“When I say, ‘What’s next?’ It means I’m ready to move on to other things. So, ‘What’s next?’” — President Jed Bartlet of “The West Wing.”

That’s the new mantra for the Twitter Mailbag moving forward in this offseason and for the rest of perpetuity … “What’s next?” It replaces the Mailbag’s previous motto, which was from fellow “West Wing” character and mailbag hero Toby Ziegler, who once said, “There’s literally no one in this world I don’t hate right now.”

So “What’s next?” for the Mailbag in this offseason, besides binging all seven seasons of the West Wing for the sixth time? Well, there will be mailbags twice a month and possible audio mailbags on the Extra Innings podcast.

Mariners

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With the number of outstanding questions submitted by the constituency known as the Mailbag’s Twitter followers over the past four days, a cache of material has been collected and there might not be a need to ask for more for a few weeks.

So, what’s next?

This question allows the opportunity for a little Mariners housekeeping with their season now over. Officially, the offseason doesn’t begin until after the World Series, but as most of you know, the Mariners’ offseason has started on the last day of the regular season dating back to 2002.

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To start this tea party, we’ll answer the Mad Hatter’s question first. For a refresher, a player is eligible for the Rule 5 draft after a specified amount of time in a team’s system without being placed on the 40-man roster. Players signed at age 18 or younger must be added to their team’s 40-man roster within five seasons while players who signed at age 19 or older (usually college players drafted) must be added within four seasons.

For the Mariners, there are five players in their organizational Top 30 prospects that are candidates to be placed on the 40-man roster to protect them from being taken in the Rule 5 draft.

Outfielder Taylor Trammell (No. 5 in MLB Pipeline), right-handers Juan Then (No. 14) and Sam Delaplane (No. 20) seem like easy decisions to make based on their potential and attractiveness to other teams. Seattle acquired Trammell as the key piece in a seven-player deal with the Padres. While he’s likely to start next season at the Class AA level — if there is a minor-league season — Trammell, 23, could be in Class AAA Tacoma by midseason. And then his debut could be any time after that though people in the organization feel that extensive MLB time might not come till 2022.

Then, 20, was re-acquired from the Yankees in 2019. He pitched all summer at the alternate training site and is participating at the instructional league in Arizona. He’s still relatively inexperienced, having never pitched above the High-A Level. But with a high 90s fastball, the potential is too great to risk him being taken. A team might want to select him and use him as a reliever in 2021 like Seattle did with Yohan Ramirez, particularly if rosters remain expanded.

Delaplane, 25, seemed like a lock to pitch in the bullpen this season after his performance during spring training. But he never really had a period of dominance at the alternate training site in Tacoma to force the Mariners to put him on the 40-man roster. His stuff seemed a tick down at times.

Two other notable prospects in the Top 30 — corner infielder Joe Rizzo (No. 21) and right-hander Wyatt Mills (No. 24) — could be left unprotected. Neither was invited to the alternate training site this summer, but both are playing in the Arizona instructional league. The acquisition of infielder Ty France certainly doesn’t help Rizzo’s path to the big leagues. A high school draft pick in the second round in 2016, Rizzo has steadily progressed and improved at every level, but has yet to show the power tool of an everyday corner infielder. Mills is a side-arm reliever out of Gonzaga with solid strikeout-to-walk numbers (66-17 in 55 2/3 innings in Class AA Arkansas in 2019).

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The Mariners have 38 spots filled on their 40-man roster. When the World Series ends, it will be 37 spots with veteran right-hander Yoshihisa Hirano becoming a free agent. Also four players, who were outrighted during the 2020 season — outfielder Mallex Smith, pitchers Bryan Shaw, Zac Grotz and Jimmy Yacabonis — will be or already are free agents. Grotz and Yacabonis will be minor-league free agents, while Smith elected free agency Sept. 28.

Seattle will open up at least one more 40-man roster spot when they pay the $1 million to buy out Dee Gordon’s 2021 club option of $14 million, making him a free agent. It sure seems like Gordon is destined to sign a one-year, incentive-laden deal in what will likely be a depressed free-agent market. But hopefully he finds a situation where he can get some consistent playing time and remain healthy.

Seattle must make a decision on the $3.5 million club option of right-handed pitcher Kendall Graveman. In the days leading up to the shortened 2020 season, when Graveman was tossing 97-mph sinkers in intrasquad games as a starter, general manager Jerry Dipoto said that exercising the club option was a given. But when Graveman went on the injured list and revealed he had a benign bone tumor in his neck, the easy decision became complicated. The situation took another turn when Graveman returned as a reliever for the final month of the season, citing it as the best role to remain healthy and contribute. The power stuff became even more nasty in one-inning bursts, and he displayed the ability to throw on back-to-back days.

