The Mariners have already started retooling their roster for next year. Which areas of improvement should take precedent for Jerry Dipoto and company over the winter?
Despite finishing ten games over .500, one of the most successful seasons in recent memory, the Mariners missed the playoffs for the 15th consecutive season. An entirely new regime came in after the 2015 debacle that saw Jack Zdurencik get canned for poor General Manager performance and kept control of the team, didn’t mortgage its future, and kept the Mariners in contention for the postseason up until the 161st game.
So where do we go from here? The Mariners were a good offensive club overall, generating runs with the longball and with excellent seasons from the heart of their batting order. Robinson Cano had one of the best seasons of his illustrious career, setting a new personal best in home runs. Nelson Cruz hit more than 40 home runs for the second consecutive season and nearly hit .300 on the year. And the ever-improving Kyle Seager made yet another leap in 2016, putting together by far his best offensive season to date.
Mariners’ GM Jerry Dipoto will have his work cut out this offseason. The Mariners find themselves in a unique position. They have several star veteran players and a mix of young talent, but gaping holes in a few key areas. It was these holes in their roster that cost them too many games last season. Here are some priorities that Dipoto should focus on as we near the height of free agency:
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I’ve mentioned before that the Mariners’ pitching staff was a major reason why they missed the playoffs in 2016. They simply couldn’t hold their rotation together for long enough stretches at a time. Dipoto will likely attack his team’s pitching depth by bringing in low-cost, low-risk players to fill out the bullpen, possibly starting with former Blue Jays closer Brett Cecil. Expect more acquisitions like Steve Cishek last offseason. Dipoto’s approach worked for stretches last year but he failed to put together a playoff-quality bullpen and even traded one of their more versatile pitchers, Mike Montgomery, to the Cubs so he could get the final out for their World Series win.
Still, Dipoto has a fireballer for a closer in Edwin Diaz, and building around him won’t be as arduous as building a bullpen from scratch like he did last year. As for the starting rotation, I would be surprised if Dipoto didn’t pull out a trade or a signing of at least one more viable starter to add his up-and-down rotation from last season.
Late-season acquisition Ben Gamel showed some promise in limited action with the Mariners last year. Leonys Martin, probably one of Dipoto’s best trades last offseason, was as advertised in center field–a run-saving defender with an average bat and good speed. Seth Smith was quietly one of the best platoon bats available to manager Scott Servais all year. Ideally, we won’t have to watch a platoon of Gamel, Guillermo Heredia, Shawn O’Malley, Stefen Romero, Smith, and Nelson Cruz in the corner outfield spots all year. There is potential in this group, and youth, but the Mariners will likely need at least one more solid defensive outfielder and/or consistent hitter to feel good about this group.
I wanted to include these three positions together because while there’s no telling what Dipoto will do next, he will have to address one or all of these positions. He has already traded pitcher Vidal Nuno to the Dodgers for Carlos Ruiz, a quality veteran to replace Chris Iannetta. It remains to be seen if Mike Zunino will start at catcher over Ruiz, but having the former Phillie on board will help spell and support him.
As of this writing, first baseman Dae-Ho Lee is still waiting for a contract to play int he Majors next season. He was relatively successful in a platoon role for Seattle, and responded well after he was sent down to Tacoma to fix his swing. With the addition of Daniel Vogelbach and reported interest in former Indians first baseman/designated hitter Mike Napoli, the Mariners could be headed in a different direction. One way or another, with Adam Lind likely gone and Lee on the fence, I would expect Dipoto to add some depth beyond the untested Vogelbach.
Is Ketel Marte really the answer at shortstop? Dipoto seemed to think so when he shipped Brad Miller and others to Tampa Bay for Nathan Karns. But Marte wasn’t particularly effective with the bat or the glove last season. He sported an empty .283 batting average and a solid .351 on-base percentage, but only hit three home runs on the year and stole only eight bases on 12 attempts. Baseball Reference grades him right about average for his defense last year, but you don’t need me to tell you he cost us games with errant throws and miscues. Perhaps Dipoto will roll with him as the presumed starter and see if he can build on some promising moments from 2016. Most likely he’ll bring in a depth player or two to compete.
I doubt the Mariners will make a big signing this year. Dipoto is likely to add depth as he did before and try to make intelligent bargain buys. If we’ve learned anything from Dipoto last season, players could be traded in droves. Buckle up for a long winter.