This winter, it might take a little more than money
It’s been three years since the Mariners decided to blow up the core that had kept them in contention through 2016, 2017, and 2018. After a horrific collapse in the midst of a 2018 season that had looked so promising, the Mariners got rid of almost everyone they could.
Robinson Canó, whose contract had been seen as an untradeable albatross, was somehow traded along with star closer Edwin Díaz for one of the best prospects in baseball: Jarred Kelenic. Veteran shortstop Jean Segura, who had been at the center of the collapse, found himself traded for youngster J.P. Crawford. Mike Zunino was turned into Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley (ew). James Paxton became Justus Sheffield, Erik Swanson, and Dom Thompson-Williams (also ew).
The Mariners, Jerry Dipoto reasoned, were more than one piece away. And with their 2018 core rapidly aging, it didn’t make sense to buy another couple of free agents. Even if they had, they were always going to be looking up at the best teams in the American League. Knowing that his fanbase had already endured a nearly two-decade-long playoff draught, he tried to paint a rosy picture of the future that has turned out to be shocking prescient, whether or not you think he deserves credit for how it happened:
I think by the time you open your eyes in the second half of this season, or by the time your upon up your eyes midseason 2020, we are going to have such a fun, young team to watch.
That projection, of course, ended up being about a year behind schedule. Blame Dipoto for overpromising and underdelivering, or blame the COVID-19 pandemic that cut the 2020 season in half. Either way, the Mariners experienced a shocking season of contention in 2021. As they enter the offseason, the 2021 team’s performance has created high expectations for a front office that has the intention to spend and the self-manufactured flexibility to do it.
As much as I hate to be a wet blanket (alright, who am I kidding, I relish the opportunity to be a wet blanket), it must be pointed out that the 2021 Mariners overachieved to an almost comical degree. I’m not talking about run differential. Though they did significantly outperform their run differential, our own Jake Mailhot took a midseason look at why run differential may not be as predictive of success as most people think. When you look at the team’s performance based on fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement), their true level becomes apparent: the Mariners finished 26th in the league in hitting, 17th in pitching, and 23rd in fielding.
All of this is to say: the Mariners have a lot of work to do over the next few months. How much work? Here’s what they’re currently working with.
Now, I’ve altered this slightly. Even after having altered it, there are some things I take issue with. First of all, Fangraphs projects Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis to combine for about 1000 plate appearances. I’ve decided to just… remove both of them. Anything Kyle Lewis contributes will be gravy, and if Jake Fraley gets significant playing time, the Mariners have already failed.
Secondly, Abraham Toro and the catchers being projected for almost 3.0 fWAR each seems optimistic, though that optimism may be offset by conservative projections for both Jarred Kelenic and Mitch Haniger, as well as the bullpen being projected for just 2.7 fWAR (it was worth 7.0 fWAR last season).
When it’s all said and done, 24.8 fWAR seems a bit low. I like the bullpen for a bit more, and Kelenic and Marco could both easily double their projections. Still, it’s a decent enough starting point. So how much fWAR do they actually need?
Last season, the Red Sox and Yankees (the two AL Wild Card teams) accumulated 42.4 fWAR and 40.5 fWAR respectively. That total makes some amount of sense: if a team consisting of only replacement level players would be expected to win 48 games, then you’d need about 42 WAR to hit 90 wins, which is usually good enough for the playoffs (sorry, 2021 Mariners).
So, it looks like the Mariners need to somehow add about 17.6 fWAR this offseason. I should note that this doesn’t all have to come via free agency, or even via trades. Fangraphs officially projects the Mariners to be worth 30 fWAR this season, taking into account all of the inning-eating starters, random bench players, and the guys I removed from the above table. However, if those guys aren’t playing, they won’t accumulate fWAR, which is why I’ve removed them.
All of this preamble brings us to the central question that I’m hoping to answer.
How feasible is it for the Mariners to add all these wins in free agency?
You’ll notice there are four main openings in my table above. 3B/2B (wherever Abraham Toro doesn’t play, OF, and two SP spots. I’m going to first approach this extremely simplistically. How many wins could the Mariners add if they just all-out in the free agent market?
