Twenty-six months have passed since Jerry Dipoto became general manager of the Seattle Mariners; a job he eagerly accepted with eyes wide open.
Dipoto knew he was inheriting a flawed roster with some of its best players approaching decline. Moreover, it was common knowledge Seattle’s farm system was barren and not generating sufficient talent to support the big league club.
So far, Dipoto’s short tenure in the Emerald City has yielded mixed results. The Mariners were a fringe contender in 2016, but were an afterthought in a mediocre American League this year.
Despite the uneven start, Dipoto remains optimistic his organization is heading in the right direction.
I tend to agree.
If you can’t beat ’em
Some fans and media personalities see it differently though. Already impatient, they wish Dipoto would adopt the Houston Astros’ approach. When facing the need to rebuild, the Astros opted to start over from scratch.
Initially, Houston purged its roster by trading away major leaguers for prospects and letting bloated contracts expire. From there, they developed homegrown talent to deliver value on the field or through trades. The final step in their overhaul; add proven veterans via trade and free agency.
It was a frustrating period for Houston fans, who endured multiple 100-plus loss seasons along the way. Nevertheless, starting anew eventually paid off; the Astros are reigning World Series champions.
Despite this success story, the Mariners are marching to the beat of a different drum.
Ways Of The Jedi
Dipoto’s predecessor — Jack Zduriencik — employed a similar strategy prior to his dismissal for failing. How did the Mariners’ newest GM intend to avoid suffering Zduriencik’s fate?
Surround his stars with a younger, more athletic supporting cast; improve organizational depth; reinvigorate the minor league system via the draft, trades, scouting, and player development.
Essentially, Dipoto commenced a slow burn rebuild rather than a dramatic reconstruction similar to the Houston model.
Let’s Make A Deal
Since Dipoto intended on retaining his veteran stars, he’s relied heavily on trades to reshape his roster. By design, many of his 46 swaps have accrued young talent relatively close to being major league ready.
Free agency is an option, but tends to be Dipoto’s last resort. Long-term free agent contracts present the risk of buying a player’s declining years. Hence, his preference for small-scale signings.
Still, Dipoto’s strategy is not without risk. There have been misfires along the way, further exasperating the fan base. Just mention Dan Vogelbach on Twitter to see what I mean.
Acquired in a July 2016 deadline deal for pitcher Mike Montgomery, Vogelbach was labeled Seattle’s first baseman of the future. To date, it hasn’t worked for the 24-year-old. Last week’s acquisition of Ryon Healy, further clouds Vogey’s future with Seattle.
The moves surrounding the January acquisition of starter Drew Smyly generated more fan derision.
In a matter of hours, the Mariners included one of their top prospects — starter Luiz Gohara — in a trade with the Atlanta Braves for Shae Simmons and Mallex Smith. Seattle promptly sent Smith and two minor leaguers to the Tampa Bay Rays for Smyly.
Unfortunately, Smyly missed last season after suffering an elbow injury in March. Moreover, Simmons endured injury-related issues throughout the year before debuting in September. Conversely, Gohara finished the year as an MLB top-100 prospect, while Smith was a valued performer for the Rays.
The most infuriating Dipoto miss for fans? Chris Taylor.
In June 2016, the Mariners traded Taylor to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Zach Lee. The 27-year-old was a postseason star for the Dodgers this year, while Lee is no longer with Seattle or any baseball organization currently.
For what it’s worth, Dipoto acknowledges he whiffed on Taylor.
Some may argue Dipoto’s frenetic dealing not only leads to unforced errors, it undermines the farm system he’s trying to cultivate. That’s an understandable sentiment, but may be off the mark.
It’s true Seattle has traded recognizable prospects such as Gohara, Tyler O’Neill, Zack Littell, Alex Jackson, Ryan Yarbrough, and Thyago Vieira. On the other hand, the club has thus far retained their most prized prospects: Kyle Lewis, Nick Neidert, and Evan White.
In reality, shipping away several minor leaguers and inexperienced big leaguers has created a foundation of young talent. In most cases, these players are ready for prime time or very close.
|Notable Under-30 JeDi Acquisitions|
|Jean Segura||Mike Leake||Mitch Haniger|
|Ryon Healy||Ben Gamel||James Pazos|
|Erasmo Ramirez||Shae Simmons||Ariel Miranda|
|Marco Gonzales||Max Povse||Rob Whalen|
Granted, not everyone listed above will flourish next season. But, there’s a reasonable chance Jean Segura, Mitch Haniger, Ben Gamel, and Healy are in the Opening Day starting lineup. Mike Leake, who turned 30 last week, projects to be a key rotation piece.
