On a team of fresh-faced kids, Kyle Seager is the solitary grizzled veteran. As the Mariners pointedly go young, Seager is the anomaly, the exception that proves the rule.
He’s also at the same precarious career juncture that Felix Hernandez faced two years ago — at the end of a long, lucrative contract, unsure whether there will still be a place for him when it runs out.
“I mean, I completely understand now how Felix felt, right?” Seager said recently during a media Zoom session. “I get that 100%. He had been here a long time; he’d been here a long time before I got here, and then obviously I got to play with him for a long time.
“When you’re here for a long time there’s certainly a comfort level. And then you get to the end of your contract and potentially your last year here, it definitely is a different feeling.”
Entering his 11th season in Seattle, Seager remains, at age 33, a valuable member of the team. Even rebuilding ballclubs — maybe especially rebuilding ballclubs — need someone with stature and credibility to provide a positive role model for aspiring stars.
And no one on the Mariners roster has anything close to Seager’s resume, his years of experience — or his salary. He also remains a solid and dependable third baseman, one whose durability (just one stint on the disabled list, for a 2019 hand injury) provides manager Scott Servais with comforting security while the rest of the lineup tries to prove itself.
But now Seager has reached the final year of the seven-year, $100 million contract he signed in 2015. It was a deal that set him and his family up for life. But it hasn’t yielded the ever-elusive playoff spot that Mariner players had already been seeking for 10 years when Seager broke into the majors in 2011.
It was with tremendous pride, but no doubt some wistfulness, that Seager watched his younger brother, Corey, nab a championship ring and the World Series MVP award after leading the Dodgers over the Tampa Bay Rays in October. It was Corey’s fifth postseason appearance in six years as a major-leaguer, the only absence the result of an injury in 2018.
“Obviously, you watch the games, but sitting back afterwards, talking to him on the phone after it was all done and thinking of your brother as a World Series MVP is a pretty special thing,’’ Seager said.
The Mariners like to think they are building the foundation of a team that will compete for titles. But whether Seager will still be around if and when it happens is an open question.
The truth is, Seager might well have been traded already if not for a “poison pill” written into his contract that turns a $15 million team option for 2022 (with the potential to grow to $20 million through performance clauses) into a player option if he is dealt.
It’s doubtful many teams would want to take that on considering Seager’s age, though a strong 2021 season might change that as the MLB trade deadline nears. Seager struggled at the end of the truncated 2020 season (in which he was one of 15 major-leaguers to play in all 60 games), hitting .178 over the final month. But he still put up a .788 OPS that was above his career mark.
Will the Mariners want to bring Seager back next year? It’s hard to envision them doing so at $15 million, but there is no obvious heir apparent at third base. Blue-chip prospect Noelvi Marte could conceivably wind up moving from shortstop, but he’s 19 years old and has yet to play outside the Dominican Summer League. Ty France has extensive experience at third base and could be a consideration depending on how this year goes. Or the Mariners might try to coax Seager to hang around at a lesser salary.
Here’s a crazy scenario I’ll throw out there: Corey Seager will be a free agent after this season, one of numerous highly coveted shortstops to hit the market. The Mariners should finally be positioned to make aggressive, big-money moves next winter. How about luring the younger Seager to Seattle for a chance to play alongside his brother?
Seager says he’s trying to block out all the speculation about his future and concentrate on the 2021 season.
“It comes with the territory,” he said of his uncertain status. “We haven’t been winning, and when you’re not winning, you rebuild. And when you rebuild you go young, obviously.
“I think I still certainly have a role here, as long as I’m here. It’s to try and help these guys as much as I can, and go out there and compete.”
Servais raves about Seager’s leadership, as do teammates.
“I thought he really took a step forward last year, helping in our clubhouse,” Servais said. “He understands where he’s at in his career, and I’m very appreciative of the fact that he’s willing to give back. You know he wants to pass along some of the lessons that he’s learned through the years.”
Said pitcher Marco Gonzales: “Kyle is a guy who’s meant a lot to me over the past few years that I’ve been here. I think Kyle doesn’t get enough recognition on the work that he does behind the scenes with our group, with our young guys. And then with our middle-level guys — guys like me and (Mitch) Haniger … guys who he’s impacted to carry on the torch and become leaders ourselves.”
Seager joked about his role in helping shortstop J.P. Crawford and first baseman Evan White win Gold Gloves.
“The best thing I did for J.P. would be just not getting to any balls, let him get them,” Seager said. “I probably helped the metrics, because he covered a lot of ground. And then Evan, I’m sure I made a bunch of bad throws for him and made him look really good over there, too. So that was about my biggest impact on those two.”
Self-deprecation aside, Seager believes he is stronger and more limber than ever due to the radical changes in his training regimen instituted two years ago. And a big year in 2021 would go a long way toward making it tough for the Mariners to move on from Seager — something Felix wasn’t able to accomplish with a precipitous decline at the end.
Seager, a third-round draft pick in 2009, will go down as one of the all-time Mariners overachievers. We’ll soon find out if he’s about to write his final chapter.
“That stuff’s out of my control,” he said. “Unfortunately, I don’t have any say on what happens past this year. It’s one of those things where you pretty much just try to treat it like any other year. You go out there, you do your job every single day. Then all that stuff is taken care of later.”
Later is getting closer for the senior Mariner.