Go ahead and consider the first step in the Seattle Mariners’ rebuild process complete. It took the duration of a troubling, but not entirely unexpected 2019 season — the Mariners finished 68-94, in the American League West basement, and missed the playoffs for the 18th consecutive season — to work through this opening phase.
The Mariners made loads of roster moves last winter, continued that trend throughout the season, using an unprecedented 67 players, and ended this season looking much different than the way they started it.
After that historic 13-2 start, Seattle tumbled through the summer months before calling up some of its more exciting prospects in September. Pitching efficiency came in waves, both from the rotation and an ever-evolving bullpen. The offense had its hot streaks, and for a particularly long stretch at the beginning of the season led the majors in homers, but Seattle’s 1,581 strikeouts wound up being the second-most in baseball. And, though later additions aided a struggling defense, the Mariners still led the majors with 132 errors.
“Shoddy, you might say,” Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto said of the club’s on-field product this season.
Maybe not to this extent, but the results were predictable, considering the roster overhaul and the club’s commitment to giving younger players extended opportunities. By the end, an 11-14 record in September — the best monthly split since the Mariners went 13-13 in April, propped by that quick start — offered some optimism.
There was progress. Seattle debuted 22 players this season, including a handful who are expected to be important pieces for a club aiming to be competitive sometime in the next two seasons, and many made notable contributions.
“I’m encouraged by what happened,” Dipoto said. “I can’t say we’re not going to have ups and downs as we move forward, because that’s the byproduct of growing a young team.
“But, I think the most significant struggle is hopefully behind us.”
“I think going forward the message changes,” Mariners manager Scott Servais said. “We kind of checked off the first box. We needed to transition our roster, get younger, give lots of guys opportunity. Now we need to take the next step.”
As the Mariners prepare to take the next step in this rebuild process, which includes continuing to develop the players already in the majors and in their farm system, and rolling out more of their coveted prospects at the big league level, there are plenty of storylines to track heading into 2020.
1. MARINERS IN THE MARKET
When speaking comprehensively with the local media Saturday afternoon at T-Mobile Park, Dipoto said he doesn’t expect to be as active this offseason as he was in 2018.
November sent Mike Zunino and others to the Rays for Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley, James Paxton to the Yankees for Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson and Dom Thompson-Williams, and Alex Colome to the White Sox for Omar Narvaez.
In December came the blockbuster deal with the Mets, when the Mariners acquired five players — including top prospects Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn — for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz. The same day, the Mariners added J.P. Crawford from the Phillies in the Jean Segura deal. Edwin Encarnacion came over from Cleveland later in the month, and Domingo Santana arrived from Milwaukee.
And those were just a few of the trades Seattle made. Dipoto doesn’t think this offseason will be quite so busy — at least not in terms of big-name deals.
“I know you probably take it with a grain of salt, because I’m the one saying it, but I don’t think we’re going to be particularly active outside of what I would call the secondary market,” Dipoto said. “I would say it’s very likely we will be active in the Rule 5 (Draft), like we were this year with Brandon Brennan. We will be very active in minor league free agency after what it’s done for us — Dylan Moore and what he brought, Austin Nola and what he brought, surfing that market is going to be a priority for us, and we’ve already started that process.
“I don’t know how active we’re going to be in the trade market. I would say moderate is going to be about as strong as a word I would use. And, in free agency, I would say the likelihood is we’ll shop early and we’ll shop later, and you won’t hear a lot from us around the holidays.”
2. YOUNGER ROTATION
Former ace Felix Hernandez, who has spent his entire 15-year career in the majors with the Mariners, was given a King’s farewell last week, in what was believed to be his final start with Seattle. Veterans Wade LeBlanc and Tommy Milone might not be back, and Mike Leake was traded to the Diamondbacks in July.
