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Seattle Mariners

Analysis: Four questions the Mariners face in spring training

Seattle Mariners manager Scott Servais hopes this year’s team can be “more consistent” at the plate.  (Getty Images)
By Ryan Divish Seattle Times

PEORIA, Ariz. – As the third day of workouts for Mariners pitchers and catchers ended Saturday afternoon with a cloudless sky and the temperature reaching 76 degrees, this spring training has been, well, normal.

Tuesday’s first official full-squad workout was just days away,

“I don’t know what is normal anymore,” manager Scott Servais said with a laugh. “You kind of just go with the flow and make adjustments along the way.”

A year ago, MLB teams dealt with players leaving camp for the World Baseball Classic.

The 2022 spring training was delayed and shortened because of the lockout of players and the lengthy negotiations between the owners and the MLB Players Association.

The 2021 spring training started under the strict COVID protocols in place from the 2020 season. The complexes were closed to fans. Social distancing was still enforced. Spring training games were played with reduced attendance.

In 2020, spring training opened with the threat of the COVID-19 virus becoming widespread. It ended March 12 when the remainder of spring training was canceled, and the season postponed indefinitely.

For the 2019 spring training, the Mariners started spring training five days earlier than normal in preparation to start the regular season early with two games against the Oakland A’s in Japan.

“Yeah, this is probably more normal and the weather is actually normal this year,” Servais said of the comfortable and sunny days. “It’s been freezing down here early in the spring the last few years.”

Perhaps a “normal” spring training is deserved for the Mariners after an offseason that wasn’t normal or expected when the 2023 season came to a disappointing end.

With ownership pulling back on any plans to significantly increase the budget, the Mariners had to make trades to create payroll flexibility and make trades to reassemble a roster for success.

The amount of transactional activity felt normal to Servais.

“It’s every year,” he joked. “For us, this is what we do. We aren’t afraid to shake it up a bit.”

With workouts ready to pick up and the first Cactus League game looming Feb. 24, here’s a few questions surrounding the 2024 Mariners:

Are they done adding to the roster?

A little more transactional activity is a given for the Mariners. It’s the impact of the transaction that draws the intrigue.

On Saturday, they claimed right-handed pitcher Levi Stoudt off waivers from the Reds. Stoudt was a former M’s prospect who was part of the trade package to acquire Luis Castillo. To make room on the 40-man roster, outfielder Canaan Smith-Njigba, who had arrived Thursday in Arizona, was designated for assignment. If he clears waivers, the Mariners can outright him to their minor-league system and bring him back to camp.

Those sorts of moves that add depth or affect the fringes of the 40-man roster are common for any team.

But there is some belief that the Mariners could be in position to add another player to their 26-man roster or lineup via free agency.

Free-agent third baseman Matt Chapman remains unsigned along with outfielder Cody Bellinger and left-handed pitchers Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery.

Of that quartet of proven players available, the Mariners have discussed the possibility of adding Chapman to fill the starting third-base spot previously held by Eugenio Suarez. The Mariners’ current plan is to use a platoon of utility infielders Luis Urias and Josh Rojas at the position. Neither is considered to be optimal options from a defensive standpoint, while their combined offensive contribution is uncertain.

The Mariners tried to acquire Chapman when the A’s were culling their roster before the 2022 season to serve as a replacement for the retired Kyle Seager. Their trade offers were rebuffed. Chapman was dealt to the Blue Jays, where he was still an elite defensive third baseman but had middling success at the plate. He posted a .240/.330/.424 slash line last season with 39 doubles, two triples, 17 homers, 54 RBIs, 62, walks and 165 strikeouts. It was similar production to Suarez. But the Mariners would love to have either at third base instead of using the platoon.

The question is cost.

Chapman, like the other three aforementioned free agents, is repped by Scott Boras. It seems unlikely he would allow his client to lower his contract asks to fit the Mariners’ “Five Below” budget. But with each passing day of being unsigned and not in a camp preparing, salary demands become salary asks and dollar figures drop.

While it feels like such a logical fit for both parties, the Mariners might need approval for a slight increase to their budget from ownership to make it work and Boras would have to relent on his contract expectations.

