The World Series is over, free agency is open, and the hot stove is bubbling. After opening day, it may be the best time to be a baseball fan. Every team is undefeated, and everyone can dream of how their team can improve. Despite making the playoffs for the first time in two decades, make no mistake-there is plenty of room for improvement for the Seattle Mariners this offseason.
Good news for the team abounds: They have few long-term contract commitments, they have the reigning American League rookie of the year, and the front end of their pitching rotation appears to be set for years to come in the form of Luis Castillo, Logan Gilbert, and George Kirby.
The Mariners being the Mariners, though, there are some holes to fill and cautionary tales. The biggest one is that almost every offseason acquisition from the 2021-22 offseason that was not a relief pitcher was a complete disaster. Outfielder Jesse Winker, acquired to provide all-star caliber offense and something resembling acceptable defense in leftfield, did neither. Adam Frazier likewise never took off at the plate at second base, Robbie Ray, the 2021 Cy Young winner, signed to a $160+ million deal only to be the team’s fourth starter by the end of the season.
In the good news category, the team found its catcher of the future in Cal Raleigh, and the player included in the deal for Winker as a throw-in, Eugenio Suarez, put up near all-star caliber numbers at third base.
With those pieces in place, the Mariners figure to have the following needs this offseason, in order of priority: middle infield, corner outfielders, designated hitter/first base. They already started filling in the outfield needs, trading for 2021 all-star Toscar Hernandez from the Toronto Blue Jays. Outside of those, the Mariners are actually fairly set. They probably add numerous relievers to their constantly churning pile of competent middle relief arms, but most will likely fly under the radar. To fill those needs, they have a few paths. While their farm system is severely depleting after skimming off numerous highly ranked players to acquire Castillo, they have some desirable arms. Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen are both experienced veterans, with Gonzales a proven innings eater and Flexen a capable swingman who can be a back-end starter or multi-inning reliever. In the farm system, they have Emerson Hancock, a highly regarded right-hander who pitched at AA this season.
Here are a few options, ranging from unlikely to dreaming where the Mariners could fill their needs.
Carlos Correa, SS, Free Agent: The Mariners need more production from their middle infield. If they keep J.P Crawford, he may have to move to second base, or one of several available shortstops will have to be willing to move there. Correa is the best of the bunch, and checkered past as a member of the 2017 Houston Astros aside, he’s proven he can hit outside of Houston. He slashed .291/.366/.467 with 22 home runs for Minnesota last year and is only 28. Odds: Difficult but not impossible if the Mariners are willing to go big on the financial front for a middle infield keystone.
Next-tier down middle infielders: Trea Turner, Xander Bogarts, Dansby Swanson, Free Agents: All range in age from 29-30, and all are very capable. I have a hard time believing Swanson is 29 because I remember when he was in rookie ball with the Hillsboro Hops, but it’s true. All would fit in nicely with the Mariners and may not take the financial resources that Correa would. Odds: Very possible one of these guys will be in a Mariners jersey next season.
Aaron Judge, OF, Free Agent: Judge put up a historic season, breaking the American League single-season home run record with 62 long balls. He is one of the most fearsome hitters of this generation, a threat to go long every time he steps to the plate, and plays a good outfield. He is also 31, going to command a giant contract, has an injury history, and has a skill set that doesn’t tend to age well. He could defy the odds and become the next Nelson Cruz, but the Mariners don’t tend to play in the pool of big contracts for older position players in the Dipoto regime, and I would expect that trend to continue here. Odds: Extremely unlikely.
Next tier down in corner outfield: Brandon Nemo. Jurickson Profar, Andrew Benintendi, Mitch Haniger, Free Agents: This may be where Dipoto looks to swing a trade because, after Judge, the free agent outfield pickings start to get thin. Did I mention that Jerry Dipoto doesn’t like to spend large sums of money on free agent position players? None of these players fit the mold of someone Dipoto would spend large sums of money on. A reunion with Haniger on a short-term deal could be possible should he not find the type of contract he is looking for in the open market. Odds: Not great unless teams refuse to trade with Dipoto anymore.
Nelson Cruz, DH, Free Agent: The Mariners filled the designated hitter spot with Ty France and Carlos Santana last season. France slumped severely in the second half, and Santana is nearly 40 and a free agent himself. They could run it back again, but a familiar face which continues to perform at a high level is a free agent and wouldn’t need a long-term commitment. He would fill a need and allow the Mariners to spend big money elsewhere. Odds: Keep an eye on this one.
Dream scenario: Los Angeles finally realizes the core of Mike Trout and Shohei Ohtani is not enough to get them past the world-champion Astros, let alone the Seattle Mariners, and rebuilt Texas Rangers. This time the Mariners do not come up short in their pursuit of Ohtani and land the megastar with a mega deal, emptying much of their farm system to do it. It would be the ultimate go-for-it move. One of the game’s biggest stars, one-year from agency, with the Mariners getting a head start on showing him the best place to be. He would fill a hole at designated hitter and potentially give the team the best pitching rotation in all of Major League Baseball. Odds: Very long. It’s difficult to see the Angels throwing in the white flag and dealing Ohtani, especially within the division, but this is one worth dreaming about.
Regardless of the moves, the Mariners make this winter, the kind of pieces they need to add is clear. If they add them, they will not just make the postseason again next season but are set up to do so many times in the years ahead.