What will the Mariners look like in 2022?

Following up on the post from earlier this week on the potential state of affairs for baseball's 2022 season, we shift from the Majors as a whole to Your Seattle Mariners in particular. Or, we will after a brief check-in with MLB.com reporter Jon Heyman:

Now, this can be either taken at face value—as an alarmist suggestion that coming to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement will be nearly impossible before next season is due to open and thus we will have a work stoppage for the first time since the strike of 1994-95—or we can look a little deeper. "Management source" could be anybody, and who among potential management sources has been around in that position since ’95? Yes, in 2020 there was a lot of bad blood being generated for absolutely no good reason by Commissioner Rob Manfred and company when trying to navigate the pandemic season, but that's as bad as things have been in terms of labor relations for a good long while now. So "as bas as I've ever seen it" isn't likely to be that low a bar. And "2½ months of pain" could refer to the time between right now and the opening of spring training, or it could be speculation that things are so difficult that agreement may not be reached until 2½ months into the preseason/season. Personally, I agree with Craig Calcaterra, who speculates that "this is a management source trying to condition people like Jon Heyman and his followers that things are bad so that if and when the owners lock the players out they will have laid the groundwork to do so without too much scrutiny by casting the players as unreasonable." That would be a very ownership thing to do, straight out of both the Rob Manfred and Bud Selig playbooks.

OK, let's talk Mariners.

When the "great step-back"—or whatever label General Manager Jerry Dipoto prefers to use for the rebuild effort—kicked off after the 2018 campaign, it was thought that if all went according to plan that a contention window for the M's would open beginning in 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic had something to say about that, and with the 2020 season truncated severely for big-leaguers and canceled entirely for minor-leaguers, the expectation was revised back to 2022. The M's kind of split the difference between the two timelines and turned in a 2021 season that was surprisingly successful: 90 wins and still alive for a Wild Card berth on the final day of the schedule, but still shy of the goal of being a strong team on the field in all respects.

So as we enter 2022, does the club appear to be ready to achieve greatness? Or has this all been yet another tease in the Mariner tradition since the early 2000s?

There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The foundation of the club is solid, organizational depth is better than fair, and payroll resources are as flexible as they've been in a long, long time. On the other hand, there are still areas of concern. The starting rotation took a mammoth hit with injuries in 2021, costing important players development time and creating doubt about key acquisitions Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn being ready for prime time; the starting infield is all in question except for shortstop J.P. Crawford; and though the club has a surplus of highly-touted outfield prospects, none has yet shown himself to be ready for an everyday role in the Majors. Things really could go either way.

Gone from the 2021 Mariners
 Player Pos
Kyle Seager 3B
Yusei Kikuchi LHP
Tyler Anderson LHP
Shed Long Jr. IF/OF
José Marmolejos 1B
Jake Bauers OF/1B
Joe Smith RHP
Sean Doolittle LHP
Ljay Newsome LHP
Keynan Middleton RHP
Jimmy Yacobanis RHP
James Paxton LHP

Since the close of last season, there have been a couple of key departures from the roster in third baseman Kyle Seager and pitcher Yusei Kikuchi, both of whom are now free agents. 2020 Gold Glove first baseman Evan White spent the majority of 2021 on the injured list, missing his opportunity to prove his lackluster offense in ’20 was just the result of being promoted too fast and is no longer assured of a job with the big club. Late-season rental pitcher Tyler Anderson expressed interest in returning next year, but for the moment he also is a free agent, as are a number of others further down the list of 2021 M's. As yet, no additions have been made, but Dipoto has indicated he will be making a push for a free agent or three.

There is also depth to trade from, should Dipoto want to go that route (and he does love that route). Despite a declaration that none of the club's top prospects will be considered in any trade talks, there is wiggle room in who exactly counts as a top prospect.

Breaking things down by position, here's where the M's currently stand and where they'll likely be looking to fill holes:

