- If the Mariners can address their needs in the infield and atop their starting rotation, they could create some buzz in a crowded American League Wild Card field. Plus, a thank-you note from the author.
This is Part 3 of SI MLB's "Spend to Contend" series, identifying which teams should open up their pocketbooks and make a run at a playoff spot.
Every year, a team (or two) arrives in the playoffs that spent the previous one losing a lot and playing before shrinking crowds in early August. Last year, that team was the Diamondbacks, who palindromed their 2016 record not by overhauling their entire team but instead by identifying their immediate weaknesses. As the free agent freeze continues into February, over 100 free agents remain unsigned. With so few teams having substantially improved this winter and so many apparently consigning themselves to rebuilding or also-ran status, our “Spend to Contend” series examines those teams, whom like last year’s Diamondbacks, could best benefit from a significant dip into the market rather than a complete teardown.
Next up? The Seattle Mariners
It's not exactly an occasion that calls for champagne, but the Mariners can finally claim a title. They’re the owners of the longest active postseason drought in American professional sports, because the Buffalo Bills made the NFL playoffs for the first time in 18 years. The Mariners have been absent from the postseason scene since 2001, when their 116-win squad bowed to the Yankees in the ALCS. Intermittently, they’ve fielded some pretty good teams, but haven't found joy even with the addition of a second wild card spot, missing by one game in 2014 (87 wins) and three in '16 (86). Despite backsliding to 78 wins last year, they have a nucleus that, with a few smart additions and a bit of luck, could finally break that dubious streak.
Not that general manager Jerry Dipoto hasn't tried already. Since replacing Jack Zduriencik—who produced just one season above .500 out of his final six (that 2014 one) before being canned in late August 2015—Dipoto has churned Seattle's roster so relentlessly that one wag compared him to a shark in our Winter Meetings preview: "If he stops wheeling and dealing, he may die." At one point last May, beat writer Bob Dutton calculated that Dipoto had averaged one 40-man roster-related transaction every 14 hours and 52 minutes since Opening Day. Last month, MLB.com's Jordan Shusterman tallied 62 trades made by Dipoto since taking the reins on September 28, 2015, 16 more than the next most active team in that span, the Braves. That's an average of one trade every 14 days.
Save for the typically small moves every team makes in mid-January—signing free agents to minor league deals, issuing non-roster invitations and claiming random relievers off waivers (the parents of Gordon Beckham, Chasen Bradford, Tuffy Gosewich and Kirk Nieuwenhuis can breathe easily now)—Dipoto's been atypically inactive since the calendar flipped to 2018. That has something to do both with the general free agent freeze and the Mariners' payroll already projecting to be a club record $157 million according to Cot's Contracts. But there's no point in spending so big merely to stay in the middle, and not a whole lot of help to come from a farm system that both Baseball America and ESPN call the worst in the game, so Dipoto may have to continue to work the phones.
Via the free agent market, the best bang for the Mariners' limited remaining bucks is either Lance Lynn or Alex Cobb, the two second-tier starting pitchers below Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta, both of whom are prohibitively expensive given this payroll. Sadly, the Mariners can no longer count on Felix Hernandez to be one of the AL's top pitchers, or even a 200-inning cog given that he's made just 41 starts with a 4.01 ERA and 4.77 FIP over the past two seasons. James Paxton, their best starter now, has made just 44 turns over the past two years. Summer acquisitions Mike Leake and Erasmo Ramirez are solid back-end guys, and the rest—youngsters Marco Gonzales and Chase De Jong, old and fragile Hisashi Iwakuma, gopher prone Ariel Miranda, and so on—is a grab bag. More help is needed.
Of the two free agents in question, Lynn had the higher strikeout rate and lower ERA, and he's also the one with the longer track record of durability, with five seasons of at least 175 innings out of the last six (he missed 2016 due to Tommy John surgery). Cobb had the higher groundball rate and lower FIP of the pair, but has generally had more trouble staying healthy. MLB Trade Rumors estimated Cobb would get a contract of four years in the $52–56 million range, or perhaps a three-year deal with an opt-out, with Lynn coming in at four years, $60 million. Either one would be a solid addition. Either one would be a solid addition; while both rejected qualifying offers and will thus cost the Mariners a draft pick, it’s only their third-highest pick at stake, not their first-rounder as was the case in the previous CBA.
Dipoto's most audacious move this winter was the acquisition of Dee Gordon from the Marlins in exchange for three minor leaguers, none of whom made any prospect lists. Robinson Cano is a fixture at second base, so the plan is for the going-on-30-year-old Gordon, who rebounded from a dreadful, suspension-marred 2016 to hit .308/.341/.375 with a league-high 60 steals and 3.1 WAR, to shift to centerfield. Tasked with replacing speedy flychaser Jarrod Dyson, Gordon could provide similar overall production, albeit tilted more toward offense than the defense-first Dyson. Still, it would behoove Dipoto to find an alternative in case Gordon's transition to the middle pasture is rough, and given the unremarkable production of Ben Gamel in leftfield (98 OPS+, 1.0 WAR in 134 games), it wouldn't hurt to have another option, either.
