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Out of Right Field: Looking ahead to the Mariners’ 2019 season

UPDATED: Mon., Oct. 1, 2018, 8:21 p.m.

Since Mitch Haniger has shown he can play center field for the Mariners, how about Bryce Harper in right next season?

To afford Harper and his record-setting free-agent deal, likely in the neighborhood of $400 million, the Mariners would have to jettison the following contracts: pitcher Felix Hernandez ($27.86 million), second baseman Robinson Cano ($24 million) and third baseman Kyle Seager ($19.5 million).

No problem, right?

Actually, big problem. Who’s going to take a former ace who has lost his fastball, not to mention his past eight decisions, an aging middle infielder who had an 80-game drug suspension or a corner infielder who barely hit his weight (.220 vs. 210 pounds)? Nobody.

And don’t expect shortstop Manny Machado, this winter’s other five-star free agent, to walk through the home clubhouse doors at Safeco Field, either.

Now that we’ve taken care of the pipe dreams, let’s look forward to the 2019 Mariners season:

Position players

The first question general manager Jerry Dipoto and manager Scott Servais need to answer: What position will Dee Gordon play next year?

When the Mariners acquired Gordon last offseason, they announced the Gold Glove-winning second baseman would be moving to center field. Gordon was serviceable in center before returning to the infield when Cano was suspended 80 games after testing positive for a masking agent for performance-enhancing drugs.

Cano played some first base and some third when he returned in mid-August, but didn’t look comfortable at either spot.

Gordon was sterling at second, but did have a clubhouse fight with shortstop Jean Segura in early September. Not exactly what you’re looking for from your double-play combo.

With Nelson Cruz facing free agency, the Mariners could decide it’s time to make Cano their full-time designated hitter.

Though 38 and an increasing injury risk, Cruz was an All-Star and had a team-leading 37 home runs and 97 RBIs this season. He’s indicated he’d prefer to stay in Seattle, but at what price?

Despite barely climbing above the Mendoza line (.200), catcher Mike Zunino handled the pitching staff well and has only reached the point where he’s eligible for arbitration.

Ryon Healy and Daniel Vogelbach should battle for the first-base job next spring, unless Cano moves there. All-Star Segura seems set at shortstop and Seager, coming off the worst season of his career, will be at third – largely because he’s under contract for three more years and $57.5 million. And Kristopher Negron showed in his September call-up that he should vie for a utility role.

Right fielder Mitch Haniger had an All-Star season. If Gordon moves to second, the Mariners will have a hole in center. Considering the top free-agent center fielder in terms of wins above replacement (WAR) is former Mariner Leonys Martin, they’ll have to go the trade route. They’ll also need to decide whether to pick up the $12 million option on left fielder Denard Span, or let Guillermo Heredia and Ben Gamel platoon there in 2019.

Pitching staff

The Mariners were the only club in the majors to have five pitchers make at least 25 starts this season and all – Hernandez, James Paxton, Marco Gonzales, Mike Leake and Wade LeBlanc – are under contract for next season.

That shouldn’t preclude Dipoto from looking to make a deal or sign a free-agent starter.

Houston’s Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton are both free agents and the Astros are deep enough that they could let either or both walk.

Arizona left-hander Patrick Corbin has long been on the Mariners’ radar, but he probably priced himself out of their range by going 11-7 with a 3.15 ERA and 246 strikeouts. That puts him near the top of a light free-agent pitching class.

As for the bullpen, the Mariners’ only notable free agent is right-hander David Phelps, who didn’t pitch at all this season.

Closer Edwin Diaz, whose 57 saves ranked tied for second in major-league history, is still a year away from arbitration.

Season in review

The Mariners went 89-73, exceeding everyone’s expectations.

Still, their postseason-less streak reached 17 years, the longest in the four major professional sports. That was due, in part, to the Oakland A’s playing like the 2001 M’s for the second half of the season.

Here’s the scary part: The Mariners were outscored by 34 runs this season, ranking 18th in the majors. That was behind the New York Mets, who finished 77-85, and just ahead of the Minnesota Twins, who were 78-84. The Astros had an MLB-best plus-263 run differential and the A’s were sixth at plus-139. Even the Angels, who finished 80-82, were better than Seattle at a minus-1.

That means the M’s won a lot of close games (thanks to Diaz) and often got lucky.

Summary

The Astros will still be the team to beat in the American League West next season. That means the Mariners will have to find a way to make up the eight games they finished behind the A’s to battle for a wild-card playoff berth.

Could they do that without Cruz’s bat in the middle of the lineup? Seems unlikely.

And putting Cano at first would go against the organizational philosophy of having a strong defense. (Remember when Sweet Lou tried to put Edgar Martinez at first for some interleague games? Cano is that bad.)

Decisions, decisions.

But that’s why Dipoto and Servais got midseason contract extensions, right?


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