SEATTLE – We are more than a week into 2021 and some people already are wishing it was 2022. But the Twitter mailbag, which doesn’t believe in New Year’s resolutions, isn’t quite that dramatic. It helps that Major League Baseball spring training appears to be starting on time.
As reported by USA Today, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred sent a memo to teams Monday saying they should be preparing for spring training to start on time in February and with a full 162-game season expected to be played.
Most teams were looking at either Feb. 16 or 17 as the official date for pitchers and catchers to report.
Until then, let’s answer some questions:
As always these are real questions from Twitter followers …
I believe we’ve had this discussion before, but here’s something to consider: What really defines a “big name”?
Is a big name based solely by on-field performance and what statistical measure do you use? Is it past honorary success such as All-Star Game appearances, or other awards? Or is it popularity among a team’s fan base that generates interest in baseball circles?
I’d guess it’s some combination of all those things.
This free-agent class doesn’t offer a ton of “big names.” And when you factor fit to the organization, there are reasons the Mariners aren’t rumored to be in on the big names.
So let’s look at two of the biggest names in this free agent class – starting pitcher Trevor Bauer and catcher J.T. Realmuto.
Bauer, the reigning National League Cy Young winner, is the best available free-agent starting pitcher by a wide margin. Over the past five seasons (including the 60-game 2020 season), Bauer has made 140 starts, posting a 57-40 record with a 3.64 ERA while totaling 17 Wins Above Replacement (WAR).
He’s durable, talented and completely committed to the craft of pitching. His thirst for knowledge and improvement pushes him to the cutting edge of pitching analysis and development, including his offseasons in Maple Valley, Washington, and working out at Driveline Baseball in Kent.
For many years, Bauer was adamant he’d sign only one-year contracts as a free agent to have personal freedom. But following his Cy Young season when the possibility of making $200 million is real, it’s made him more receptive to a multiyear deal. It has been reported he wants between $35 million to $40 million per year for at least five years. So could the Mariners try to sign him to a five-year, $187.5 million ($37.5 average annual value) deal?
Sure, but here’s why it’s an issue for both sides. The Mariners aren’t just a Bauer away from being great or even good.
And Bauer knows that.
He’s far too educated to the business of baseball to believe Seattle is close to a finished product or a legitimate World Series contender as constructed over the next few years. He likely will also expect/demand an opt-out clause after at least three years in the deal, if not two, to have that flexibility and freedom he craves.
Opt-out clauses usually are a lose-lose situation for teams – if the player performs at or above expectations, they will exercise it. And if they don’t, well, they aren’t giving salary back for failing and are often un-tradeable. Most general managers, including Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto, try to avoid opt-out clauses if possible.
Bauer also has a qualifying offer from the Cincinnati Reds attached to him, which means the Mariners would forfeit their third-round draft choice in 2021 if they signed him. With only 20 to 25 rounds expected for the 2021 draft, that isn’t insignificant.
The Mariners’ plan to use a six-man rotation is the opposite of Bauer’s desires. He has pushed to move to a four-man rotation that would allow him to pitch more.
Regardless of the optimism that often comes from Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto about the progress of the “step back,” there has to be some reality of how many things would have to go right for this team to make serious steps forward in the next two years.
And yet with all of that, the Mariners should still talk to Bauer’s agent, Rachel Luba, about the possibility of signing Bauer. It’s unlikely, but it’s due diligence.
Realmuto, 30, is the premier catcher in MLB. There might be better defensive catchers and better hitting catchers, but there’s no catcher who consistently provides both aspects at a high level. He’s posted a .282/.336/.466 slash line (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage) over the past five seasons while accumulating an 18.8 WAR.
When he was traded to Philadelphia before the 2019 season, he seemed like a lock to stay there, but the Phillies have underachieved and the organization cleaned house in the front office. Realmuto has been linked to the Washington Nationals.
While 30 isn’t old, the industry belief is a player’s peak is 27 to 29, and catchers regress at a faster pace due to the wear and tear of the position.
Realmuto has played in the NL East for his entire career, and there’s a belief he’d prefer to stay there. Maybe a team willing to meet his exact demands or outbid the Phillies might lure him away.
The Mariners aren’t poor, but investing $125 million over five years in a catcher for a team that could have immediate needs at third base, second base and starting rotation after the 2021 season, does not seem prudent.
How about some other sort of “big names?”
George Springer, OF – The Astros manipulated his service time to make him a free agent at 31. The Mariners’ most organizational depth is in the outfield and they want to see the outfield of Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic and Julio Rodriguez by the end of 2022.
Marcell Ozuna, OF/DH – He’s not an everyday outfielder. His best position is DH and is seemingly a younger Nelson Cruz. It might help if MLB would make a decision on the universal DH moving forward.
D.J. LeMahieu, IF – He wants to stay in New York. He wants a four-year contract at age 32. How much did he benefit from the Yankees lineup and Yankee Stadium? And there’s no way he’s going to a rebuilding team.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so much about “big names” as to “best fits” with properly assessed risk/reward. While not as sexy, those players can still help a push to the playoffs. Big names mean big dollars and big commitment. That’s fine when you feel your team will be good for at least half of that contract.
Signing someone like pitcher Taijuan Walker to a three-year contract for far less money with an option for a fourth year makes vastly more sense. He provides a bridge and production to prospects like George Kirby and Emerson Hancock.
But if it’s big names you crave, the free-agent class next year has more of them – Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Javy Baez, Trevor Story, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, Nolan Arenado (opt-out clause), Michael Conforto, Starling Marte, Noah Syndergaard, Max Scherzer and Lance McCullers Jr.
There are rumblings M’s’ ownership would prefer to hold off on any long-term payroll investment to players, preferring to see how this season plays out at the MLB and minor-league level to have a greater understanding of the timeline to success.
If all goes well, they’d open up the wallets next offseason. If it fails, well, then there could be changes.
Dipoto said on ESPN’s Hot Stove Show the Mariners are looking to add another reliever with an outside chance of adding a starter or a left-handed hitter who can play multiple positions. All indications are they won’t be “big names” but in the interest of progressing this rebuild forward, they should be established players with the potential of raising the level of talent and play of the projected roster in 2021.
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