SEATTLE – After four days of feeling the warmth of the Southern California sunshine at the Major League Baseball general managers meeting and listening to MLB executives and high-level agents lament the looming lockout Dec. 2 and the transaction freeze that would coincide with it, most people were left with two glaring realizations:
• That if money weren’t an issue, few people would find many reasons to leave the San Diego area, particularly to return to an urban Pacific Northwest rain forest in November.
• No one is quite sure what’s going to happen with free-agent markets and potential trades because of that expected lockout.
It’s a less than an ideal situation for general manager Jerry Dipoto in an off-season in which the organization had big plans to acquire impact talent and build off a 2021 season where the Mariners defied below-average expectations to finish 90-72 and were eliminated from postseason contention on the final day.
While he’s never had this much financial flexibility and freedom to shop in places other than the sale or clearance aisle, the uncertainty of the expiring collective bargaining agreement might not allow for Dipoto to be his typically aggressive self.
So while he said “business as usual” multiple times at the meetings when asked about handling this off-season, the market might not allow for that, particularly the top-tier free agents.
There was belief permeating throughout the GM meetings that the top-level free agents in the market would wait until after a new collective bargaining agreement between the owners and the MLB Players Association is reached, with good fortune by the first of February. A frenzy of free-agent signings would soon follow.
As of now, the only major free-agent signings are left-handed pitchers Andrew Heaney going to the Dodgers on a one-year, $8.5 million deal and lefty Eduardo Rodriguez agreeing to a five-year, $77 million deal with the Tigers on Monday morning.
The position-player market, which is as strong as any class in years, has not had a major signing.
Because they are looking to add impact hitters from the pool of talented free-agent infielders to play either second base, third base or both, the Mariners know they might not be able to get that signing done.
They need at least one of the coveted infielders – Carlos Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Kris Bryant, Trevor Story and Javier Baez – to sign a free-agent deal to set the market and the others will follow.
But could one or two of those top-tier free agents sign before Dec. 1, perhaps jump-starting the market in the next two weeks?
ESPN’s Jeff Passan reported that Seager and Semien are looking to sign before Dec. 1 to avoid the potential chaos after a lockout.
The Mariners like both players but have a high interest in Semien, who fits their needs perfectly. Both players are represented by well-known agent Scott Boras, who also represents the versatile Bryant.
Dipoto had an extended meeting with Boras and his representatives at the GM meetings to discuss the available hitters.
He also had a meeting with Excel Sports Management, the agency that represents Story and Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman. The Mariners believe Story would be a logical fit at second base to play next to shortstop J.P. Crawford. Many scouts believe Story’s recent history of arm issues makes him a better fit at second base to keep him healthy.
Sources said the Mariners hadn’t met with the reps for Correa. Since Dipoto made it clear that Crawford isn’t going to be moved from shortstop and any middle infielder signing would be asked to play second or third base, the belief is that Correa isn’t a fit. While he did say this spring that he’d be willing shift to third base in his future, sources indicate that posturing isn’t necessarily accurate to his real demands.
The 27-year-old former No. 1 overall pick wants to remain at shortstop and wants a contract beyond seven years. Some industry sources believe he wants something close to the 10-year, $341 million contract extension that his good friend Francisco Lindor signed with the Mets.
While few experts believe Correa will get quite that much, there is some thought he’s searching for at least an eight- to nine-year deal with an average of $30 million per season and an opt-out clause.
That sort of commitment in length doesn’t necessarily work for Dipoto and the Mariners. After having his owner force him into a 10-year, $240 million contract with Albert Pujols when he was GM of the Angels and inheriting Robinson Cano’s 10-year, $240 million contract when he came to Seattle, he’s also been publicly against opt-out clauses under most circumstances.
Dipoto and the Mariners would be more than willing to pay a higher yearly salary and avoid a longer commitment.
It’s difficult to see them giving a free agent a deal of more than seven guaranteed years, particularly when most free agents are around age 29 or 30.
For a player like Semien, who just turned 31, a five-year contract with an option year would be pushing the length component. Yet that might be what Seattle needs to do to secure his services. The thinking is that the Mariners might have to offer him a five-year, $140-$150 million contract to keep him from going to San Francisco or New York on a four-year deal.
In 2015, Nelson Cruz had multiple three-year contract offers available to choose from, but Seattle came in with a four-year, $58 million contract and landed the slugging designated hitter.
It’s uncertain how the lockout might affect trade talks between teams. Dipoto made it clear they would be interested in acquiring any of the Oakland players who are going to be available. Sources indicate the Mariners would love to acquire third baseman Matt Chapman and one of their trio of pitchers – lefty Sean Manaea and right-handers Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt.
There is still the dream of acquiring Pirates center fielder Bryan Reynolds, who at age 26 and with three years of arbitration eligibility remaining fits their rebuild perfectly. But past inquiries were met with a starting ask of mega-prospect Julio Rodriguez, which was a nonstarter.
But are those talks dead until a CBA is finalized?
In the Mariners’ most important and most anticipated off-season in recent memory, it could be a long cold winter and not of their doing.