Given that both Gordon and Gamel swing the bat lefty, righty Carlos Gomez (whom I also suggested as a potential fit for the Twins) is one potential free agent option. The 32-year-old Gomez hit .255/.340/.462 with 17 homers in 105 games with the Rangers. Though he's no longer an elite defender in centerfield, and has averaged just 113 games over the past three seasons due to injuries, he'd be a useful insurance policy/platoon piece/fourth outfielder. Cameron Maybin and Rajai Davis are out there as lesser right-handed alternatives, better hitters but probably not better defenders than incumbent fourth outfielder Guillermo Heredia, a 27-year-old Cuban defector who's slugged .333 though his first 533 MLB plate appearances.
The other big hole in the lineup is at first base, a position the Mariners haven't solved since Richie Sexson reached his sell-by date in 2007. Between 26-year-old righty Ryon Healy (acquired from the A's in November) and 25-year-old lefties Mike Ford (a Rule 5 pick from the Yankees) and Dan Vogelbach (a Quad-A holdover), what they have is a patchwork at best. A platoon with Healy (.314/.343/.534 in 213 carer PA versus southpaws) as the short half has some promise, but it's hardly clear that either lefties can hold up his end. With free agents Adam Lind and Logan Morrison having failed to thrive during previous Seattle stints, Lucas Duda may be a better alternative. The 32-year-old slugger’s batting average in 2017 wasn't pretty, but that whole .217/.322/.496 line (113 wRC+) would be a major upgrade on the .245/.308/.389 (92 wRC+) that Mariners first basemen actually hit last year. FanGraphs' Dave Cameron estimated that Duda would wind up with a one-year, $10 million deal this winter, while MLB Trade Rumors estimated one year, $6 million. Suffice it to say, he's not going to break the bank
On an even smaller scale, by definition there has to be a better utilityman available than Andrew Romine, who went down in history by playing all nine positions in the season's penultimate game but finished the year with -1.1 WAR. Cliff Pennington's just waiting by the phone, and he can pitch, too!
Barring some extremely good luck on their end and bad luck on that of the Astros, the Mariners aren't going to win the AL West, and they have virtually no hope of a wild card spot unless they can outpace the improved Angels (who have added Shohei Ohtani, Ian Kinsler and Zack Cozart), not to mention the Rangers and A's. They probably can’t spend so lavishly as to fill all of the above needs, particularly since the only big salary coming off the books after this season is that of Nelson Cruz ($14.25 million). It’s not too hard to imagine Dipoto facing the option of upgrading either the lineup or the rotation on a scale such as this, but not both. Regardless, it seems clear that every additional dollar Dipoto spends should improve this team’s chances of ending a drought that has gone on for far too long.
By my count, this is the 1,862nd article I've published at SI.com. It's also the final one of a tenure that began on May 29, 2012; you don't need to be Bob Dutton to calculate that the total equates to one piece every 26 hours and 51 minutes. When Paul Fichtenbaum and Ted Keith hired me to write about baseball on a daily basis for the company whose standard-setting magazine I grew up reading from the time I was eight years old, it felt like destiny.
The opportunity to bring the type of sabermetric analysis I had been doing at Baseball Prospectus (where I had been writing since 2004) to a larger audience was one I couldn’t pass up. Recall that back then, it was still controversial to introduce WAR into an MVP discussion; that year’s Cabrera-versus-Trout debate reignited the Moneyball holy war all over again. Beyond breaking down countless trades, free agent signings, injuries, hirings, firings and playoff races, over time, I got to do a whole lot of other cool things: cover postseason games in New York and elsewhere around the country (even a World Series); interview a childhood favorite; dig up some cool history; and write occasionally for the magazine (and several cool commemorative issues).
Nothing from my run at SI.com was quite as personally satisfying as being given such a grand platform to present my annual Hall of Fame series, going in-depth on each candidate and breaking down the history and the trends that underlie the voting. Hand in hand with the addition of my Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score (JAWS) system to Baseball-Reference, the series allowed me to present a point of view that has won considerable acceptance among voters and has opened new doors, such as the one that made the 2017 publication of The Cooperstown Casebook possible.
Now it's time for a new destination: I am joining FanGraphs—a site whose metrics and analysis has fueled many a post here, most notably my What's He Really Worth series—as a senior writer. I'll still be covering baseball on a more or less daily basis, still ranting about the Hall of Fame year-round, and still pouring my blend of sense and nonsense via @jay_jaffe on Twitter (and Untappd). A warm thank you to everybody who has made my time at SI such a thrill. Special thanks to the aforementioned Fictenbaum and Keith, Chris Stone, Stephen Cannella, Ryan Hunt, Emma Span, Cliff Corcoran, Jon Tayler and Gabriel Baumgaertner for helping my words reach this audience, and to you, dear readers, for following along. My time at Sports Illustrated will forever remain one of the highlights of my career.