The Mariners Shouldn’t Ignore The Shortstop Free Agent Market This Year

This past offseason featured a super class of free agent shortstops: Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, Javier Baez, Trevor Story and Marcus Semien. However, very early in the offseason, just one week after the World Series ended, Mariners president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto made it publicly known they were unlikely be big players in this arena. Incumbent shortstop J.P. Crawford had been told he was going to stay at that position for the club, regardless of what the rumors said.  While that theoretically left the door open for one of those shortstops to be signed to play another position such as second base, that didn’t come to pass.

In order to address their middle infield, they made a much more modest move. In late November, just prior to the lockout, the Mariners acquired Adam Frazier from the Padres. Frazier wasn’t as exciting of a pickup as one of those free agents would have been, but he was a sensible addition nonetheless. His left-handed bat meant that he and switch-hitting Abraham Toro could have formed a second base platoon. Frazier also can play the outfield, which he could have done in the event Toro established himself as an everyday option at the keystone. The M’s saved their big free agent splash for the rotation, signing Robbie Ray to a five-year, $115MM deal.

Now two-thirds of the way through the season, it’s fair to wonder if this approach has paid off. Frazier has largely had a disappointing season, failing to build on his strong 2021. He hit .305/.368/.411 last year for a wRC+ of 114, indicating his overall offensive production was 14% above league average. This year, however, he’s slumped to a line of .246/.309/.315, wRC+ of 85. Toro’s been even worse, with a batting line of .180/.239/.322 on the year for a wRC+ of 61. On the year overall, Seattle second basemen have produced 0.7 fWAR, a mark that ranks 22nd among major league teams.

As for the shortstop position, Crawford has gotten the vast majority of the time there, with Dylan Moore getting a handful of starts throughout the season. Crawford got out to a blistering start, hitting .360/.449/.573 through the end of April with three home runs. He hasn’t been able to maintain that, however, hitting .231/.301/.304, adding just two more homers in that span. That leaves his overall batting line at .257/.333/.358, good enough for a 105 wRC+ that’s still above average, though it’s been sliding for over three months straight at this point.

There are also questions about his defense here in 2022, with the advanced metrics in disagreement on his 2022 work. Defensive Runs Saved has him at plus-three so far this year, a dip from last year’s eight, though he could potentially close some of the gap in the season’s final few months. Ultimate Zone Rating has him at 1.3, an improvement over last year’s 0.8 but behind the pace of the 2.5 he earned in the shortened 2020 season. Outs Above Average is the most bearish, giving Crawford -7 so far this year, after giving him zero last year and six in 2020. Combined, Mariner shortstops have produced 1.6 fWAR on the season, a mark that’s 17th in the majors.

Subpar production from both middle infield positions surely isn’t ideal, but it hasn’t decimated the team’s chances. The Mariners are 59-51, currently holding the final American League Wild Card spot, but with the Orioles and Guardians just a couple games back and both Sox clubs just behind them. The M’s are looking to make the playoffs for the first time since 2001 and break the longest active postseason drought in the league, though we may not know whether they succeed or not until the final days of the season.

Whether they break that drought or not, Seattle might want to think about being more involved in the shortstop market this winter. The Mariners committed to Crawford on a $46.15MM extension just before opening day, so he’s certainly going to keep a regular role. There’s a case to be made for exploring the shortstop market and considering moving Crawford across the bag, however. There’s another strong shortstop class this winter, with Correa likely to opt-out of his contract with the Twins and re-enter the open market. Xander Bogaerts is widely expected to opt-out as well. Then there’s also Trea Turner and Dansby Swanson, who are each in their final season of club control. Frazier is also heading into free agency, which will subtract from a middle infield mix that is already weak.

None of those players will be cheap, but Seattle should give some thought to paying out. For one thing, if they miss out on those four, the fifth-best option is probably Jose Iglesias, who’s having a fine season but is undoubtedly on a lower tier than those other guys. For another thing, the Mariners have the payroll space to pull this off. The club ran an Opening Day payroll of $104MM this year, according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts. That’s a far cry from the club’s highest spending, as they were in the $140-160MM range from 2016-2019. Next year’s payroll is only at about $67MM, in the estimation of Roster Resource. That doesn’t include salaries for arbitration-eligible players, but that won’t add a tremendous amount. Luis Castillo is likely the only player of the bunch to get a significant salary next year, probably getting into eight figures after making $7.35MM this year.

They also shouldn’t have too many other holes to address. All six of their rotation candidates can be controlled again in 2023, with Ray and Marco Gonzales under contract, Castillo having one more arb year, and George Kirby and Logan Gilbert still pre-arb. The Mariners have a $4MM club option for Chris Flexen’s 2023 services, though that will vest to $8MM and become guaranteed if he throws 300 innings combined between last year and this year. He’s currently at 296 2/3, making him a virtual lock to stick with Seattle next year, barring injury.

Elsewhere on the roster, Ty France and Eugenio Suarez should still have the corners covered. Catchers Cal Raleigh and Luis Torrens are both still around next year, with Tom Murphy potentially returning to health and coming back as well. Despite possibly losing Mitch Haniger to free agency, the outfield will still have a deep mix that includes Julio Rodriguez, Jesse Winker, Jarred Kelenic, Kyle Lewis, Sam Haggerty, Derek Hill and Taylor Trammell. Dylan Moore can be retained via arbitration for more utility duty. The relief corps can all be retained via arbitration except for Ken Giles, who’s barely pitched this year but can be brought back via a $9.5MM club option if the team wants.

Taking all that into consideration, the middle infield seems like the clearest way to upgrade the team for 2023. Two of this year’s super class of shortstops (Story and Semien) ended up signing to be second baseman, which is one way the M’s could go, though that requires buy-in from the player. It’s unclear if any of Bogaerts, Turner, Swanson or Correa would be interested in such an arrangement. It might be wise for them to soften their stance on Crawford’s permanence at the shortstop position, since they have the money and the roster to go after a marquee shortstop this winter.

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