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Seattle Mariners

Analysis: Will Eugenio Suarez trade lead to ‘good vibes’ for Mariners fans?

Eugenio Suarez (28) of the Seattle Mariners reacts after beating the Miami Marlins 8-1 at T-Mobile Park on June 12, 2023, in Seattle.  (Tribune News Service)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Depending on a person’s time of arrival in the Seattle Mariners’ clubhouse for games at T-Mobile Park, they were usually greeted by the smiling face of Eugenio Suarez, whose locker was the first in the line of sight upon entering the posh space.

If Suarez wasn’t in front of his locker holding court with teammates, a glaring bright neon sign with his oft-used mantra “Good Vibes Only” above a locker – once occupied by the equally gregarious Nelson Cruz – offered a reminder of what the veteran third baseman strove to provide each day.

But the vibes around the Mariners’ organization have been anything but good since they were eliminated from postseason contention late in the regular season. A disastrous end-of-season news conference that included regrettable comments from president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto provided fodder for social-media griping to amplify the discontent.

Though the next good 54% joke you hear will be the first one.

The perception of the organization sank a little lower last week when the Mariners shipped the popular Suarez, their starting third baseman and a key clubhouse leader, to the Arizona Diamondbacks for career backup catcher Seby Zavala and right-handed reliever Carlos Vargas, who has two fastballs that can hit 100 mph but also has command issues and just five games of MLB experience.

When he was acquired by the Mariners with outfielder Jesse Winker from the Reds before the 2022 season, Suarez wasn’t considered the centerpiece of the trade. Industry sources said the Mariners had to take Suarez and all $35 million remaining on his contract to get Winker, who was coming off an All-Star season.

With Kyle Seager having retired after the 2021 season and free-agent infielder Trevor Story spurning their contract offer, the Mariners looked to Suarez to fill the spot.

Replacing Seager and what he meant to team production and leadership was an unenviable task, but Suarez embraced it with his unique personality and enthusiasm.

“Geno is the epitome of the same guy every day, regardless of the result, regardless of the situation,” outfielder Jarred Kelenic said this spring. “He’s always the same guy. And it’s definitely a key component to this clubhouse, because we need people like that. He makes people around him better.”

Besides his ebullient personality, Suarez embraced the focus on daily preparation and work. He became a better defensive player under infield guru Perry Hill and should have been a Gold Glove finalist last season.

Suarez produced a 4.1 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) in 2022 and 3.2 in 2023, and he had a knack for big moments.

“First off, I want to thank Geno for his contributions over the past two years, on and off the field. The day he walked in, he told us ‘good vibes only’ and he brought that mantra to our clubhouse and our fans, he’s truly one of a kind and we’re lucky to have had him as part of our club.” Dipoto said in a statement. “Adding Seby and Carlos is another step toward building the type of deep roster that is required at the Major league level.”

The trade was unexpected for many fans. Yes, Suarez was coming off a down year in which his home runs declined to 22 from 31 and slugging percentage to .391 from .459. His bat speed seemed diminished, and his strikeout rate stayed over 30%. But he also played in all 162 games, provided high-level defense and drove in 96 runs, second most on the team.

But based on how the Mariners have operated the past few years with players they believe are starting to earn significantly more money than their expected production, the trade shouldn’t have been surprising.

Suarez, who turned 31 in July, was showing typical signs of physical decline for players on the wrong side of 30. Unlike Cruz, Suarez hasn’t been maniacal about offseason workouts to stave off age-related regression. Though some felt an offseason and spring training without the distraction of the World Baseball Classic would help Suarez regain his production, a fair number of people inside and outside of the Mariners’ organization believed he wouldn’t return to his previous power levels, particularly in Seattle and in the American League West.

The Mariners also made it clear they wanted to reduce strikeouts. With outfielder Teoscar Hernandez’s free-agent exit and the Suarez trade, the Mariners removed two players who struck out a combined 425 times last season. Of course, they also combined for 48 homers and 189 RBIs.

Still, the immediate impression from some fans on social media and MLB analysts was that Wednesday’s trade was nothing more than a salary dump encouraged by cost-conscious Mariners ownership.

Under a contract extension signed with the Reds and inherited by the Mariners, Suarez had an $11 million salary for 2024 and a $15 million club option for 2025 that included a $2 million buyout.

The Mariners rid themselves of the $13 million owed to Suarez while taking on Zavala and Vargas, who are prearbitration eligible players making less than $1 million each.

So who will play third base? As of now, Luis Urias slots in there. Once a top-100 prospect with the Padres as a shortstop in 2018-19, the well-traveled Urias was acquired Nov. 17 from the Red Sox before he could be nontendered and become a free agent.

Urias, who turned 26 in June, had a breakout season with Milwaukee in 2021, hitting 25 doubles and 23 homers in 150 games. He posted a 2.1 fWAR that season and a 2.3 fWAR in 2022. But a hamstring injury suffered on opening day, a lengthy recovery and subsequent issues from it sidetracked his 2023 season, leading him to being sent down to Triple-A and eventually traded.

Urias will make at least $4.7 million as an arbitration-eligible player, having made that salary in 2022.

He’s younger and cheaper than Suarez but has less proven power and is a worse defensive player. Even Suarez’s biggest detractors aren’t inspired by Urias as a replacement.

In July 2021, after he traded closer Kendall Graveman and reliever Rafael Montero to the rival Astros while the teams were playing each other at T-Mobile Park, leaving players enraged and fans confused, Dipoto was asked why the deal made sense.

“It probably doesn’t as a stand-alone, but it’s part of a context that I believe is going to be an ongoing story over the next couple of days,” he said. “We’re trying to both address present and future. This is the first move in what should be a succession of moves over the course of this week that I think will result in the present team looking deeper, and the future team looking deeper, and that’s been the goal throughout.”

Dipoto traded for reliever Diego Castillo a few days later to supposedly help fill the loss of Graveman. The Mariners missed the postseason by two games.

The Urias trade was curious because it gave the Mariners a multitude of utility infielders. Or was it a “succession” trade that actually came before the Suarez deal? Sources indicated that Seattle and Arizona had discussed Suarez for two weeks.

But is there another move coming? There is some sliver of hope from optimistic fans that the cost-saving move will be reinvested in an impact player or players via free agency or trade.

The hot stove is just getting started, so more moves could come. Maybe Suarez left that neon sign to provide fans with a little hope.