The Mariners and Twins recently got together on a trade that sent infielder Jorge Polanco to Seattle, with a four-player package heading the other way. Wednesday, Jon Morosi of MLB.com reports that the M’s asked about a larger deal that would have also involved outfielder Max Kepler, though that particular line of discussion wasn’t fruitful.
Though the talks didn’t yield results, it seems to suggest that the Mariners still have some appetite for another move to further change their outfield mix. Since last year, they have lost Teoscar Hernandez and Jarred Kelenic, the former reaching free agency and signing with the Dodgers while the latter was traded to Atlanta. The M’s replaced those two by acquiring old friend Mitch Haniger from the Giants as well as Luke Raley from the Rays. On paper, those two would slot into the regular outfield alongside Julio Rodriguez.
There would be some logic to adding to that group. Due to some injuries and the shortened 2020 season, Haniger has only played more than 63 games in a season on three occasions. The past two years have each seen him finish with around 60 games played, missing time due to a right high ankle sprain, a left oblique strain, a right forearm fracture and a low back strain. He’s generally been able to post good results even when battling injuries but 2023 was a struggle. He hit .209/.266/.365 for a wRC+ of 73, his first season of subpar offensive production since his 2016 debut.
Giving Haniger plenty of time in the designated hitter slot would be a logical plan in a vacuum but likely isn’t feasible for the M’s with the current roster construction. They signed catcher Mitch Garver to a two-year, $24M deal last month, but he figures to DH on an everyday basis or something close to it, with Cal Raleigh behind the plate most days. An injury could always change things but Haniger is currently projected for a regular role in the outfield.
As for Raley, his 2023 was strong overall but ended on a down note. He hit .268/.357/.533 through the end of July while striking out in 29.8% of his plate appearances. From the start of August until the end of the season, his line was just .200/.270/.380 with a 36% strikeout rate. The combined work for the year was still well above average, 130 wRC+, but the overall track record is limited. He’ll turn 30 years old next year and has played one good MLB season, which still came with concerning elements.
The Mariners also have a batch of depth outfielders in the mix, including Taylor Trammell, Cade Marlowe, Dominic Canzone, Zach DeLoach and Jonatan Clase, but their interest in Kepler suggests they would consider another addition under the right circumstances. The free-agent market still has Cody Bellinger, though it’s hard to envision the M’s giving out a mega deal to a player like that since they have had notable budget limitations this offseason. More plausible options would include Michael A. Taylor, Adam Duvall, Tommy Pham or Eddie Rosario. The trade market could feature guys like Alec Burleson, Randy Arozarena or Seth Brown.
Seattle’s president of baseball operations Jerry Dipoto has suggested that the 2024 club will have a higher payroll than last year’s $140M figure, but uncertainty around the broadcast revenue situation might limit them to a modest increase. Roster Resource currently has them at $135M, meaning Kepler’s $10M salary would have pushed them to $145M.
For the Twins, perhaps they weren’t as open to dealing Kepler as they were with Polanco. While the latter was getting squeezed out of a crowded infield picture, Kepler could still play an important role with the 2024 club. He had a bounceback season at the plate last year, hitting 24 home runs and slashing .260/.332/.484 for a wRC+ of 124. He also provided above-average defense in right field, as he has done for many years.
He figures to continue in that role in 2024, with Byron Buxton hopefully playing center field again. Matt Wallner and Trevor Larnach could be lined up next to Kepler and Buxton, with players like Willi Castro, Nick Gordon, Austin Martin and Bubba Thompson perhaps in the mix as well.
Kepler has been a speculative trade candidate due to the fact that the Twins are looking to cut payroll, while he’s making $10M and an impending free agent. But after the Polanco deal, the club is down to about $118M in spending commitments, according to Roster Resource. They are reportedly looking to get into the $125M-140M range so don’t really need to shed any more money unless they pivot to some kind of blockbuster signing, which perhaps will keep Kepler in Minnesota for the upcoming campaign.