  • Catcher: Dipoto has said he plans to go into 2022 with the same catching corps from 2021, with Tom Murphy, Cal Raleigh, and Luis Torrens all sharing the load behind the plate. That figures to be a soft commitment, especially since Torrens wasn't used as a catcher at all after July 9th. Murphy had a relatively poor season in ’21, showing some on-base aptitude against left-handed pitchers and moderate power at home, but posting overall numbers that excite nobody (.202/.304/.350); he figures, frankly, to be expendable and a prime candidate for inclusion in a trade package. Raleigh was outstanding at Triple-A but overmatched at the big-league level; if he produces in the spring, he'll likely be handed the first-string catcher gig, but if he doesn't the M's will have to choose between living with Murphy's weak stick if he's still around or putting Torrens in that role (not a bad plan) or picking up someone new. If Torrens is not the regular catcher, he brings value as a platoon DH and backup corner infielder, though if he isn't catching he too might be considered tradeable.
  • First Base: Dipoto has indicated that Ty France, who basically took the position over when White got hurt last May, will be the regular first-sacker next year, but I would also consider that a soft promise. France will definitely have an everyday role, but it may well turn out that his role is across the diamond depending on what other moves are made and what White's health is like. If not for his contract, White might be ticketed for Tacoma to prove he can handle the pitching above Double-A. (Even with the contract, his injury may give the club some cover for having him start ’22 in Triple-A.)
  • Second Base: This one's a pickle. Former heir apparent Shed Long is no longer with the club, cut earlier this month, and Abraham Toro, who played the bulk of the games at the keystone after his July acquisition, tailed off in a big way after his hot start with the M's. Toro was capable as a second baseman, but spent the bulk of his pro career until last July as a third baseman and may be given a shot there instead. Dylan Moore, who had a productive mini-season in 2020, reverted to form in ’21 and displayed a lack of ability to play every day; his value is more as a super-sub defender and pinch-runner off the bench. Like first base, who occupies 2B will depend on outside additions to the team; plenty of middle-infield free agents are on the market, including Marcus Semien (who just won a Gold Glove at the position for the Blue Jays) and former Mariner Chris Taylor.
  • Third Base: With Seager gone, this could go one of three ways: If White plays first or another first baseman is brought in from elsewhere, France gets this gig. If France plays first, Toro will get a shot and can win the gig with a strong spring. Or, a free agent or trade acquisition will fit better here. One name that's already been bandied about is former NL MVP Kris Bryant, late of the Cubs and Giants.
  • Shortstop: J.P. Crawford. 'Nuff said.
  • Outfield: Mitch Haniger is a lock, after that nothing is certain. 2020 Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis figures to be back from his latest leg injury, but his fragility might make him more of a DH candidate than a center field one. Jarred Kelenic failed to live up to his billing as the second coming last season, but he did improve as the year wore on and figures to be given a long leash. Jake Fraley still hasn't played enough to show what he can do offensively, but when healthy last season he produced enough to be a solid platoon bat and he's without question the best defensive outfielder the M's have. Taylor Trammell was massively overmatched in Seattle last season but did better in Triple-A. Julio Rodríguez is thought to be a superstar in the making, but despite tearing up Class-A and Double-A in 2021, if the M's are smart they'll give him more development time in the high minors. It would not be a surprise to see Dipoto pick up a new outfielder, either by trade or free-agent signing, at least as a short-term bridge for a year or two until Kelenic and Rodríguez have proven their worth. Alternatively, a longer-term offer for someone like Japanese superstar Seiya Suzuki might lead to a move to (or timeshare with) DH for Haniger.
  • Starting rotation: Right now, the sure bets are Marco Gonzales and Chris Flexen, with 2021 rookie Logan Gilbert a near-sure bet. After that it's murky. Sheffield and Dunn are still possibilities despite their injuries and struggles in ’20 and ’21. Youngsters Emerson Hancock and George Kirby should be ticketed to Double- or Triple-A, at least to start the year. But new blood seems more sure to fit here than anywhere else. As last year showed, you can never have too much depth when it comes to starting pitching and right now the M's have very little. Plenty of big-name free agents are out there, though it would be shocking for the Mariners to go after someone like Max Scherzer or Clayton Kershaw. Someone less high-profile, like Kevin Gausman or Marcus Stroman or, going a little further down the chart, Jon Gray or Alex Wood could be a target, though.
  • Bullpen: This was expected to be an Achilles' heel for the M's last year and it turned out to be a huge strength. Relief pitching is the toughest area to predict performance from, guys have career years and then flame out or vice-versa all the time. The stars of the 2021 ’pen—Drew Steckenrider, Paul Sewald, et. al—might continue to be stellar or they could fall flat. There's basically no one in the group with a long track record of success, so really nothing to bank on. There is, however Ken Giles—the former Toronto and Houston closer was signed last year in mid-recovery from Tommy John surgery with an eye on 2022; as with anyone coming off major surgery, you never know, but Giles seems like the most dependable guy in the mix at this point. You can bet on some further turnover here, but probably of the sort we've gotten used to over the last few seasons—waiver claims, minor trades, minor-league free agents. There are a few established late-inning guys on the free-agent market (e.g. Corey Knebel, Brad Boxberger, our old buddies Kendall Graveman and Alex Colomé), and one of them would certainly be welcome, but this is not an area it would be wise to overspend on.

A couple of solid free-agent signs and maybe a couple of mid-range trades would make all the difference for the 2022 M's. Going hard for Seiya Suzuki would be bold and welcome. Marcus Semien and/or Kris Bryant would be terrific. Chris Taylor would be a welcome add. Trade rumors are already swirling, linking the Mariners to, among others, Pittsburgh center fielder Bryan Reynolds; Cincinnati pitcher Luis Castillo (coming off a down year, the sort of player known to be a Dipoto specialty); Tampa Bay outfielder Kevin Kiermeier; and Arizona IF/OF Ketel Marte, which would be a fun reunion but possibly too expensive a proposition. Who would the Mariners deal away? Well, minor-league prospects for the most part (notably shortstop prospect Noevli Marte), but as mentioned before Murphy seems expendable. Jake Fraley, sadly, may also find himself in play. Steckenrider seems like a prime sell-high candidate for a deal, as does fellow reliever Yohan Ramírez. Torrens could be attractive to other teams. Dipoto might decide to cut bait on Sheffield. Depending on how the infield situation starts to come together, even Toro could find himself in a deal.

Fire up the stove. Assuming the CBA negotiations don't overshadow everything, this should be a fun offseason.

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