SEATTLE – Each offseason, the Seattle Mariners have introduced fans to phrases used often in their current leadership group to describe the thinking and justification for their actions, including acquisitions or lack thereof.
They can be rattled off: Reimagining the roster, taking a step back, building sustainable success, finding players with club control.
And though most fans will point to “winning 54% of your games” as the phrase of this offseason, really, it’s been “creating payroll flexibility.”
This isn’t necessarily a new term. It’s one that was used in the early days when Jerry Dipoto, now the president of baseball operations, was hired near the end of the 2015 season as general manager and asked to put together a playoff-caliber team in 2016 without adding much payroll to the aging roster.
It was used again after Dipoto convinced ownership to embark on a “step-back” rebuild that meant culling the roster of established players in trades for prospects and lowering the payroll during the rebuilding seasons, saving money for future use.
But it’s a phrase Dipoto wasn’t expecting to use this offseason. Following the 2023 Mariners’ failure to return to the postseason despite an 88-74 record, Dipoto planned to supplement a good team with reinforcements from an increased payroll budget, perhaps $10 million to $15 million higher than the previous season.
But Mariners ownership, fearful of lost revenues due to issues with Root Sports NW, adjusted Dipoto’s payroll budget a month into the offseason. Instead of seeing it increase well above the estimated $140 million payroll at the end of last season, Dipoto would have essentially the same amount of money to work with in 2024.
He and general manager Justin Hollander had two choices: Make minimal or minor moves and try to win with essentially the same roster that fell short in 2023, or get creative and trade established players with guaranteed contracts and use any dollars saved to bring in better or cheaper replacements via trade or free agency.
Following an amended offseason plan that wasn’t known until the MLB winter meetings in December, Dipoto made eight major moves to retool the roster.
• Nov. 17: Traded right-handed pitcher Isaiah Campbell to Red Sox for infielder Luis Urias
Details: This move was initially perceived as Dipoto adding another utility player to a roster already filled with them.
Urias had an abysmal and injury-riddled 2023 season. He suffered a hamstring injury on opening day and wasn’t reinstated from the injured list until June 5. In 20 games with Milwaukee, he posted a .145/.299/.236 slash line in 68 plate appearances, was optioned to Triple-A on June 29 and then traded to Boston.
In his third year of arbitration eligibility and projected to make at least the $4.1 million he had received in 2023, the Red Sox weren’t planning to tender him a contract. It would’ve made him a free agent and available to any club. Instead, the Mariners made the trade before the deadline to get Urias, who is under club control for this season and 2025.
A former top prospect who had 42 doubles, 39 homers and 122 RBIs over the 2021-2022 seasons, Urias seemed like the type of cheap, bounce-back candidate Dipoto loves to acquire. But there were other intentions.
• Nov. 22: Traded third baseman Eugenio Suarez to Arizona for catcher Seby Zavala, right-handed pitcher Carlos Vargas
Details: The decision to send the popular Suarez to the reigning NL champs was somewhat surprising but not completely unexpected. The 32-year-old started showing signs of a rapid decline in 2023. The Mariners were frustrated at his conditioning level when he arrived at spring training, and his time in the World Baseball Classic made it worse. Though his strikeout rate (30.8%) and totals (214) were still high, his power numbers, which made those punchouts somewhat palatable, were down and his bat speed appeared slower. Would that trend continue? And were the Mariners willing to pay Suarez’s $11 million salary and $2 million buyout of his 2025 club option to find out?
The deal for Urias began to make a little more sense. He would serve as Suarez’s replacement if the Mariners didn’t add another option.
• Dec. 3: Traded outfielder Jarred Kelenic, left-handed pitcher Marco Gonzales, first baseman Evan White and $4.5 million to Atlanta for right-handed pitchers Jackson Kowar and Cole Phillips
Details: This trade was all about finding a team to take the money remaining on the guaranteed contracts of Gonzales and White – roughly $29 million – with the cost being an ultratalented but mercurial outfielder, who had still not proven himself at the MLB level. Gonzales and White were never going to play for the Braves.
Though the Suarez trade could’ve initially been interpreted as a baseball move and not a salary dump, the deal with the Braves was clearly about money. It also provided verification to rumors that the Mariners’ payroll wouldn’t increase significantly.
The principals in the Mariners leadership admitted as much afterward.
“Our offseason, I want to say it really began today in earnest,” Dipoto said a day after the trade. “We are excited it could come to pass, but we have a lot of work to do.”
