SEATTLE – Let it begin.
It took all of two days this offseason for Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto to sign a free agent for 2021.
To be fair, Kendall Graveman was a “free agent” for about 24 hours after the Mariners declined his $3.5 million club option for 2021. The sides were well into the process of finalizing a one-year, $1.5 million contract for 2021 that included multiple incentives based on Graveman’s role as a reliever, which could to push the total salary over $3.5 million.
And though eligible players become free agents at 9 a.m. the day after the World Series ends, they can negotiate but cannot sign with a new team for five days. The Mariners took advantage of that window to keep Graveman, their most talented reliever in a bullpen that needs talent and experience.
On Monday, the chaos that is the “hot stove” will be lit with teams eligible to sign any free agent. As he’s done in the past, Dipoto made it clear about his intentions this offseason, particularly the obvious needs.
“We’ll go into this offseason, and I’ve shared it publicly, with the idea that we have every intention of augmenting our club, most likely in the free-agent market and most likely with the bullpen as our primary focus,” he said via video in his season-ending news conference. “I’d like to add three or four guys down there that can stabilize that group and give us some certainty as we move toward the end of the game.”
Per FanGraphs, the Mariners’ 2020 bullpen combined for -1.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement), which was the worst in the American League with only the Red Sox (-0.6) also producing a negative WAR. It also had the highest earned-run average (5.92) and ranked at or near the bottom of several other categories.
Unlike the previous two years when Dipoto tried to find hidden gems, such as Austin Adams, who had been designated for assignment or on waivers, he plans to invest in the bullpen.
His past two major financial investments in relievers included signing Juan Nicasio to a two-year, $17 million contract before the 2018 season and trading for Alex Colomé, who was owed $3.8 million when they acquired him in a trade from the Tampa Bay Rays.
But given the shortened 2020 season without fans and the reduced revenues, the team is expected to be more frugal.
There is also the fickle nature of relievers, and notable recent failures across MLB, including Craig Kimbrel, Bryan Shaw, Jake McGee and David Robertson. It seems unlikely that teams will overspend on relievers.
Could the Mariners, who had already reduced their salary commitments significantly before this past season, take advantage of a depressed market?
The Mariners’ projected payroll commitments to the 40-man roster is just over $70 million. In 2018, they had $170 million in payroll commitments.
“There will be guys that have enough experience that we feel like they can help us moving forward, and I don’t know that they’re going to be marquee names; that’s really not generally how bullpens work,” Dipoto said.
When looking at relievers, it’s instructive look at the past three seasons of data instead of the most recent season.
Here’s a look at who the Mariners have and who they might sign:
Relievers on the 40-man roster: Brandon Brennan, RHP; Aaron Fletcher, LHP; Joey Gerber, RHP; Kendall Graveman, RHP; Ian Hamilton, RHP; Walker Lockett, RHP; Anthony Misiewicz, LHP; Andrés Muñoz, RHP; Yohan Ramirez, RHP; Casey Sadler, RHP; Erik Swanson, RHP; Domingo Tapia, RHP
Of note: Sadler and Lockett are out of minor-league options, which makes them candidates to be designated for assignment because they have to be on the active roster. Of the other 10 relievers, only Graveman is out of minor-league options. That gives Seattle roster flexibility.
Non-roster relief prospects in the organization: Sam Delaplane, RHP; Juan Then, RHP; Wyatt Mills, RHP; Dayeison Arias, RHP; Devin Sweet, RHP; Brendan McGuigan, RHP
Of note: Delaplane, Then and Mills will likely be added to the 40-man roster to protect them from the Rule 5 draft. Delaplane has a power slider that can generate swings and misses. Then has been working as a starter and turns 21 on Feb. 7, but he has a fastball that touches 99 mph and a power slider. Mills, a former Gonzaga standout, throws from a sidearm slot. His fastball is now touching 97.
Free-agent candidates include:
Liam Hendriks, RHP
Age in 2021: 32
2018-20 stats: 5.1 WAR, 114 appearances, 123⅔ innings, 7-5 record, 2.11 ERA, 39 saves, eight holds, eight blown saves, 174 strikeouts, 29 walks, nine home runs allowed.
Of note: Hendriks took over as the A’s closer for the past two seasons and is considered the top free-agent reliever available. Would a team give him a four-year, $48 million contract? For Seattle, that might be too much for the return.
Blake Treinen, RHP
Age in 2021: 33
2018-20 stats: 3.8 WAR, 152 appearances, 164⅔ innings, 18-10 record, 55 saves, 12 holds, 11 blown saves, 181 strikeouts, 66 walks, 12 homers allowed.
Of note: Treinen’s dominance with the A’s in 2018 (9-2 record, 0.78 ERA, 38 saves), his struggles in 2019 (lost closing job to Hendriks, 4.91 ERA) are indicative of relievers. But his 99-mph sinker, riding four-seam fastball and slider make him attractive.
Brad Hand, LHP
Age in 2021: 31
2018-20 stats: 3.8 WAR, 152 appearances, 151⅓ innings, 10-10 record, 2.85 ERA, 82 saves, 11 holds, 12 blown saves, 219 strikeouts, 50 walks, 14 HRs allowed.
Of note: The Indians did not exercise the $10 million club option for their All-Star closer in 2021. He relies on a nasty slider that generated swings and misses 40% of the time the past two seasons. A two-year deal for $19 million to $22 million seems likely.
Age in 2021: 30
2018-20 stats: 2.2 WAR, 153 appearances, 151⅓ innings, 13-10 record, 2.62 ERA, 54 saves, 30 holds, nine blown saves, 143 strikeouts, 52 walks, 14 HRs allowed.
Of note: Mariners fans will remember his solid work as a setup man for Edwin Diaz in 2018. He was traded to the White Sox before 2019, tallying 42 saves as their closer. His 23% strikeout percentage is low for a high-leverage reliever.
Shane Greene, RHP
Age in 2021: 32
2018-20 stats: 1.2 WAR, 159 games, 153⅔ innings, 5-9 record, 55 saves, 19 holds, 11 blown saves, 150 strikeouts, 45 walks, 22 homers allowed.
Of note: Greene was the Tigers’ closer until being dealt to the Braves at the 2019 trade deadline. He’s expected to look for a situation where he will get the best opportunity to serve as closer. He’s also a low-strikeout pitcher (23.4%).
Trevor Rosenthal, RHP
Age in 2021: 30
2018-20 stats: 0.5 WAR, 45 appearances, 39 innings, 11 saves, three holds, one blown save, 55 strikeouts, 34 walks, two homers allowed.
Of note: He was a promising reliever with the Cardinals, then blew out his elbow and missed 2018. He struggled in 2019 with the National and Tigers, walking 26 and hitting four others in 15⅓ innings. After a solid start this year with the Royals, he was traded to the Padres where he was dominant, not allowing a run in his final nine outings. His fastball averaged 97.9 mph.
Other names to consider: Kirby Yates, RHP; Brandon Workman, RHP; Jeremy Jeffress, RHP; Trevor May, RHP; Keone Kela, RHP; Joakim Soria, RHP; Jake McGee, LHP; Aaron Loup, LHP; David Phelps, RHP.
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