That leaves Marco Gonzales and Yusei Kikuchi as probably the only returners from the Opening Day rotation in 2018. Gonzales finished the season with a team-best 16 wins and 3.99 ERA, making all 34 of his starts and pitching 203 innings. Kikuchi struggled in his first MLB season after pitching eight professional seasons in Japan, compiling a 5.46 ERA in 32 starts, but the Mariners expect him to make a significant jump his second year.
Sheffield should also fit into the rotation after impressing in his month-long audition, and Dipoto said the Mariners also want to give Dunn — who made four abbreviated starts for Seattle in September — a tryout.
“We really do feel like with Marco and Kikuchi, with Justus Sheffield, they will all be in our rotation to start the season, unless there’s some kind of injury,” Dipoto said. “We want to give every chance to Justin Dunn to be one of the five, and we also want to leave the potential open for, at some point in the season, Logan Gilbert to make his move and start pitching regularly in the big leagues.”
3. MORE BULLPEN MOVES?
The Mariners led the majors in relievers used this season with 36, and could use the same “opportunity buy” strategy in 2019 as they did last season, Dipoto said.
Seattle found a few reliable arms in giving so many relievers a shot — including Austin Adams, who is injured, but pitched well for much of the season, Brennan, Matt Magill, Reggie McClain, and Swanson, who was converted from a starter, to name a few — but it’s an area where Dipoto said he might continue to tinker.
“It’s an area where we have room to add, and if we do anything notable in free agency, it will be there and in or rotation,” he said.
4. WHO’S ON FIRST?
Seattle opened the season with a logjam at first base that included Bruce, Encarnacion, Ryon Healy and Daniel Vogelbach. But, with the former two of those players now with other organizations, Healy at the end of a one-year deal spent mostly on the injured list, and Vogelbach much more of a DH than a first baseman, the traffic significantly cleared by the second half.
Rookie Austin Nola spent the most time there after the All-Star break, and was perhaps the most pleasant surprise of the step back, hitting .269/.342/.454 with 12 doubles, 10 homers and 31 RBI in 79 games. He also adds versatility as a solid catching option, and committed just one error, despite appearing at six different positions. Though 29 years old, Nola presents a solid option at first base heading into 2020.
“We are all pinching ourselves with how rewarding the season has been for Austin Nola, and he deserves the opportunity to move forward,” Dipoto said.
The Mariners also want to give Evan White, the club’s No. 4 prospect who spent the final homestand in Seattle observing the major league process, an opportunity to make the 2020 roster. The 23-year-old hit .293/.350/.488 in 92 games with Double-A Arkansas this season.
“Evan White had a terrific Double-A season, he’s a really mature kid, and we’re going to give him an opportunity in spring training, and see where he goes,” Dipoto said.
5. LONG LEADING OFF
Shed Long could very well be leading off for the Mariners next season after impressing in a 42-game audition across three stints in his rookie season.
“If nothing else, his September has kind of cemented our original belief that he can really hit,” Dipoto said. “He can hit, he’s got a great approach at the plate, he’s athletic. … He’s ready to play every day, and 500 plate appearances will look pretty good, I’m guessing, in a stat column, because he can really swing the bat.”
In 17 games — he played 42 total with the Mariners his rookie season — in the leadoff position, Long was 21-for-71 with five doubles, a triple, three of his five total homers, nine RBI and five walks to 18 strikeouts. He slashed at an impressive .296/.342/.521.
“There’s a great likelihood he’s hitting leadoff on Opening Day,” Dipoto said.
Where Long is playing in the field is more of a question mark. He mostly played second base with Triple-A Tacoma, and seems most naturally suited for that position, but can also play third, and appeared most often in left field for the Mariners in September. His position moving forward is at least somewhat dependent on whether or not Seattle moves veteran second baseman Dee Gordon this winter.
6. SEAGER’S ROLE
With Hernandez leaving, Kyle Seager will become the longest-tenured Mariner at nine seasons. The 31-year-old is in the middle of a seven-year contract, not likely to be traded, and Dipoto noted the importance of Seager being on board with this rebuild.
