In the introduction to this three-part series I stated that the Mariners are “at a crossroads.” The MLB roster is too old, expensive, and declining to reap the prospect harvest necessary for a quick rebuild. There’s also not quite enough talent on hand to realistically compete for a 2018 playoff spot without further, massive financial commitment from ownership.
The first two parts of this series set out to examine high-reaching paths on the outer edges of possibility. I said it in those posts but I’ll say it again, for emphasis: The Mariners are not committing to a full rebuild prior to 2019 at the earliest, and they aren’t blowing payroll out beyond the luxury tax , as their recent acquisition of High Prince of Whelm Ryon Healy can attest. Between these two extreme routes lies the deep, wide valley of realistic possibility. This post’s purpose is to venture down into that valley, and see what we find.
I’m going to break up the previous pattern of this series to look first at what I think Jerry Dipoto’s vision for this offseason may entail, at least the major beats, before humbly offering my own vision for a realistic 2018 roster. The response to this series has been very positive, and for those of you who stick with us during our dry spells, and offer encouragement for our little blog, know you have my deep, deep appreciation. Having people engage your writing, especially on a topic I love as much as baseball, is a dream come true for me personally.
Ok, gratefulness and framework out of the way. Onward.
The Presumed Dipoto Plan
Jerry Dipoto is not a dumb man, and he does not run a bad Major League front office. Whatever Dipoto’s public face and stated beliefs are, he almost certainly is much, much more attuned to the precarious situation he and the roster find themselves heading into 2018 than I am. I’m sure he falls asleep every night fantasizing about a $250 million dollar payroll that allows him to scoop up every needed free agent around, but he knows that won’t happen. Realistically, the Mariners headed into this offseason with two glaringly obvious opportunities to improve, and one lesser one: Starting pitching, first base, and center field.
Acquiring the middling but cheap Ryon Healy makes it clear that Dipoto has set his sites on starting pitching, and the recent trading of Thyago Veiera for international slot money further makes clear what the long-presumed number one priority of the Mariners’ winter is:
Sign RHP Shohei Othani. Somehow. Someway.
I won’t bother going into the details of Ohtani here. If you’re reading this you know all about him. He’s Japan’s Babe Ruth, but the cool hipster Boston Red Sox Babe Ruth; swatting dingers and hanging out in the outfield on the days he’s not breathing hellfire 60’6″ from home plate. While it’s almost certain that Othani could never live up to the hype surrounding him, his age (23) coupled with the absurdly low cost to acquire and pay for his first few years in MLB makes him the dream acquisition of the offseason for many teams.
It’s hard to overstate how important acquiring Ohtani is to the Mariners assembling a playoff contending roster for 2018. If he’s 80-90% of the hype then the team has acquired a legitimate number two starting pitcher for relative peanuts, not just for next year but years afterwards. Should he be allowed to hit as well? The team has little to no place to put him, and the injury risk and lack of recent precedent makes it logistically an unwise, and unlikely idea. However, if Ohtani can be swayed by promises of even 5-10 PA a week then the Mariners are not in a position to be picky. You can’t pay him what he’s worth, but you can give him what he wants. You have to. Nothing else about this offseason works without him. If you must, let Ohtani hit.
Sign RHP Yu Darvish to a 6 year, $175 million dollar contract
The sole cross-alignment of my “spend to the hilt” plan and here, I think the Mariners have every intention of making a huge offer to the enormously talented right-hander.
Unless a team is capable of re-capturing the magic of last decade’s Rays, a low-budget model that has had less and less success as the analytical playing field has evened over time, massive contracts in baseball are simply part of doing business. While I’m sure Mariner ownership would prefer to wait until the Nelson Cruz and Felix Hernandez contracts are fully off the books before making another huge commitment, the contention window demands action now. Darvish’s age (31) and spotty injury history are a concern, but he has top 3-5 in all of baseball stuff, and can dominate a game in ways few can.
Put together, a rotation of Darvish-Paxton-Ohtani-Leake-Hernandez has the makings of the best in the division, and the best in franchise history. It turns a huge organizational weakness into a massive asset. It’s a table flipping, landscape altering pair of moves.
Timing of these two acquisitions is crucial, and may be very difficult. Acquiring Darvish without also acquiring Ohtani is simply a half-measure; an exciting but insufficient improvement. If Ohtani signs with another team, I would encourage and expect Dipoto to steer clear of the sort of contract that Darvish will command. Of course signing Darvish early may, may just be the tipping point to convincing Ohtani to come to Seattle. It’s an impossible quandary. Don’t you wish you were a major league general manager?
Add OF depth
I was tempted to repeat “re-sign Jarrod Dyson” here, but given that Dyson is almost certainly seeking top dollar for his last realistic major payday I’m concerned that the Mariners will simply not have the money to retain the speedy center fielder.
While Jerry Dipoto is talking about Mitch Haniger being the team’s every day center fielder on Opening Day, that not only feels like a miscasting of the promising Haniger’s skillset, but fails to take into account his thus far fragile health. The team needs a center fielder, and Braden Bishop, fun though he his, isn’t a part of a contending team in 2018. Realistically this feels like a classic Dipoto Trade situation, although I remain hopeful that a fully-recovered Guillermo Heredia can provide enough with his bat to be an asset at the position.
Should the team fail to acquire Darvish or another, comparably high-priced starting pitcher, the idea of shifting the money to Lorenzo Cain, to potentially lock down center in a way the team hasn’t had since Mike Cameron is a very realistic one. Either way, bolstering the outfield is necessary.
