Last Updated on February 27, 2020 by Jason A. Churchill
Last week, Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto laid out his expectations for the upcoming season. In doing so, Dipoto unwittingly drew the ire of a small, but vocal faction of exasperated fans.
What did Dipoto say?
“2020 is about the development of the young players” – Jerry Dipoto
In the minds of the frustrated, Dipoto’s statement reaffirmed their long-held belief the Mariners have been in a perpetual rebuild for two decades.
That is a myth.
Yes, it’s awful the Mariners haven’t reached the postseason since 2001 and are the only MLB team without a World Series appearance. But no, they haven’t been rebuilding for nearly 20 years.
Actually, the Mariners have never embarked on a full-scale rebuild like the one Dipoto and his staff are presently performing.
It’s important to distinguish between a rebuild and lousy management, which was commonplace during the 12-year span between the departure of Hall of Fame executive Pat Gillick and Dipoto’s 2015 arrival. The Mariners were simply awful at fielding good baseball teams during this period.
A rebuild is a long-term undertaking focused on acquiring and developing a foundation of young, controllable talent. The preferred method to accomplish this goal is through the draft and amateur free agency. Clubs can accelerate the process by exchanging valuable veterans for prospects and young major leaguers.
Rebuilding teams typically don’t retain free agents nearing age-30, nor do they usually sign established players to deals with a commitment beyond one year. Cutting ties with veterans can provide opportunities for young players to develop. This practice also reduces payroll.
Finally, a team truly in rebuild-mode remains laser-focused on the task at hand. Such endeavors normally last several years; there are no detours or shortcuts. This means the club won’t needlessly expend resources to contend until it’s ready.
Based on my description, the Mariners were never truly a rebuilding team during the regimes of Dipoto’s two predecessors – Bill Bavasi and Jack Zduriencik. To see what I mean, let’s consider the paths chosen by both executives and their ultimate destinations.
Bavasi Era – Race To The Bottom
During the four-year Gillick era, the Mariners averaged 98 wins. Unfortunately, things went sideways during Bavasi’s time.
The following illustrates Seattle’s win tally and annual payroll per Baseball Prospectus with the payroll’s MLB ranking and delta from the preceding year.
Bavasi Era Payroll
Clearly, the Mariners never entered a rebuild phase during Bavasi’s watch. Seattle was top-10 in payroll in four of his six seasons, growing salaries by double-digit rates three times. Furthermore, a reloading club isn’t retaining star players, nor is it obligating significant capital to free agents.
Bavasi’s Mariners did just that several times.
Twice during the Reign of Bavasi, Seattle agreed to multi-year extensions with Ichiro Suzuki. First in late 2003 (four-years/$44 million) and then again in July 2007 (five-years/$90 million).
When Adrián Beltré hit free agency as the NL MVP runner-up in November 2004, the Mariners swooped in signing him to a 5-year/$64 million pact. The same offseason, the team committed four years and $50 million to former All-Star Richie Sexson.
Another recognizable name joining via free agency was Raúl Ibañez. Seattle reunited with the future three-time Mariner at a cost of three years/$13.5 million. At the time, Ibanez was 32-years-old.
The Mariners’ trade activity in July 2006 further establishes Bavasi wasn’t a re-builder. He brokered win-now deals shipping prospects Asdrúbal Cabrera and Shin-Soo Choo to Cleveland in exchange for veterans Eduardo Perez and Ben Broussard respectively.
And who could ever forget one of the most reviled swaps in franchise history?
Zduriencik Era – Magical Mystery Tour
Management hailed Zduriencik’s talent evaluation background with Milwaukee when announcing him as Bavasi’s replacement after the 2008 season. Initially, it appeared the Mariners were thinking rebuild.
Zduriencik’s first major trade landed Seattle five players with at least four years of club control remaining – Jason Vargas (age-26), Franklin Gutierrez (26), Mike Carp (23), Ezequiel Carrera (22), and Maikel Cleto (20).
Although Vargas and Gutierrez would be the only players to deliver on-field value to Seattle, the move itself seemingly signaled a youth movement was afoot.