“What we saw from him in terms of taking a step up in leadership and really embracing what we were doing organizationally and advocating for it, I thought (was) huge for us,” Dipoto said. “We don’t have very many veteran players, and we certainly don’t have very many who have been life-long Mariners. That includes one guy that we move forward with.
“He seems to be very interested in what we’re doing and engaged in it. He’s been great for the young players.”
“If we get this version of Kyle Seager moving ahead, I think we’re all pinching ourselves,” Dipoto said. “It’s been really a joy to watch this unfold.”
7. IMPORTANT EXPERIENCE
Perhaps a bit earlier than initially expected, the Mariners got their first look at Crawford as an everyday shortstop in May, and stuck with him in the following months with mostly positive results.
Crawford hit .226/.313/.371 in nearly 400 plate appearances, and logged 21 doubles, four triples, seven homers, 46 RBI and five stolen bases, while also making significant strides on defense.
Given it was his first significant experience season in the majors — his 93 games played nearly doubled the 49 he appeared in with the Phillies in 2018 — there were offensive cold spells, and the physical demands of his first full season showed over time, but the Mariners like where he’s headed.
“I’m thrilled with where J.P.’s at,” Dipoto said. “I think he’s going to be a staple here. He’s our shortstop moving ahead, and we love the development he made, especially on the defensive side. He took huge strides.”
8. OPTIONS IN THE OUTFIELD
There’s plenty more to come in the outfield. No. 10 prospect Kyle Lewis previewed an exciting future for the Mariners with six homers, five doubles and 13 RBI in his 18-game September tryout.
“I think Kyle has given you every reason to believe that he’s ready for a longer audition than just September,” Dipoto said.
No. 8 prospect Jake Fraley rapidly ascended through the minors, was in Seattle by late August, and though he played in just 12 games while dealing with injuries and a personal matter, his spring could be intriguing. Kelenic, Seattle’s top prospect, hopes to make it to the majors in 2020, while No. 2 prospect Julio Rodriguez is further away, but has also been making strides.
While Mallex Smith had a roller coaster season — he was injured in the spring, demoted to Triple-A at one point, benched at another, and still managed to lead the majors with 46 stolen bases — he could continue to fit in next season as a versatile option who can play all three outfield positions. Mitch Haniger, an All-Star two seasons ago, should also be back after missing more than half of the season due to injury.
9. HANIGER’S OFFSEASON
The 28-year-old right fielder appeared in just 63 games, hitting .220/.314/.463 with 13 doubles, 15 homers and 32 RBI, and led the majors in strikeouts (81) at the time of his first injury.
Dipoto said Haniger’s final week was encouraging, but he hasn’t been cleared for 100 percent activity yet.
“His offseason is going to be pretty critical to our understanding of where he is, but we expect he’s going to be 100 percent healthy when we take the field in the spring, and I know that 100 percent healthy Mitch Haniger is probably our best player,” Dipoto said. “We’re looking forward to seeing what he looks like when he gets out there.”
10. NEAR ARRIVALS
Kelenic spoke with local media last week, and made it clear his goal is to make it to the majors at some point in 2020. Is it realistic?
“Roughly all the guys that were here these last couple days — Evan and Cal Raleigh, Logan Gilbert, Jarred — they all can be,” Dipoto said. “They have that kind of talent level. In some cases, I would say I would be wildly disappointed if they don’t get here at some point next year.
“Jarred is so young that I would have bet against him finishing this year in Double-A, but he did it, and he didn’t just do it, he did it and he was awesome once he got to that level. We don’t want to hold him back. That being said, at 20 years old with a month’s worth of experience in Double-A, it would be aggressive to say he’s in our Opening Day plans, but we don’t want to shut the door on the possibility that he shows up, because I do think he has the potential to grow into an All-Star-type player. And those guys generally tend to tell you when they’re ready, rather than vice versa.”