Per Fangraphs, the best available guys at each of those positions are as follows:
- Carlos Correa, 3B, 5.1 fWAR (yes, I’m assuming he’d be okay with playing third base)
- Max Scherzer, SP, 4.2 fWAR
- Robbie Ray, SP, 3.6 fWAR
- Starling Marte, OF, 3.1 fWAR
If the Mariners were to sign all of those guys, they’d find themselves up by about 16 fWAR. Now, this obviously isn’t realistic for a couple of reasons. First of all, both Correa and Ray are restricted free agents: signing them would require giving up a compensatory draft pick next season. The Mariners seem likely to sign one RFA this offseason. To sign two might be pushing it. Secondly, if you’re to believe Fangraphs writer Ben Clemens’ salary projections, signing those four guys would add about $100 million to the Mariners’ payrool on an AAV basis, to say nothing of the long-term commitment each would demand (with the possible exception of Scherzer).
If you’re to believe a recent article by beat writer Ryan Divish, the Mariners have approximately $50 million in commitments in 2022, and may be set to increase the payroll to $130-$140 million. That would give the Mariners about $80-$90 million to play with.
All of this brings us to the question: if the Mariners spend their money as efficiently as possible and only sign one RFA, how many fWAR can they reasonably expect to add?
In an attempt to explore this, I’ve begun a foray into the world of coding. I’ve never been much of a coder: my past attempts have ended in teeth-gnashing frustration as I attempt to figure out what a “compiling error” is and whether it’s worth it to throw my computer monitor in the dumpster. Still, it was clear that a bit of programming would be required to answer this question, so I made a full carafe of coffee, opened up YouTube, and downloaded a bunch of “coding shells” that I prayed wouldn’t fry my computer like a potato latke.
About three mind-numbing hours later, I ended up with about 80 lines of code which, when run, spit out the most optimal set of free agents when fed positional constraints and a salary cap. Here’s what it gives me with a few restrictions.
Salary cap: $90 million AAV
Maximum RFAs: 1
Positions: 2 SP, 1 OF, 1 2B/3B
Now, some potential issues might seem apparent right off the bat. First of all, this entire article has been heavily reliant on Fangraphs projections, in terms of both salary and WAR. Secondly, my program does not take into account length of contract. This set of players actually isn’t too bad: only Correa is projected to get more than a 4-year deal, and he would sure be worth it.
We can now play around with the constraints to find other lineups that might work. Say Correa wouldn’t take less than $35 million to venture all the way up to rainy Seattle, and the Mariners find a way to get Semien instead.
Only half a win worse! Alright, you might say. That’s great and all, but there’s no fucking way Max Scherzer and Kevin Gausman are coming to Seattle. These free agent packages do seem to be heavily propped up by those two aces. What’s the best we can do without them?
OK, say you can’t get Semien or Correa. Are the M’s hosed?
OK, a couple more just for fun. Here’s a hypothesis that I have. Assuming the Mariners don’t want to sign more than one restricted free agent, they should absolutely not sign Michael Conforto, because he’s pretty much the worst restricted free agent available. What if we force the Mariners to sign Michael Conforto? What’s the best they could do, then?
One last one, for fun. Arguably, the most fun Mariner of the past decade is Nelson Cruz, and it just so happens that he’s available. As a DH, he hasn’t been eligible for any of these lineups. Unfortunately, his performance last season was his worst on a per-game basis since 2012, so Fangraphs doesn’t exactly love his odds for 2022, projecting him for just 1.8 fWAR. Given that the Mariners are already projected to cobble together 1.2 fWAR at DH, signing him would improve them by just 0.6 wins.
Honestly, this is actually a lot better than I was expecting, which is a clear sign that the Mariners should sign Nelson Cruz (kidding, sort of).
After looking at all of these permutations, I have a few conclusions to draw.
- The absolute best the Mariners can do through free agency alone would be to add about 15 fWAR, which would vault their projections to approximately what the Yankees and Red Sox were worth last year.
- It seems extremely difficult to envision the Mariners coming close to contention through free agency alone without acquiring two ace-level pitchers.
- Signing Michael Conforto is a fucking terrible idea.
- This exercise is inherently limited by Fangraphs’ predictive power and by this model’s limited foresight. Seiya Suzuki, who the Mariners are expected to try to court, didn’t show up in any of these models. Why? He’s projected to sign for a little more than Mark Canha, but is projected to be worth about the same, so the model always chose Canha over him. At 27 years old, however, Suzuki could well be a better signing than the 32-year-old Canha.
Is it time for the Mariners to spend? Absolutely. Will spending alone be enough? Unless the team’s young core (cough, Jarred Kelenic, cough, Logan Gilbert) takes a big leap forward, these acquisitions probably wouldn’t be enough to project the team for a division title. In any case, none of these free agent packages are realistic: they’re meant to illustrate that Jerry Dipoto will need to be creative this winter if the Mariners are going to finally take the next step.