• Dec. 28: Signed free-agent designated hitter Mitch Garver to two-year contract
Details: Garver’s two-year, $24 million deal was the largest free-agent contract given to a position player in Dipoto’s tenure in Seattle. The 33-year-old posted a .270/.370/.500 slash line with 11 doubles, 19 homers, 50 RBIs, 44 walks and 82 strikeouts in 87 games with the rival Rangers.
Though his primary position had been catcher, the Mariners signed Garver with the intention of moving him to a full-time DH role to keep him healthy. He hadn’t played in more than 100 games in any of the past four full seasons.
• Jan. 5: Traded left-handed pitcher Robbie Ray to San Francisco for outfielder Mitch Haniger, right-handed pitcher Anthony DeSclafani and $6 million
Details: With Kelenic traded and Teoscar Hernandez gone to free agency, the Mariners needed help in the outfield. They brought in an old friend. Haniger’s bad luck with injuries found him in San Francisco, as a fractured forearm torpedoed his 2023 season.
It was essentially a deal for two teams looking to get out of somewhat regrettable contracts. Haniger is owed $17 million for the 2024 season and $15.5 million in 2025. He also has an opt-out after this season. Ray, who is recovering from Tommy John surgery and won’t pitch until mid-July, was owed $23 million in 2024 and $25 million in 2025 and 2026.
DeSclafani, who has a $12 million salary in 2024, and the $6 million in cash were included in the trade to make it essentially cash neutral for the 2024 season.
The Mariners know what Haniger can do if he’s healthy. He was a popular player and grew into a respected leader during his time in Seattle.
• Jan. 5: Traded infielder Jose Caballero to Tampa Bay for outfielder/first baseman Luke Raley
Details: This was a baseball move for the Mariners. They got an athletic outfielder with power for one of their many utility players.
Raley, 29, appeared in 118 games with the Rays last season, posting a .249/.333/.490 slash line with 23 doubles, three triples, 19 home runs, 49 RBIs and 14 stolen bases.
Why would the Rays trade him? Caballero, who can play shortstop, provides infield depth. Also, Raley, who was out of minor-league options, didn’t have an exact fit with a crowded outfield.
• Jan. 30: Traded right-handed pitchers Anthony DeSclafani, Justin Topa and Darren Bowen, outfielder Gabriel Gonzalez and $8 million to Minnesota for infielder Jorge Polanco
Details: Though it seemed like the Mariners might be done adding to the roster, they made one last somewhat unexpected move by acquiring the switch-hitting Polanco.
Like Garver and Haniger, Polanco has dealt with injury issues the past few seasons, as well as an 80-game suspension for testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug in 2018. He didn’t have a place in a crowded Twins infield, particularly with a $10.5 million salary in 2024. But when healthy, he provides another strong hitting presence to the Mariners lineup.
Was the cost too high? Seattle gave up a solid setup reliever in Topa. But there is also some concern that his heavy workload last season – a career-high 75 appearances, many in high leverage – could lead to regression or injury.
Gonzalez was one of Seattle’s better prospects. But his projections were wide-ranging among opposing scouts. Concerns about a commitment to conditioning and his body type along with the swing-and-miss issues that accompanied the power potential were mentioned.
• Feb. 4: Traded right-handed pitcher Prelander Berroa, outfielder prospect Zach DeLoach and the No. 69 pick in the 2024 MLB draft to the White Sox for right-handed pitcher Gregory Santos
Dipoto quickly filled the loss of Topa in the back of the bullpen by acquiring a young, harder-throwing version of him in the 24-year-old Santos.
Santos made 60 appearances in 2023, which was the second most on the White Sox. He posted a 2-2 record with a 3.39 ERA and five saves. In 66⅓ innings pitched, Santos struck out 66 batters with 17 walks.
Per Baseball Savant’s Statcast data, one of the pitchers that Santos is most similar to in terms of pitch profile and metric is Topa.
Santos relied heavily on a hard slider that opponents hit just .196 against last season and a sinking fastball that averaged 98.9 mph. Santos threw 551 sliders last season and allowed one extra-base hit – a double. Opposing hitters swung and missed 37.5% of those sliders.
DeLoach, the Mariners second-round pick in 2020, was essentially blocked on the Mariners outfield depth chart with several other left-handed hitting corner outfielders ahead of him.
Berroa, who turns 24 in April, has a big arm and MLB stuff with the potential of being a solid reliever.
But the Mariners got a proven reliever that is essentially the same age.
The eight moves brought in Garver, Haniger, Raley, Polanco and Urias to be everyday contributors in the lineup, along with Zavala as a backup catcher, to replace Suarez, Kelenic, Hernandez, Caballero and Tom Murphy.
The roster and lineup will have a different look. But will all the work to find payroll flexibility and then use it make them better?