SEATTLE – At their end-of-the-season news conference Wednesday, Seattle Mariners leadership extolled at length the rare chemistry that existed on their breakthrough 2022 team.
It was an unselfish team, they said. It was a fun team. It was a balanced team. It was a connected team. President of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto, general manager Justin Hollander and manager Scott Servais spoke of trying to preserve that vibe moving forward.
But Hollander, when asked about what sort of offseason is ahead for the Mariners, said without hesitation, “I work for Jerry, so very active. I think we need to get better. We had an awesome year. We’re really excited about the progress we made. We also finished 16 games behind the Astros. The goal was not to get to the playoffs; the goal is to win a World Series. And we want to get better. And that means better everywhere.”
Therein lies the crux of the challenge for the Mariners this winter. They must address the obvious need to bolster their offense, after finishing tied for 26th in MLB with a .230 batting average (albeit tied for 13th with an OPS of .705). And they must try to do so without upsetting the camaraderie that meant so much to the 2022 Mariners.
Here’s my take: The Mariners have built the nucleus of a team that could and should be a perennial playoff contender after two decades of not getting there. Full credit to a step-back plan that was masterfully executed and, if anything, coalesced a year ahead of schedule. Despite the 16-game deficit to Houston, the AL Division Series showed the Mariners are actually just a tick behind the Astros, who came up to bat in 27 out of 27 innings in Games 1 and 3 without once holding the lead.
So now is the time to be aggressive in putting the finishing touches on a team that could be a brewing powerhouse. Nothing fosters chemistry more than winning; the culture Servais has built should flourish even if some of the individual dynamics are altered. For instance, Dipoto did not sound overly optimistic about bringing back free agent Carlos Santana, heavily credited with enhancing the clubhouse after his June arrival.
“We would love to find a way to bring Carlos back,” Dipoto said. “But in order for Carlos to be back somebody else would not be here, and that remains to be seen. Not all of them can come back.”
Of course, there are pitching concerns, such as the residual impact of this year’s vastly increased workload on George Kirby, Andres Munoz and, to a certain extent, Logan Gilbert. And bullpens are such fickle beasts that you never know if the success can be sustained year to year. Yet the Mariners showed this year that it’s not impossible. All the impact arms will be back, with Matt Brash likely to stay in short relief.
The Mariners must make a decision on the future of starters Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen, neither of whom was on the postseason roster and could be trade bait. Another key question is whether they will bring back outfielder Mitch Haniger, a pending free agent. Will they shop Jesse Winker, who never jelled in Seattle and was a huge disappointment at the plate and a liability in the field? And even if they do, would they find any takers?
But it’s imperative that they find, via free agency or the trade market, at least one impact bat, even if they count on offensive improvement to come from the likes of Jarred Kelenic’s maturity, a full season for Sam Haggerty and a possible health revival from Kyle Lewis.
Those are wish-list items. The Mariners need something more resembling a sure thing (though there really isn’t one in baseball; Winker was supposed to be a sure thing, with a .556 slugging percentage for Cincinnati in 2021. He fell short of that number by a staggering .212).
It’s not a particularly deep field of free-agent outfielders, Aaron Judge notwithstanding. You can drool about the prospect of adding Judge to a lineup that already has Julio Rodriguez; but it’s hard to envision the fit, either financially or being a place Judge would want to come. Yet there’s no doubt Seattle has become a much more desirable landing spot for potential free agents.
“Looking at different players around the league, and you get a vibe from players,” Servais said. “And the vibe that I got from other managers, players, coaches on other teams is we have people’s attention. … It’s all coming together at the right time. I think it’s a super attractive place.”
I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mariners’ focus is on the star-studded shortstop free-agent class, which includes Trea Turner, Dansby Swanson, Carlos Correa and Xander Boegarts, among others. Any of them would look great in the Mariners lineup. Last winter, with an equally loaded shortstop market, Dipoto came out early and said J.P. Crawford would remain their shortstop. I asked him Thursday if he would make a similar pledge this year.
“Our great preference would be that we can land a shortstop that would like to go play second base,” he replied. “But we’re not going to close the door to anything in that regard.
“J.P. is our shortstop, and he’s an emotional leader. We feel like he does a very good job in anything that we asked him to do. From the time he stepped on the field here for the Mariners, J.P. has done nothing but make a positive contribution.
“So he’ll line up for us today at shortstop, and the goal is to find someone to put around him. And if we do find someone who plays shortstop, that person could very likely move to second base. That’s a discussion for then and not now. J.P. is our shortstop. We signed him to play shortstop. And that’s what we intend.”
The Mariners exit the 2022 season in a prosperous position. The drought is over, which is a huge psychological load lifted from the entire organization. In Rodriguez, they have a true superstar who should only get better, and in Luis Castillo they have a bona fide ace. Gilbert, Kirby, Munoz and catcher Cal Raleigh are budding stars, with more pitching help brewing in the minors. There are solid players at the corners in Ty France and Eugenio Suarez.
Now it’s a matter of tweaking here and bolstering there. If they can do that judiciously, and continue to use their financial flexibility in a manner they did in extending Rodriguez and Castillo, the Mariners’ vibe should only get better.
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