Vargas represented another young rotation arm to go with ace Félix Hernández (23) and Doug Fister (25). Similarly, Gutierrez was an elite center field defender expected to play beside Michael Saunders (22) for years.
Zduriencik did sign an aging Ken Griffey Jr. facilitating a reunion between Junior and his original team. He also added a 35-year-old Mike Sweeney to the roster. But neither acquisition threatened the development of young players. Moreover, the club’s commitment was short-term in nature.
Then, the Mariners posted a winning record in 2009 and the club’s resolve seemingly weakened.
The following offseason, the Mariners signed 32-year-old Chone Figgins to a four-year/$36 million free agent deal costing the team its 2010 first round pick. Surrendering so much for a player on the wrong side of thirty was a win-now move.
Then there was the acquisition of Cliff Lee from Philadelphia. Zduriencik dealt 2007 eleventh overall draft pick Phillippe Aumont, 20-year-old pitcher J.C. Ramírez, and minor-league outfielder Tyson Gillies. Conversely, Lee was a year away from free agency.
Yes, we know now these minor leaguers didn’t pan out. Aumont pitched 43.2 MLB innings; Ramírez has delivered 0.6 bWAR in six seasons; Gillies didn’t reach the majors. Still, how did trading prospects for a pending free agent equate to a rebuild maneuver in 2010?
Some may contend taking a shot at winning in 2010 didn’t necessarily compromise a long-term plan. After all, Zduriencik did trade Lee to Texas at the deadline for Justin Smoak, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke, and minor leaguer Matt Lawson. The players acquired didn’t work out, but it was an attempt to recoup young, controllable talent.
Fair enough. But the Mariners cut payroll by 10.2-percent in 2010. Realistically, the team was straddling the fence between chasing the postseason and building for the future. In the end, they succeeded at neither.
Zduriencik Era Payroll
Over the next three years, the roster featured a revolving door of retreads and young players, most of whom were ineffective, injured, or both. The result was 71 wins averaged annually in 2011-13. During this time, Zduriencik indicated he was waiting for the team’s crop of promising prospects to arrive.
The young players Zduriencik was counting on were headlined by first-round draft picks selected since his arrival – Dustin Ackley, Nick Franklin, Steven Baron, Taijuan Walker, Danny Hultzen, and Mike Zunino. Other notable names were James Paxton, Brad Miller, and Kyle Seager.
During the 2013-2014 offseasons, Seattle signed their two best players – Hernandez and Seager – to seven-year/nine-figure extensions. Locking up a pair of twenty-somethings entering their prime seemingly meant the team was taking a long-range view. However, a shift in approach after the 2013 campaign suggests management was actually myopic.
The team signed free agent Robinson Canó to a massive 10-year/$240 million contract; third biggest in MLB history at the time. Also added to the roster – Logan Morrison, Corey Hart, Fernando Rodney, and pitcher Chris Young. Whatever rebuild the Mariners were allegedly doing ceased to exist at this point.
Zduriencik didn’t stop there. In July 2014, he acquired former Mariner Kendrys Morales and Chris Denorfia. He also dealt Franklin in a three-team deal bringing Austin Jackson to the Emerald City. The club remained in the wild card hunt until game-161, but ultimately fell short again.
After coming excruciatingly close in 2014, the Mariners leaned forward again. Veteran additions included Nelson Cruz, J.A. Happ, Seth Smith, Rickie Weeks, Joe Beimel, and old friends Endy Chávez and Gutierrez. Also joining the staff were the young arms of Mike Montgomery and Tony Zych.
Zduriencik continued fiddling with the roster early into the 2015 season adding catcher Welington Castillo in May. Two weeks later, he dealt Castillo in a six-player swap landing Vidal Nuño III and Mark Trumbo.
In the end, it was all for naught; the team fell out of contention. Zduriencik traded Ackley – his first draft pick – to the Yankees and Happ to Pittsburgh at the deadline. A month later, Jack lost his job.