While the remaining players noted have the potential to improve the pitching staff’s depth and quality, there are no “can’t misses.” That said; young, controllable pitching remains baseball’s most valuable commodity.
It’s worth noting young players with minimal service time also help promote payroll flexibility. With the exception of Segura, Leake, and Erasmo Ramirez, everyone else is relatively cheap with 4-6 years of team control remaining.
Essentially, Dipoto’s deals are making the Mariners younger in a cost effective manner as he waits for the farm system to yield difference-making talent.
Expanding The Core
There’s a common narrative suggesting the Mariners must win before the window closes on its aging stars. However, this assessment is more rooted in hyperbole than reality.
Yes, Seattle’s core is aging and several members are showing potential signs of regression. But, the overall roster around them is not only younger; it’s better.
To see what I mean, consider the following table comparing the cumulative WAR for each position from this year and Zduriencik’s last.
|Cumulative WAR By Position|
Obviously, not every position group improved and the rotation was a mess last year. Nevertheless, Dipoto acquisitions Jarrod Dyson, Guillermo Heredia, Segura, Haniger, and Gamel upgraded their respective spots on the field.
What’s more, Dipoto and his staff merit recognition for the development of Mike Zunino. Undoubtedly, the player deserves the most credit. Nonetheless, new management accomplished something others failed to do; unlock Zunino’s untapped potential.
While there’s still much work to do, especially with the pitching staff, the Mariners are raising the floor.
The following table further disproves the notion the Mariners are nothing without Cano, Cruz, and Seager.
|Seattle’s Shrinking Reliance on Core-3|
|Year||Team WAR||Core-3 WAR||Core %|
In 2015, the core-three accounted for 83-percent of Seattle’s cumulative position player WAR. Last season, that number dropped 40 points. Yet, the team’s WAR increased significantly.
Don’t get me wrong; the trio remains integral to Seattle’s success. But, the team’s improving performance despite receiving less value from its veteran stars signals Dipoto is successfully transforming his roster.
Unfortunately, the outlook isn’t as optimistic with Hernandez. The 31-year-old has rapidly declined in recent years. Worse yet, his rotation mates were underwhelming too.
|King Felix’s Declining Value|
|Year||SP WAR||Felix WAR||Core %|
It appears the window is closing on King Felix. That doesn’t mean he can’t prove valuable next season. But, the likelihood he’ll be central to Seattle’s future success diminishes with each regressing year.
The Way Forward
Despite mixed reviews after his first two years in Seattle, Jerry Dipoto remains true to the philosophy that got him the job in the first place. Having said that, he’ll likely look to free agency more this offseason than in the past.
Considering Dipoto recently dealt two prominently mentioned relievers, it’s reasonable to expect the Mariners will pursue free agent relief arms. Whether the club takes the same approach with its center field and pitching needs is debatable.
As we saw with the Healy deal, Dipoto’s default mode is seek a trade partner first. Especially when there’s an opportunity to net controllable, young players with upside. That’s something Mariner fans should consider during hot stove season.
It’s fun talking about Seattle signing a high-profile free agent, but most are looking for long-term commitments and on the wrong side of 30. That profile doesn’t fit on a club attempting to get younger and balance cost.
Watching a division rival blow up their roster and go on to win the World Series has a segment of weathered Seattle fans demanding a similar approach from their team. Considering the Mariners haven’t experienced postseason play in 16 years, that’s understandable.
Having said that, I expect Dipoto will continue with his slow burn rebuild. For what it’s worth, I believe that’s the correct approach given the franchise’s situation.
The time to blow up the Mariners was before they signed Hernandez and Cano to exorbitant deals. Since both player’s contracts are virtually untradeable, a fire sale now seems pointless.
Dipoto’s approach is improving the club, albeit at a rate slower than fans would prefer. In fairness though, it’ll take more time to assess the success of his strategy.
It’s important to remember Houston needed four-plus years of rebuilding to reach the playoffs. What’s more, they faltered the following season before winning it all this year. Dipoto is entering his third offseason with Seattle.
If the Mariners aren’t serious contenders by Opening Day 2020, it’ll be time to reassess the club’s direction. For now, Dipoto deserves the benefit of the doubt.