The ending of the 2021 World Series heralds in the offseason, where players at the end of their contracts enter free agency, which means they are free to receive contract offers from all teams. If a team can’t work out a contract extension before free agency arrives, they can send their departing team members a qualifying offer that equals the average salary of the 125 highest-paid players in the MLB and extends their tenure with the club another year. At just over 18 million dollars, players who receive the qualifying offer have 10 days to make a decision that they can use to gauge the market for their abilities. If the players believe they are worth more than that, or if they would rather sign a multi-year contract (or both), they can decline the offer and enter the market.
The free-agent class of 2021 is unbelievably strong. The lead Cy Young Award candidates for each league are currently up for grabs, with Max Scherzer and Robbie Ray likely to demand hefty contracts. There is speculation that Scherzer could become the first-ever MLB player to bring in 50 million dollars per year with his next contract. Multiple Silver Slugger Award prospects are entering free agency as well. Second baseman Marcus Semien and shortstop Carlos Correa are two examples on the table. Correa in particular could haul in a contract worth upwards of $300 million.
The elite free agency talent is commanded by shortstops and pitchers. The shortstop pool is led by Correa as well as others like Corey Seager, Trevor Story, and Javier Báez. Scherzer and Ray are the only two among probably a dozen high-end starters hitting the market. This group is highlighted by players like Kevin Gausman, Clayton Kershaw (his first stint as a free agent in his career), and Marcus Stroman (although I doubt Stroman will want to leave New York). The rest of the infield also has notable names in the mix. Freddie Freeman was the National League MVP in 2020. Chris Taylor will likely demand decent money as likely the best utility player in baseball. Raisel Iglesias headlines the reliever free agency market as he will likely be one of the most coveted players available as a lockdown closer. The outfield is the only place the market is relatively lacking, but the international market had our backs and is spicing it up. Seiya Suzuki, the 27-year-old superstar outfielder in Japan, is going to be available for MLB teams to make their offers. Suzuki has proven himself good enough to enter the upper echelon of Japanese superstars in America, joining players like the clear 2021 MVP in Shohei Ohtani as well as the Seattle Mariners’ own Ichiro.
Unfortunately, it feels like a reach to expect the Mariners to actively pursue Suzuki with the outfield setup they hope to use in 2022 and beyond. Kyle Lewis, Jarred Kelenic, Julio Rodriguez, and Mitch Haniger are all outfielders that the Mariners will expect to be a major part of their future. Seattle will likely want to look towards filling gaps in the infield and adding another arm or two to their rotation to help solidify their position as potential contenders moving forward. The 2021 free agency market is ideal for what the Mariners will want to pursue, and General Manager Jerry Dipoto has expressed interest in acquiring big names in free agency.
To start with the infield, the Mariners are in a bit of a dilemma. They already have a shortstop that, while not as good as Seager or Correa, is a star in his own right and deserves to stay on the starting roster. The Mariners would need to look more for a second or third baseman instead, where the market is technically weaker. The obvious answer points towards Semien or Taylor, but Semien will likely have offers from nearly every contending team in baseball and Taylor might have some bad blood with Seattle from when he was traded away in 2016. However, shortstops have proven versatile in the past so acquiring one and then using two “shortstops” in the infield is a viable strategy. The Los Angeles Dodgers used Seager alongside Trea Turner while the New York Mets played both Javier Báez and Francisco Lindor. Seager is probably out of the question considering his brother Kyle Seager’s bitter departure from the team, and I wouldn’t necessarily bet on Correa either. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Mariners aggressively pursued someone like Kris Bryant or Story instead, slightly lower on the list but still remarkable players who want to win.
It’s easy for fans of every contending team to believe they need more pitchers. It’s not an incorrect approach, because pitching is fickle and there’s a lot of it on a given team. But the Mariners in particular will need a pitcher or two to make their rotation truly fearsome. Their starting five at the end of the 2021 season were Marco Gonzales, Yusei Kikuchi, Logan Gilbert, Tyler Anderson, and Chris Flexen. Gilbert is a young star in the making and is guaranteed a stay. Gonzales and Flexen each have more years on their contracts and thoroughly proved themselves as capable. Anderson and Kikuchi are both entering free agency after the Mariners declined Kikuchi’s option for $16 million each year for the next four years. This opens up two rotation spots, and while I would like to see Anderson return, I expect the Mariners to go big on some elite pitchers in the market. Ignoring Scherzer, Gausman, and Ray as players that will be aggressively poached by everybody, lots of names lie in that second tier of pitching that could still really bolster the Seattle team. I’ve had my eyes on Carlos Rodón for a couple of months now and would love to see him in a Mariner uniform as a young left-hander. My other pick for the Mariners to sign is Anthony DeSclafani, whose success on the Giants was overshadowed by everyone else’s success on the Giants. DeSclafani posted a 2.37 earned run average against non-Dodger teams in 2021 and will command a multi-year contract likely in the realm of 15 or so million dollars per year, generating infinitely more value than Kikuchi for the same amount of money.
A number of smaller moves are also likely. The Mariners could use a light upgrade at catcher for limited money, like Roberto Pérez or Andrew Knapp. A number of bullpen arms will probably come and go, but that’s just baseball. Someone like Marwin González could be a good veteran utility player to come in off the bench. Nobody ever really pays attention to moves like these, but they could still have just as much impact on a major league roster as the biggest of signings. It has never been more exciting to watch free agency as a Mariner fan, and as the deals start unfolding over the coming months, anything short of nine digits in total contracts should be considered a failure.