When Jerry Dipoto argued against a total Mariners rebuild about a month ago, he said players like Mitch Haniger, Marco Gonzales and Edwin Diaz are pieces you build around, not send away.
At first it seemed maybe just an oversight that Dipoto didn’t mention James Paxton as a foundational piece.
Except now it’s looking like Seattle general manager’s words were quite calculated. Multiple reports surfaced over the weekend about the Mariners speaking to most any team willing to listen, including the Yankees and Astros, about a trade involving their ace pitcher.
So also take Dipoto seriously when he told MLB Network this past week at the general managers meetings in Carlsbad, California, that the Mariners aren’t planning to tear down to the studs, but they’re certainly “re-imagining” their roster for 2019.
And re-imaging life without Paxton doesn’t appear to be a matter of if, but when.
They’ve already re-imagined 2019 without Mike Zunino behind the plate, kicking off the first major trade of the MLB offseason by shipping Zunino and Guillermo Heredia to the Rays as part of a five-player deal that netted 25-year-old outfielder Mallex Smith.
Trading Paxton would mean Kyle Seager and relievers Dan Altavilla and Matt Festa would be the only players remaining on the roster actually drafted by the Mariners.
But think of Smith as the Mariners’ template.
If they’re building around Haniger, Gonzales and Diaz then the Mariners will need major-league-ready prospects. The Mariners just handed Gonzales a two-year contract, and Haniger and Diaz aren’t yet even abitration eligible and are under club control until 2023.
Haniger will turn 28 before the start of next season, so if the Mariners take a step back to reshape the roster – that is, if they’re truly looking to not just play for a one-game wild card, but something sustainable – then they have about two years to do so before Haniger turns 30.
Paxton, on the other hand, turned 30 a week ago. He has two years of club control remaining, but Scott Boras clients such as Paxton are noted for rarely signing contract extensions – and he’s projected to make $9 million in arbitration next season.
In a market that is weak on starting pitchers, Paxton becomes one of the most coveted starting targets because he comes with two years and doesn’t come with a free-agent price tag.
Paxton’s strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate of 11.7 this past season was the fourth-highest among starters in MLB, just behind Gerrit Cole (12.4), Max Scherzer (12.2) and Justin Verlander (12.2).
That’s why Paxton’s been linked most to contenders so far. That $9 million Paxton will likely make in arbitration is a sizeable chunk for the Mariners, but he’d be a big bargain for teams like the Astros and Yankees looking at the free-agent market, where pitchers like Corbin and Keuchel are going to get multi-year contracts in the realm of $18 million per year.
But it should be noted that former GM Jim Bowden, who now writes for The Athletic, included the Mariners among the best fits for a number of free agent starting pitchers, including Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, Charlie Morton, J.A. Happ and Gio Gonzalez.
But where Paxton goes and what the Mariners get in return should set the table for how they shape the rest of the roster. It’s also possible that Seattle unloads one of its more expensive contracts, such as Seager or Dee Gordon, in a Paxton package, too.
So, yeah, start re-imagining.
And we know the Mariners need a catcher. David Freitas is their lone backstop remaining on the 40-man roster after the Zunino trade and with Chris Herrmann being claimed off waivers by the Astros.
In-house options just aren’t the answer. Freitas hit .215 with one home run in 93 at-bats this past season, and of the Triple-A Tacoma catchers, Cameron Rupp is now a free agent and Garrett Kennedy was released.
Cal Raleigh is one of the Mariners’ few legit organizational prospects, but he’s just 21 years old and fresh off being drafted in the third round out of Florida State this past season. He hit.288/.367/.534 with short-season Single-A Everett.
Fortunately for the Mariners, this is an offseason ripe with free-agent catchers, including Yasmani Grandal, Wilson Ramos and Martin Maldonado. Then there’s even older options such as Kurt Suzuki, Robinson Chirinos, Nick Hundley, Matt Wieters, Jonathan Lucroy and Brian McCann – even though none of them would fit into that 25-30 year-old age group that Dipoto seeks.
It’s possible Dipoto acquires a catcher via trade, even if it’s not 27-year-old All-Star J.T. Realmuto from the Marlins (not with the prospect capital Seattle can offer compared to teams who have him just as high on their wish lists).
Actually, assume much of the Mariners’ work this offseason will be done via trades.
While Dipoto has already said that no player is off limits if the right opportunity strikes, Jon Heyman of FanCred Sports confirmed during the GM meetings what Dipoto already indicated – that they’d like to hold on to Haniger, Diaz and Gonzales, but “everyone else is up for grabs.”
“We’ve not been huge players in free agency to begin with,” Dipoto told reporters from the GM meetings. “A lot of that will be defined by what we wind up doing by trade. I’d never say never, but I’d say (free agency) is not our first path.”
<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" data-partner="tweetdeck"><p lang="en" dir="ltr">Sounds now like Mariners intend to hold onto Haniger, Diaz and Gonzalez. Word is: “Everyone else is up for grabs.”</p>— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) <a href="https://twitter.com/JonHeyman/status/1059855141879263234?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">November 6, 2018</a></blockquote>
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