This much is certain for the Seattle Mariners’ outfield as the team progresses through the offseason and toward spring training for the much-anticipated 2023 season: Julio Rodriguez is the everyday starting center fielder, and Teoscar Hernandez will be in the lineup on a near daily basis, playing one of the corner-outfield spots.
But which one? That’s yet to be determined.
And the other outfield spot(s) on the roster and in the lineup, well, that’s to be determined. But it could be some combination of Jarred Kelenic, Jesse Winker, Taylor Trammell, Sam Haggerty or a player to be acquired or re-signed in the offseason.
A day after trading former American League Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis to the Arizona Diamondbacks in what was essentially a change-of-scenery/fresh-start trade meant to benefit both parties, Jerry Dipoto, the Mariners’ president of baseball operations, reiterated the organization’s philosophy when it came to the outfield in a video news conference.
They were similar to the comments he made at the recent MLB general manager meetings in Las Vegas, where he was finishing the trade that brought Hernandez from the Blue Jays to the Mariners.
“We’ve talked about it fairly openly that we would like to add someone else to that mix to create more of a flow,” Dipoto said. “It’s some combination of those players. We feel really strongly about the young group, somebody in that JK, Taylor Trammell, and there’s Cade Marlowe; somebody in that group is going to break through, they’re just too talented not to.”
That breakthrough might not necessarily come as an everyday player but as a platoon player or even fourth outfielder.
“We do want to make sure that we provide opportunity, so that our young players continue to start driving. That’s how we built this team, is by giving the young players opportunity, and we’re going to keep doing that.”
Fans would prefer to focus on the potential outfielder Dipoto might acquire instead of the player returning for obvious reasons. Winker’s struggles at the plate and poor defense don’t offer much inspiration. Dipoto said in Las Vegas that he would prefer that Winker sees more of his at-bats in the designated hitter role.
Kelenic and Trammell have shown only glimpses of being consistent players at the MLB level.
The Mariners have continued to have talks with Mitch Haniger, through his agent Adam Karon, in hopes of possibly bringing him back to play right field.
“I’ve been in contact with him throughout, as has Jerry,” general manager Justin Hollander said. “We met with him at the GM meetings. Certainly, the door is still open for Mitch to be back. And we’re still having those conversations.”
But the Mariners will have some competition for Haniger, who has drawn interest from the Rangers, Dodgers, Giants and Angels, per reports.
The outfield-free-agent market is top heavy with megastar Aaron Judge headlining the class. Obviously, Judge would fit well in the Mariners outfield, really any outfield. But the early rumors and conversations have the Giants, Dodgers or Yankees willing to pay heavily — $300 million — for Judge.
In terms of FanGraphs’ Wins Above Replacement, Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo was the next-highest producer at 5.4 WAR for the Mets. Though he can play all three outfield positions at an average to above-average level, Nimmo played predominantly center field last season. He also isn’t a traditional power presence. He hit 16 homers this season, which was one short of his career high of 17 set in 2018. He also has a qualifying offer attached, meaning the Mariners would have to give up their third-highest draft pick if they signed him.
Another fit might be Andrew Benintendi, who finished his season with a .304/.373/.399 slash line between the Royals and Yankees. Benintendi only hit five homers last season after hitting 17 for the Royals in 2021. But the Mariners crave bat-to-ball skills, and Benintendi is capable of playing the corner outfield spots. He was a finalist for the AL Gold Glove last season. He’s also a left-handed bat, which the Mariners could use to balance the lineup.
There is a new addition to the free-agent class that comes with National League MVP on his résumé.
As expected, Cody Bellinger was non-tendered by the Dodgers, who opted to let him become a free agent instead of paying more around $18 million in salary arbitration for the 2023 season to their starting center fielder.
Bellinger was the 2019 NL MVP after a season in which he produced a .305/.406/.629 slash line with 47 homers.
After slumping early in 2020, Bellinger seemed to be pulling himself together in the postseason. But he dislocated his right shoulder while celebrating a homer in NLCS. It would require surgery. The 2021 season was even worse. Plagued by lingering effects from the shoulder along with leg and rib-cage injuries, he posted an abysmal .165/.240/.302 slash line with 10 homers and 36 RBI. A bounce-back season in 2022 never materialized. He had a .210/.265/.389 slash line with 27 doubles, three triples, 19 homers, 68 RBI, 38 walks and 150 strikeouts. But was still one of the better defensive center fielders in baseball.
His agent, Scott Boras, said the 27-year-old outfielder is looking for a one-year contract to re-establish his market value instead of a multiyear deal. The upside potential could be huge with Bellinger. The old baseball saying is “there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract.” But does Dipoto want to do that with Hernandez also a free agent after this season? And is Seattle a place where Bellinger can resuscitate his career?
The Mariners could take a chance on local product Michael Conforto, who missed all of last season after shoulder surgery. The former Redmond High School and Oregon State standout is a left-handed hitter with the ability to play the corner spots. He likely wouldn’t command as high of an asking price.
Some baseball insiders believe that if the Mariners don’t sign Haniger to a contract they would instead go the trade route, which Dipoto has often found more productive and open to possibilities. He could move packages of players, including Winker and right-hander Chris Flexen with prospects to acquire an outfielder. Seattle shopped Kelenic extensively at the deadline as well.
His staff has long coveted Pirates All-Star outfielder Bryan Reynolds. Though Reynolds has played mostly center field, multiple scouts believe a move to a corner-outfield position is coming and might help him stay healthier.
The Cubs could move switch-hitting left fielder Ian Happ, who drew interest at the trade deadline, during his All-Star 2022 season.
More trade opportunities could arise as teams sign free agents.
“We’ve had a number of trade conversations with other clubs,” Dipoto said. “I don’t sense that anything is particularly close. We have gotten to the point with a number of teams where we’ve exchanged names that might be interesting to create a match. We haven’t had a direct hit in that regard yet. We’re gonna be patient, there’s really no need to rush. There’s no game tomorrow.”
And yet, Dipoto did acquire Haniger in a five-player trade the night before Thanksgiving.
“We do have more than one target,” he said. “There are a handful of players that fit us that we feel good about especially as it pertains to outfielders. We feel like there’s still a market that is more robust. And if we’re just patient, we’re going to find the player that suits our roster the best.”
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