There are dozens of other possibilities and permutations to the ones I’ve outlined above. (As we speak Dipoto is currently roaming the streets of Mercer Island, trading a handful change for its equivalent in various foreign currencies. They’re just so different and new and, and, and shiny, you see.) There’s no firmly pinning down a manic entity like Jerry Dipoto. But for better or worse the 2018 roster is largely set. There are only so many things he can do without drastically altering the franchise, and he has shown no interest in doing that in his time as Mariner GM. He has been building TO this moment, not trying to avoid it, and I don’t expect him to alter course now.
Nathan Bishop, Seattle Mariner General Manager
For the Mariners to make the playoffs in 2018 many things will have to go right, and the potential downside to another expensive failure are massive. I’ve hammered on this but I’ll repeat it: The Mariners, heading into year three of Jerry Dipoto’s regime, still have arguably a bottom five farm system in the game. They will, at some point, need to address this with painful sacrifices, be it international bonuses, trading from the major league roster, or most likely a combination of the two.
Rather than commit to another massive contract to Yu Darvish, and make the inevitable rebuild even more challenging and difficult, an attempt at constructing a reliever heavy, potentially off-loadable roster that retains a modicum of upside may represent the wisest path forward. Rather than drastically alter course, or double down, the most advisable course of action is for the Mariners to let their current hand ride, give or take a few minor additions. As such:
Sign Shohei Ohtani
For all the reasons I stated above. Ohtani costs, in major league terms, nothing, and his age potentially helps lay the foundational keystone for the next great Mariners team. Nothing about this changes. He is the fulcrum of the entire offseason, but in this scenario failing to acquire him (a very, very realistic possibility) is endurable.
Sign RHP Brandon Morrow to a 2 year, $14 million dollar deal
I am, admittedly, very uncomfortable trying to anticipate the reliever market, and hohohoho does this name bring back some memories, but here we are.
The idea, loosely, is to replicate the 2014 Bullpen of Death that helped an otherwise mediocre roster get within a game of the wild card. The Mariners bullpen, 2017 performance aside, is underratedly filled with potentially lethal relievers. In Edwin Diaz, David Phelps, Dan Altavilla, James Pazos, and Nick Vincent, Seattle has a collection of arms you can squint and see having a great 2018, whether from recent track record or high velocity potential.
Depending on a bullpen to carry a team is needing a 17+ on a D20 saving throw, but the potential upside allows the team to keep its flexibility while helping relieve the pressure on what would, even with Ohtani, be a thin, injury prone, and average-ish starting rotation.
Brandon Morrow was nothing short of excellent with the Dodgers in 2017, and while a multi-year deal for relievers is generally considered a no-no, his high velocity stuff allows for visions of the Mariners locking down practically all games they lead after five with a succession of pitchers throwing 97+ MPH fastballs. Imagine the 2017 Yankees, but minus Aaron Judge. And Gary Sanchez. Ugh, I hate the Yankees.
Various Jerry Dipoto Style Acquisitions
Honestly, I’m not going to bother trying to lay this out. The team needs to churn a few spots; backup catcher, INF depth, OF depth. Depth. You get the idea. This is where Jerry thrives and I have no doubt he can figure a way to get fungible talent for 97 cents on the dollar while rounding out the roster.
While ticking every box of the Dipoto Plan above makes the Mariners a legitimate playoff contender, the one thing we all want, the likelihood of it happening is, um, not high. The Mariners need to attract two of the five or so most desirable available talents, and arguably the top two pitchers, to come to Seattle. This in a market where other teams looking for the same talent include, but are not limited to, the Cubs and Dodgers, two of baseball’s premiere organizations. It’s a huge challenge facing Dipoto.
In lieu of that unlikely outcome building the bullpen allows for a limit in financial commitment, while offsetting the team’s rotation, which would be still the weakest part of this roster. Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager will need to regain their 2016 form, and Mike Zunino will need to hold onto his 2017 gains. Mitch Haniger will need to stay healthy, and James Paxton and Felix Hernandez need to limit their missed starts.
A lot needs to go right, but the same can be said for all but the very best, most expensive, deepest rosters. While the chances are maybe 1 in 5 or so, a roster like this has potential 90-win upside, something that hasn’t happened in Seattle since 2003.
In the relatively likely case that injury, age, and under-performance conspire with the Astros to make 2018 another lost season, a bullpen-heavy roster with no new longterm commitments still allows the team the flexability to sell, should they see it as prudent. I do not have data to back this up but I would argue that no position sees its value bubble at the trade deadline more than quality bullpen arms. Nothing about this plan keeps another middling Mariner team from trading James Paxton, Edwin Diaz, David Phelps, even Kyle Seager, and kicking off the long-looming rebuild.
I admit I find the plan, to be blunt, annoying. The Mariners seemingly are willing to spend through the nose to avoid being truly terrible, but never seem able to endure the commitment necessary to build something truly great. Having 75-85 win talent year after year after year is an exhausting experience. I am ready for change, be it spending what is necessary for excellence, or enduring the losing necessary to build a farm capable of same. However, the reality is the Mariners as an organization are simply not ready to walk down either path for 2018.
Headed into the last year of his contract I have little doubt that Jerry Dipoto is operating under a playoffs or bust mandate, but without the financial flexibility to maximize those odds. As such, I advise he swing for the moon on a potential generational acquisition in Shohei Ohtani, and otherwise build around the possibility of a deadly, high-heat bullpen, and let it ride. With some good fortune, it may just work, and there’s no franchise more overdue for some good fortune than your Seattle Mariners.