Seattle Mariners

More trades coming? Here’s 3 priorities for the Mariners entering MLB’s winter meetings

Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Carlos Santana throws to first base to put out Colorado Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu in the fifth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Carlos Santana throws to first base to put out Colorado Rockies’ DJ LeMahieu in the fifth inning of a baseball game Thursday, Sept. 27, 2018, in Denver. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski) AP

Jerry Dipoto has made more trades than anyone else in baseball since he became the Seattle Mariners’ general manager after the 2015 season.

But even he admitted his flurry of moves on Monday that sent Edwin Diaz and Robinson Cano to the New York Mets and Jean Segura to the Philadelphia Phillies for seven players, was a lot to take in.

“We’ve obviously over the years made a lot of trades – this is by far the highest volume of players we were trying to get in contact with,” Dipoto said. “It got a little hectic there.”

A little hectic?

Dipoto has already made six trades this offseason and expect more on the way. It’s been busy, especially with Diaz, Cano, Segura, Alex Colome, James Paxton, Mike Zunino and Guillermo Heredia already moved in deals.

“I can’t say we’re completely done yet,” Dipoto said. “But I think most of the heavy lifting is done. We’re likely to continue with conversations about the possibility of doing other things, but I suspect that we will be generally quiet until we get to the winter meetings.”

MLB’s winter meetings begin Sunday in Las Vegas. It’s a five-day event when agents and executives from every club in baseball gather for discussions and deals that culminates in Thursday’s Rule-5 draft.

But what Dipoto has done as he’s offloaded all these players from the 25-man roster is make his intentions for the Mariners going forward abundantly clear, and that’s to forgo 2019 with the hopes of competing in 2020 and for sure by 2021.

Some would say the Mariners plan to tank in 2019. Dipoto has called it taking a step back. Whatever you call it, the Mariners last made the playoffs in 2001 and probably won’t be breaking that streak before it pushes 20 years.

Between his trades and players leaving for free agency, the Mariners have lost 13 players who were 30 or older, and they’ve added 10 players who are 26 or younger, including four players who were former first-round draft picks in Justus Sheffield from the Yankees, J.P. Crawford from the Phillies, and Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn from the Mets.

“Truth be told, we had an 89-win team with a negative run differential,” Dipoto said. “We had an aging core that frankly most of the heavy lifting for our team was being done by guys who were in their mid-20s – guys like Mitch Haniger, James Paxton, Marco Gonzales, Edwin Diaz. It became a focus for us to get back to a younger core.

“We knew Nelson Cruz was due to leave in free agency. We knew where we were in the Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager contract lengths and where we were with Felix Hernandez. So we could continue to build around those four guys, but trying to build around those four, we have to make up so much ground on the Yankees, Astros, Indians and the Red Sox. It was highly unlikely we were going to be able to do that via free agency and we really didn’t have the trade capital to get to that point without robbing our system for really a decade to come.

“This was a way to push the reset button as quickly as we could and put the organization in a position to rebound quickly and not go through a long, tireless rebuild.”

With that said, here’s a look at three of the Mariners’ priorities entering this week’s winter meetings:

Veterans for prospects

So what do the Mariners do with Jay Bruce and Carlos Santana? Or how about Hernandez, Seager, Mike Leake and Dee Gordon?

What Dipoto would surely like to do is convert those veteran players into prospects who fit more into that 2021 window. The question is do any of those players have enough trade value to return any valuable prospects?

Start with Bruce, Santana and add right-handed reliever Anthony Swarzak. They were all contract throw-ins and all three coming off of down seasons.

The Mariners will probably end up having each of them on their Opening Day roster and see if they can rebound and develop more trade value by midseason.

But the Mariners might be motivated to move the 32-year-old Santana quicker. He’d play first base or DH, and the Mariners already have 26-year-old Ryon Healy at first and 25-year-old Daniel Vogelbach, who is out of minor league options, which means he’d have to be on the active roster or he could be picked up by another club.

Then there’s the vets still on the club. Surely there has to be teams who would like Leake in their rotation, but his full no-trade clause could limit his suitors.

But Seager and Gordon are both coming off of an injury-plagued years, and the $57.5 million Seager is owed through 2021 becomes even less attractive to opposing clubs because if he’s traded then the club option for 2022 becomes a player option. So a team that trades for Seager would essentially owe him $72.5 million through 2022.

A team might take that on if they were also getting Haniger. The Mariners pulled off something similar pairing Cano’s contract with Diaz, but it helped that the Mets’ GM is Cano’s former agent. Any deal involving Haniger that has Seager attached is likely to stunt the Mariners’ return, which means it’s a salary dump and not a move that makes the team better.

But maybe Seager and Gordon are healthy and bounce back next season, and maybe that makes for a busy trade deadline for Dipoto.

“Obviously, like we have throughout the offseason, we are going to be open-minded to opportunities when they come, but there’s also something to having veteran players who have been there before, who have makeup,” Dipoto said.

“The quality of guys like Carlos and Jay Bruce, they can make the process go so much easier just because they give to the team around them. I could say the same about Dee Gordon and Kyle Seager. There’s something to showing the young players how to manage themselves at this level.”

Most have wondered if the Mariners might release Hernandez and absorb the $27.9 million he’s owed in 2019 before he becomes a free agent, especially since he is coming off the worst season of his career (8-14, 5.55 ERA). But Dipoto recently told Fancred Sports that there is “zero” chance of that happening.

“Out of respect to the career he’s had, he deserves the opportunity (to start the year with the team),” Dipoto said.

Bolster bullpen

The Mariners’ only relievers still on their 40-man roster who pitched at least 20 innings last season are Chasen Bradford, Roenis Elias and Dan Altavilla. That’s it.

Diaz, Colome, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos have been traded, while Nick Vincent, Adam Warren, Zach Duke and David Phelps became free agents. So if the Mariners plan on having a major-league looking bullpen and not one that resembles a Triple-A one, Dipoto has a lot of work to do.

And he knows that. He said Monday that he plans on using the winter meetings for filling needs, the biggest being in their bullpen.

He did already sign right-hander Ruben Alaniz almost a month ago after he ended last season in Triple-A Durham (Rays). They also got Swarzak and right-hander Gerson Bautista in the Mets deal.

Other relievers returning to the Mariners’ 40-man roster include Shawn Armstrong, Matt Festa, Nick Rumbelow and Sam Tuivailala, who is expected to be out until at least May, maybe June, recovering from a torn Achilles.

Rule-5 draft

The Mariners haven’t been aggressive in keeping players they’ve selected in the annual Rule-5 draft under Dipoto. No player Dipoto has drafted in the winter meetings’ culminating event has stuck with the Mariners.

This year could be different because the Mariners are going young. So this is a perfect opportunity to find a player who could stick on the roster. Maybe a catcher to complement recently acquired 26-year-old Omar Narvaez, or maybe a reliever.

The Rule-5 draft takes place Thursday and picks are made in reverse order of the 2018 standings. Teams can draft as long as they have fewer than 40 players on their 40-man roster. The Mariners have 35 players.

Rule-5 draft players must be added to both the 40-man and the active 25-man rosters. Mariners’ right-handed reliever Art Warren is among the players available for other clubs to draft.

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TJ Cotterill is the Seattle Mariners and MLB writer for The News Tribune. He started covering MLB full-time in 2018, but before that covered Ken Griffey Jr.’s Hall of Fame induction in Cooperstown, the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and spent seven years writing about high schools, including four as TNT’s prep sports coordinator. Born and raised in Washington.