Are there any position battles in camp?

It probably depends on what a person considers a “position battle.”

Looking at a projected roster, and if everyone remains healthy or close to it and there aren’t any additions, there might be some competition for one or two middle relief spots in the eight-man bullpen and perhaps the last bench spot for position players.

After trading right-hander Justin Topa in a package of players to get second baseman Jorge Polanco, the Mariners acquired right-hander Gregory Santos to fill Topa’s spot in the late-inning leverage quartet that features Andres Munoz, Matt Brash and Gabe Speier.

Santos is dealing with a strained muscle in the back of his shoulder and has yet to throw this spring, but the Mariners believe he will be ready for opening day.

They have a passel of hard-throwing relievers on the 40-man roster and several with MLB experience signed to minor-league deals in camp to fill the openings. Could another Topa or Speier or Paul Sewald emerge from that group?

With Mitch Garver serving as a full-time designated hitter and the Mariners carrying Seby Zavala as the backup catcher and two players for third base, the Mariners have a reduced bench. Dylan Moore is under MLB contract and would have a utility spot locked up. That leaves one bench spot. Sam Haggerty has the speed, positional versatility and switch-hitting component that’s valued by Servais. But he also has minor-league options. Dominic Canzone has true power potential and can play both corner outfield spots and help at DH. He also has minor-league options and minimal MLB experience.

Taylor Trammell is also in the competition. The one-time touted prospect suffered a broken hamate bone leading up to spring training last year and battled hamstring injuries with Triple-A Tacoma. His sporadic time at the MLB level has been inconsistent with brief flashes of his potential at the plate followed by struggles to make quality contact. But he is out of minor-league options and would have to be designated for assignment if he doesn’t make the 26-man roster.

Is this team better?

The makeup of the position-player side of the roster is different. The Mariners brought in established MLB players in Garver, Polanco and Mitch Haniger to lengthen the lineup to join the productive trio of Julio Rodriguez, J.P. Crawford and Cal Raleigh. Of the projected lineup, only outfielder Luke Raley does not have more than 200 games played at the MLB level.

“I think it’s a good mix,” Servais said. “I love the way our lineup is on paper right now, and we’ll see how it plays out here this spring.”

But is it better?

“I hope it’s more consistent, that’s the biggest thing,” Servais said. “Overall last year, our offense was fine. It was above league average in a number of areas. Ultimately it’s about scoring runs and we were OK there, but it’s the consistency of it. It came in real hot streaks and a lot of real cold streaks. Hopefully we’re more consistent and take advantage of the awesome pitching that we have.”

The Mariners pitching is the obvious strength and identity of the team. The starting rotation rates among the best in MLB and the bullpen has been a lockdown the past few seasons.

The statistical projection systems think the Mariners could be slightly above .500.

Dan Szymborski’s ZIPS projections for FanGraphs project the Mariners to win 88 games in 2024. In 2023, his projections had the Mariners winning 85 games with the potential to win 90 games. That team won 88 games, getting eliminated after Game No. 161.

The 2024 ZIPS projections again project the Mariners to win between 85-90 games this season behind the Astros at 90 wins. The projections have Texas projected to win 80 games.

The PECOTA projections from Baseball Prospectus also have the Mariners winning 85 games, but finishing third behind Houston’s 95 wins and Texas’ 86 wins. PECOTA had the Mariners winning 83 games last season.

“I don’t have to look at them, because I’m told them,” Servais said. “It’s something that people love to talk about.”

Will this team return to the playoffs?

It’s the primary goal to reach the ultimate goal of a championship.

Perhaps more than most teams, the question of health could be the determinant. Garver, Polanco and Haniger have battled various injuries over the last few years of their career, limiting their time on the field. When they play, they are productive. A combined 1,500 plate appearances from the trio would be an ideal starting point.

The Mariners overcame the loss of two veteran starting pitchers last season with the emergence of Bryce Miller and Bryan Woo. The Mariners won’t be able do that this season. They don’t have that depth.

“Guys understand where we’re at as a team, what the expectations are,” Servais said. “They welcome it, bring it on. But we’ve got to get better. We got to win a few more games.”