In his end-of-the-season media session, Dipoto hedged on Graveman’s situation, noting the small sample of outings. But really, it’s only $3.5 million, which is a line uttered only in professional sports and corporate boardrooms. This is an organization that will pay over $8 million next season to Robinson Cano and Mike Leake and paid $9 million to Chone Figgins in 2013 to not play for them.  

Or look at it this way, even with Graveman’s neck issue, which can’t be remedied by an immediate surgery, would he get $3.5 million on the free-agent market? And is it cheaper than some of the additional bullpen help Dipoto wants to add? Remember, the Mariners signed Juan Nicasio to a 2-year, $17 million contract before the 2018 season, paid more than $7 million to David Phelps for 8 2/3 innings pitched and signed Hirano at age 36 to a one-year, $1.6 million deal last offseason.

But there will be a roster crunch with eight players currently listed on the 60-man injured list needing to be re-added to the 40-man or designated for assignment. Of the eight players, catcher Tom Murphy (fractured foot), outfielder Mitch Haniger (multiple surgeries), right-handed pitchers Andres Munoz (elbow surgery), Gerson Bautista (elbow strain) and Carl Edwards Jr. (forearm strain) and left Taylor Guilbeau (shoulder strain) seem certain to be re-added. Right-hander Matt Magill, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and is also arbitration-eligible, could be designated for assignment. Lefty Nestor Cortes is also a candidate to be designated for assignment depending on his health. Seattle could also DFA multiple pitchers from the pile of relievers that Dipoto picked up through the season, including Brady Lail, Walker Lockett, Seth Frankoff and Casey Sadler with catchers Joe Hudson and Joe Odom as likely DFA candidates.

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What’s next?

Let’s talk about the definition of an “ace” in baseball. My buddy Andy McCullough of The Athletic, who is one of the leaders of the younger group of baseball writers that I refer to as “the skinny jeans mafia,” has adamant requirements for labeling a player an ace. It first started as an argument, I think with Jeff Passan, during a dinner at the Arrogant Butcher in Phoenix during spring training and has become an annual get-together for writers and now a few other baseball folks. And while McCullough also has other categories as “just a guy” and “American badass,” he does make a strong point — there are only a handful of pitchers that should be called an “ace.”

Yes, every team has a No. 1 pitcher or rotation leader. Other teams have All-Star starting pitchers, who would be considered front-line or elite starters. But an ace is something more than that. An ace is the best of the best, a legit candidate for the Cy Young every year with the ability to dominate hitters every time he steps on the mound over an extended stretch of seasons while embracing the responsibility. Only a few teams are lucky enough to have an ace. Off the top of my head: Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, Gerrit Cole and Clayton Kershaw are aces. Chris Sale, Justin Verlander, Zack Greinke and Madison Bumgarner were aces once, and Sale could be again if he recovers from elbow surgery. Stephen Strasburg, Noah Syndergaard and David Price never stayed healthy enough to reach ace status. Shane Bieber and Trevor Bauer seem to be on the cusp of being aces while Max Fried and Tyler Glasnow could be aces in waiting. Talented prospects Sixto Sanchez and Nate Pearson could be future aces.

At any given point, there might be three to four true active aces pitching.

And while there are plenty of talented pitching prospects throughout baseball with big fastballs and nasty breaking stuff, most scouts will tell you that a minimal percentage have the complete package or potential to be an ace or “true No. 1,” as they often say.

The Mariners have had two pitchers reach ace status in their organizational history — Felix Hernandez and Randy Johnson. That’s it, that’s the list. James Paxton never reached ace status. Marco Gonzales does everything required to be the No. 1 in terms of durability, leadership and mentality, but the dominance has yet to be achieved.

Really, this is a long-winded way of saying the idea of the Mariners acquiring an ace isn’t simple. Teams rarely trade aces in their prime, well, unless you are the Mariners in 1998 and send the disgruntled Big Unit to Houston. When it does occur, it’s because teams know they can’t re-sign the ace, like CC Sabathia in 2008, Greinke in 2012, Sale in 2016 and Verlander in 2017.

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So when you say, “What’s the plan for getting at least 1 ace?” … the response would be “there are no aces to acquire.”

But there are aces on the cusp, potential aces, former aces and ace prospects that are out there and would all be significant and needed upgrades for Seattle in the rotation.

