reshaped body over the course of a full regular season and build off a strong finish in 2019, when he posted a .260/.339/.524 slash line with 13 doubles, a triple, 17 homers and 45 RBI in the final 68 games.
After changing his diet and workouts to drop 25 pounds after the 2018 season in an effort to remain healthy and reestablish his value and production, a svelte Seager tore a tendon in his left hand on an awkward diving attempt during a Cactus League game in early March 2019 that required surgery. It kept him out of the first two months of the season.
This year, it wasn’t an injury in mid-March that limited Seager’s games played in 2020. No, it was the pandemic that reduced the regular season into a 60-game sprint.
Unlike in past seasons, when he struggled in chilly temperatures of April and May, Seager thrived with the season starting in the late-July heat. And as he racked up numbers, it seemed Seager might play his way into some trade value, particularly with so many teams vying for postseason spots in the expanded playoffs.
But the Aug. 31 trade deadline passed with Seager still on the Mariners. And that consistent production finally started to wane.
From opening day (July 24) to Sept. 7, Seager played in all 41 games, posting a .283/.377/.507 slash line with 39 hits, 24 runs scored, 10 doubles, seven homers, 30 RBI, 18 walks, six hit-by-pitches and 20 strikeouts.
In his final 19 games of the season, he had a .154/.309/.277 slash line with 10 hits, two doubles, two homers, 10 RBI, 14 walks, a hit by pitch and 12 strikeouts.
“They always say that you’re going to have two big slumps a year,” Seager said. “That was one of them. And when you’re only playing a third of the games, it definitely gets magnified. Thankfully, I was able to work some walks in there and I think that helps minimize it. I just wasn’t moving quite the same at the plate.”
The late-season slump leveled out Seager’s final numbers, giving him a .241/.355/.433 line with 12 doubles, nine homers, 40 RBI, five stolen bases, 32 walks and 33 strikeouts while producing a 1.5 FanGraphs WAR — the fifth-highest of all MLB third basemen.
Projecting for 150-155 games, you get a semi-typical Seager season of around 30-plus doubles, 20-plus homers and 85-95 RBI.
But what stands out most is Seager’s walks vs. strikeouts in his 248 plate appearances in 2020. The 32 walks gave him a career-high 12.9 walk percentage. Meanwhile, his 13.3 strikeout percentage was the lowest of his career. In his previous nine seasons going into 2020, Seager had an 8.4 walk percentage and 17.5 strikeout percentage.
The 2020 results represent a significant shift in his philosophy at the plate. But would a 162-game season have made a difference?
Once Seager shed weight leading into 2019, he vowed to never return to his old ways of eating and working out. His mindset about food changed, along with his philosophy about training.
He worked out in Bellevue last offseason, but his plan is to return this offseason to his new house on an expansive property in rural North Carolina, complete with a professional-level gym and batting cage with an advanced high-velocity pitching machine he purchased during baseball’s shutdown. He understands what he needs from his diet and has the workout plans in place.
“This year will be a lot like last year,” he said. “ … There’s constantly growth. There are always things to work on. And I do think the velo machine will pay dividends for me. That was something that I had known about, but didn’t really take full advantage of, so that’ll be hopefully a big thing too and I’ll be able hit the ground running next year.”
It’s difficult to see the Mariners trading Seager this offseason given his contract, though they’ll certainly not shy away from the possibility. He’s owed $18 million in 2021. And if he’s traded, that clause in his contracts kicks in and the club option becomes a player option, where he’s guaranteed at least $15 million for the 2022 season.
Given the number of teams refusing to exercise club option years in 2021, it seems unlikely any team would be willing to take on even half of the minimum of $33 million owed to Seager. Seattle would certainly have to eat a fair chunk of salary to complete any trade. He will be 33 next season, and even with the physical changes and the swing improvements, he still isn’t trending up as a performer.
The Brewers and Blue Jays, both playoff teams, need serious help at third base. The Nationals and Rangers also need a third baseman. But Texas is trying to shed payroll, not increase it. The free-agent market isn’t great beyond D.J. LeMahieu or 36-year-old Justin Turner. Maybe a trade is possible; perhaps midseason is more likely.
But if the Mariners really believe they can contend for a postseason spot in 2021, which Dipoto and manager Scott Servais have said is a goal, keeping Seager instead of paying for someone else to take him might be the best option.
A look ahead to 2021
Next season will likely be Seager’s last in a Mariners uniform, with Ty France waiting to take his place in 2022 and perhaps talented Noelvi Marte taking over at third base by 2023. It’s difficult to imagine a scenario where the organization exercises his club option of at least $15 million for 2022. Even if they were trying to sign shortstop Corey Seager, who will be a free agent after the 2021 season, and wanted to use Kyle, his brother, as an enticement, they’d decline the option and try to work a one-year deal. But that scenario seems like a longshot.
He’ll leave accomplishing so much more than expected when he was taken in the third round of the 2009 draft out of North Carolina. He’ll have played in 11 big-league seasons with Seattle by the end of next year. In terms of production for the Mariners, he sits right behind Edgar Martinez (18 seasons), Ken Griffey Jr. (13 seasons), Ichiro (14 seasons) and Jay Buhner (14 seasons) in almost every offensive category. And yet, once he signed the seven-year, $100 million contract and made the All-Star Game in 2012, the expectations for many fans increased to a level he’d never achieve again, much to their disappointment — and even more so to his own.