Dipoto Era – Comeback Trail, Maybe
During Dipoto’s first three years as GM, he focused on a building a contender around the team’s existing core of Canó, Cruz, Félix, and Seager adding major leaguers at a frenetic pace.
Notable JeDi Acquisitions (Yrs 1-3)
Despite Dipoto’s tinkering, his club continued falling short of the postseason. The Mariners did win 86 and 89 games in 2016 and 2018 respectively, but there was a 78-win campaign sandwiched in between.
At best, the Mariners were fringe wild card contenders. Certainly, no match for the elite AL organizations – the Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians. So, JeDi took his organization in a different direction.
Although the management calls it a “step-back,” the Mariners initiated a rebuild after the 2018 season. In an interview with Ryan Divish of the Seattle Times, team chairman and managing partner John Stanton went on record acknowledging and supporting the process.
Ownership had never done this before.
Dipoto began offloading veterans to accumulate young talent. This roster purge combined with his strategic acquisition of young major leaguers and four draft classes have re-booted the organization.
Players/Prospects Getting National & Local Attention
To be clear, it remains unclear whether Dipoto’s plan leads the Mariners to postseason glory. A significant number of the players listed above have yet to reach the majors.
As we learned with Zduriencik’s younglings, delivering in the big leagues is different than netting top-100 prospect recognition. Therefore, it’s too early to judge the current regime’s ability to deliver big-league talent.
A Drought On The Farm Too
In retrospect, one of the primary factors prolonging the organization’s 18-year postseason drought is the inability to acquire and transform prospects into major leaguers. That said; the bar Dipoto’s staff is trying to leap over wasn’t set high by their predecessors.
Essentially, the Mariners drafted poorly and couldn’t reap value from its farm system during the Bavasi and Zduriencik eras. It wasn’t just the draft where the team missed the mark for over a decade. The pursuit and development of amateur free agents was equally fruitless – perhaps worse.
The following identifies the most recognizable names acquired via draft or amateur free agency during the stints of Bavasi and Zduriencik. Career bWAR is in parenthesis.
Prominent Amateurs Drafted/Signed
Overall, Bavasi’s system produced 21 major leaguers, who combined for 47.7 bWAR. For context, Mike Trout has produced 72.5 bWAR.
Zduriencik’s efforts yielded more value than Bavasi’s did. But remove Seager from the equation and Trout’s bWAR bests the other 38 amateurs acquired during Jack’s regime, who later became big-league players (70.7 bWAR).
We also shouldn’t forget the Mariners had the third-overall pick or better in three of the first four drafts during Jack’s tenure. What did those selections net the team?
A combined 15.1 bWAR of value from Ackley and Zunino while wearing a Mariners uniform. Hultzen never played in the majors with Seattle.
That brings us back to Dipoto’s comment about developing players in 2020.
As painful as it may be in the short-term, letting the kids play is a crucial phase of a rebuild. Management needs to determine whether prospects can provide value and what holes need to be plugged by major-league talent from other clubs.
The truth is the Mariners haven’t been in a perpetual rebuild. The team seemingly dabbled with rebuilding early in Zduriencik’s tour. But it didn’t demonstrate the organizational resolve to remain faithful to the plan; assuming there was one.
It’s understandable some fans maintain the belief the Mariners were constantly rebuilding. However, they’re mistaking nearly two decades of generally poor results and a rare flirtation with a wild card berth as a strategy. It wasn’t; the team’s mediocrity wasn’t by design.
Perhaps the determination of Stanton and his fellow owners wavers if they don’t begin seeing appreciable development from their growing stable of youngsters this year. That would be unfortunate since such a crisis of confidence could lead to a franchise in disarray – again.
Personally, I advocate remaining patient with Dipoto and his staff. After all, several national prospect evaluation outlets keep telling us the Mariners have four or five top-100 prospects and the farm system is on the rise.
The kids deserve an opportunity to prove they belong.
So does Dipoto.
My Oh My….
(Photo of Jerry Dipoto: Ted S. Warren/AP)
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