The answer to your other questions:

I’d guess Dipoto signs at least three to four free-agent relievers depending on what they do with Graveman.

And in no particular order of the best food cities in MLB, excluding NYC, L.A. and Chicago due to city size:

  • Kansas City: The barbecue is amazing — Joe’s, Q39, LZ’s, Gates, Bryant’s, Jack Stack.
  • San Diego: Fish taco perfection, so many choices in the Gas Lamp and OB Noodle House.
  • Houston: An underrated road trip with so many options.
  • Honorable Mention: Denver, Minneapolis and Toronto.

What’s next?

It’s instructive to ask myself this question of any free agent on the market before spending time researching the possibility: “Beyond a massive overpay, why would this player want to come to Seattle?”

LeMahieu is a big fish in a weak free-agent market that’s headlined by J.T. Realmuto. At age 32, LeMahieu doesn’t really fit the Mariners’ youth movement. He’s also made it known that he’d prefer to return to the Yankees if possible. Given his success in pinstripes, it’s not surprising. MLB.com reported that negotiations about a return were going to start when the Yankees season ended, so that’s now.

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Basically the Mariners are hoping Ty France can fill a similar role that LeMahieu might provide with their current roster construction, particularly with Kyle Seager still on the payroll for another season.

Bauer isn’t an impossibility. He lives in Maple Valley for part of the offseason so he can work out at Driveline Baseball in Kent. And the season-long proximity might be a draw. The Mariners can certainly offer him commensurate money.

But in an interview on MLB Network Radio, Bauer talked about what he was looking for in free agency. And it was instructive.

“I want to win,” he told the hosts. “I want to be with a team that has a winning culture. I want to be there in the playoffs. I want a chance at a World Series. That’s one thing that really drives me. I want a chance to pitch every fourth day instead of every fifth. That really drives me. Going along with that: how’s the medical staff? How’s the technology — the information that’s available on the coaching staff? What’s the culture of the organization like?”

That kind of goes in the face of the Mariners’ six-man rotation plan. But actually you could maneuver a six-man rotation to pitch Bauer every fourth day, while maintaining five-day rest for your other arms. It would be a massive concession that might draw the ire of Gonzales, who would prefer to pitch every fifth day instead of every sixth day.

Bauer used to say often that he would only sign one-year deals so he could control his future if possible. But following his strong showing in 2020, this is his chance to make massive money. He could always ask for an opt-out in a multi-year deal. Dipoto has said often he’s against opt-out clauses.

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When asked about his contract stipulations, Bauer said this:

“Again, I think it comes back to I just want a chance to win every year. I want to be in a situation where I feel valued and I have the chance to conduct my career the way I want to conduct it. So, pitch every fourth day, and stuff like that. I want to challenge myself and have a chance to do those things. So if there’s a situation where it presents itself where it is a four-year or five-year deal, and I feel confident that’s going to be a situation that’s good for me, I would consider it. I do think that in order to do the things that I want to do, I think I’m going to have to take on a little more risk than normal in those long-term contracts. …I’m not afraid of the one-year deals. I’m not afraid of the longer deals. It’s just going to be a case-by-case basis, and we’ll see what the situations look like.”

Ask yourself, can the Mariners make all of that work? They’ve shown they can be flexible with their signing-pitch to Shohei Ohtani and their plans with Yusei Kikuchi. There are some teams that simply don’t want the headache of dealing with Bauer and his demands.

Even if they can’t get Bauer, the Mariners should sign at least one free-agent starting pitcher, perhaps Taijuan Walker, to provide some depth and security next season.

As for those big fish free agents, there are some lunkers in the class after the 2021 season. And that’s when Dipoto and the M’s should spend to put all his lines in the water.

What’s next?

There is no shortage of former Mariners playing in the postseason that’s for certain — too many for me to count.

I felt bad for Nelson Cruz, seeing him forlorn in the dugout as the Twins were eliminated. I was pulling for him and the Twins to advance or at least win a game in the postseason.

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Moving forward, it has to be Mike Zunino and Ji-Man Choi.

Zunino was great to deal with and his defensive prowess was a refreshing change from the poor catching I endured for so many years. And when the gregarious Choi grabbed the garbage can and began banging it in the postgame celebration as a nod to the Astros’ cheating ways, well, he’s ascended even higher in my respect level.

What’s next?

There will be more mailbags than past MVP votes for Russell Wilson. Can you explain why Wilson never received an MVP vote in the past year again, Bob?

What’s next?