SEATTLE – There are 56 new free agents on the open market after Wednesday evening’s deadline for teams to decide on tendering or nontendering guaranteed contracts to club-controlled players for the 2021 season.
Officially, there were 59 players that were nontendered and 59 arbitration eligible players that were tendered contracts for 2021. Three players re-signed new deals with their teams.
There could be a few more players signing with their previous teams in the coming days for lesser dollars than their expected arbitration projections, but a good portion will remain free agents, looking to find the best situation.
Of those 56 players, there are several former first-round picks in the group, which will always intrigue Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto. It’s based on something longtime GM and baseball executive John Hart told him about six years ago.
“He said that when you are building a roster, always look at the guys who have ones and twos listed next to their draft statuses, meaning first- and second-round picks, and even when you’ve looked, go back and look again,” Dipoto said last season. “They might be struggling somewhere or not having success for whatever reason. But some team once thought enough of that player to draft them where they did. I’ve used that guidance so many times.”
There are more than a handful of failed first- and second-round picks in this group. They don’t all fit the Mariners’ most immediate needs. But sometimes it’s about acquiring cheap talent and then figuring out how to make it fit or trade it later for talent.
The most immediate and known needs for the Mariners are relief pitching, starting pitching and, well, more relief pitching.
Here are some possible targets:
Kyle Schwarber, OF/DHYes, the Mariners have a glut of outfielders in their system, and Schwarber is a designated hitter playing in the outfield with poor results per defensive metrics. But with the uncertainty of a universal designated hitter for the 2021 season and the Cubs in an odd financial place, the slugging Schwarber, a first-round pick in 2014, is available.
Dipoto and Mariners manager Scott Servais have discussed the benefit of not having an everyday designated hitter and using the spot as a way to get everyday players rest.
But when he’s right, Schwarber is a special hitter who could provide punch to a lineup that was lacking it in 2020. Even if he had to play left field on occasion, Schwarber is not substantially worse than playing Shed Long or Tim Lopes in that spot.
Schwarber struggled in 2020, posting a .188/.308/.393 slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) with 11 homers, 24 RBIs, a 13.4% walk rate and a 29.5% strikeout rate, which was still more productive than the Mariners’ first-base position last season.
From 2015 to 2019, Schwarber played in 492 games and posted .235/.339/.490 slash line with a 13% walk rate, a 27.9% strikeout rate, but also blasted 110 homers and had a 9.1 WAR (wins above replacement).
It’s likely that Schwarber wants to sign a one-year “prove it” contract and increase his value for 2022 when the universal DH is expected to be in place. But with Dipoto’s decree that the Mariners expect to compete for a postseason spot this season, it’s a low-risk, high-reward type of possibility. Unfortunately for the Mariners, there will be at least 10 teams in the American League that feel this way.
Does he really fit their roster? Not completely, but he hits and the Mariners’ offense is far too reliant on unproven players.
Archie Bradley, RHP
The seventh overall pick of the 2011 draft when the Mariners took Danny Hultzen with the No. 2 pick, Bradley struggled as a starter and blossomed as a reliever for Arizona. He’s still just 28. Remember, the Mariners might need some relief help. Bradley would bring valuable experience to a bullpen lacking in it. The Mariners could offer him a chance to be the closer, which would be attractive to any free agent.
Hansel Robles, RHP
Yes, it’s another reliever the Mariners should look at, not that they don’t know enough about him from American League West games. The hard-throwing right-hander pitched his way into the Angels’ closer role in 2019, posting a 5-1 record with a 2.97 ERA and 23 saves in 71 appearances. He struck out 75 and walked 16 in 72⅔ innings.
But in 2020, he was a mess, posting a 10.26 ERA in 18 appearances with 20 strikeouts and 10 walks in 16⅔ innings. He’s the type of reclamation project on which Dipoto loves to take a chance.
Keynan Middleton, RHP
Dipoto is quite familiar with Middleton. As Angels GM, Dipoto selected the hard-throwing right-hander out of Lane Community College in Eugene in the third round of the 2013 draft. Middleton looked like he might be a star and future closer until former Angels manager Mike Scioscia overused him, and Middleton ended up having Tommy John surgery.
Middleton’s fastball velocity has returned to its presurgery form. His fastball averaged 97.5 mph in 2020. But like many pitchers, the command, which wasn’t a strength for him, lagged behind. He walked 11.3% of the batters he faced. But Middleton’s raw talent and potential and Dipoto’s familiarity with him make it a logical fit.
Carlos Rodon, LHP
Rodon was the third overall pick in the 2014 draft and was expected to be the first player taken for much of that year. He never quite pitched to expectations and battled myriad injury issues. He was reduced to pitching in a swing role in 2020 with the White Sox rotation loaded with other talent.
Rodon’s velocity is starting to return after Tommy John surgery. Perhaps now that he’s fully healthy and free of the expectations with the White Sox, he can find success.
The Mariners want to use a six-man rotation and have five largely unproved pitchers projected for spots.
Other names to consider
Matt Wisler, RHP – A Mariners reliever briefly in 2019, he pitched well for Minnesota in 2020 (1.07 ERA in 25⅓ innings).
Ryne Stanek, RHP – He was solid for the Rays as an opener/reliever in 2019. But struggled with the Marlins. Nobody wants to see the opener again.
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