Last Updated on July 20, 2020 by Jason A. Churchill

When Seattle Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto joined the team in September 2015, he had two seemingly irreconcilable tasks. Keep an aging, veteran roster competitive; reconstitute the least productive farm system in MLB. The Mariners have since abandoned short-term postseason aspirations choosing to focus on building something Seattle baseball fans haven’t witnessed in nearly two decades – a truly competitive ball club.

Since deciding to “step back” from competing in late 2018, the Mariners organization has attempted to accelerate its turnaround by adding to a growing base of young, controllable talent. Earlier this month, Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter had another opportunity to nudge the club a little closer to relevance via the MLB Amateur Draft. This year’s draft was like no other before it, undertaken during a global pandemic and truncated to just five rounds.

2020 Mariners Draft Class

Age
Pos
School
Emerson Hancock
21
RHP
Georgia
Zach DeLoach
21
OF
Texas A&M
Connor Phillips
19
RHP
McLennan CC
Kaden Polcovich
21
2B
Oklahoma State
Tyler Keenan
21
3B
Ole Miss
Taylor Dollard
21
RHP
Cal Poly

Seattle’s draft class boasted three pitchers and three positions players, all collegians. With the sixth overall pick, the team selected pitcher Emerson Hancock from Georgia, viewed by some evaluators as the best arm in the draft prior to the college season. Afterwards, Hunter shared the organization’s expectations for the right-hander with the media, including Brandon Gustafson of 710 ESPN Seattle.

“His combination of stuff, strike-throwing and size profiles him as a true top-of-the-rotation starter.” – Mariners Director of Amateur Scouting Scott Hunter

Despite the unique circumstances, Seattle’s early round approach appears reminiscent to prior drafts since Dipoto’s late-2015 arrival.

The Pitching Store

Since 2016, the Mariners have selected at least three pitchers during the first five rounds on four occasions. Recent early-round selections include Logan Gilbert, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson, and Isaiah Campbell – all hail from the collegiate level.

By contrast, Seattle selected three pitchers in rounds 1-5 of the same draft just once during the stint of Dipoto’s predecessor – Jack Zduriencik. In fact, JeDi and crew have already selected more pitchers (15) in the first five rounds than Jack’s squad did (13) with the benefit of two extra drafts.

Jack v JeDi Rounds 1-5

Clearly, the Mariners’ current front office is making the acquisition of premium, controllable starting pitching a top priority. Considering the rareness of such talent, this strategy makes sense – at least to me it does.

The majority of the top arms in the majors were early round picks. Sure, there are exceptions such as 2015 AL Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel (seventh round) and 2018-19 NL Cy Young winner Jacob deGrom (ninth). But consider this; among the 50 drafted pitchers with the highest bWAR since 2017, the vast majority (39) were rounds 1-5 selections with the first round being the best opportunity to land top-notch pitching talent.

Rounds Top-50 Pitchers of 2017-19 Were Selected

The scarcity of elite starting pitchers is an ever-present challenge every team encounters when attempting to build a contending roster. Usually, buyers overpay in the trade or free agent markets to land a top-of-the-rotation arm. Dipoto refers to this marketplace as “the pitching store.” It’s a phrase that resonates with me.

The first time I heard Dipoto use the pitching store analogy was during an episode of Danny, Dave, and Moore in July 2017. The fifth-year GM noted at the 6:50 mark of the interview that top pitchers are most often available via trade in July and December with prices soaring prior to the July 31 trade deadline. That brings us back to the draft.

With the draft, Dipoto and his staff are adding and developing talented arms other than the ones found in the pitching store. Sure, the likelihood of finding a future ace via the draft isn’t as certain as signing a stud free agent like Gerrit Cole or trading for Justin Verlander. Then again, the cost of building a pitching staff with top draft picks is more palatable than paying top dollar or parting with prospects at the pitching store.

Making Up For Lost Time

It’s not just the Mariners’ recent emphasis on pitching setting the organization apart from the previous regime or the current competition. During the JeDi era, Seattle has selected just two high school players in rounds 1-5 – Joe Rizzo and Sam Carlson.

High School Seniors Selected In Rounds 1-5 Since 2016

This winter, Prospect Insider founder Jason A. Churchill rated Rizzo outside of its Top-50 prospects in the organization. Meanwhile, Carlson projected to return this spring after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July 2018. Despite his prolonged absence, the 21-year-old ranked thirteenth in Churchill’s rankings.

Now, some of you may point out several of baseball’s most recognizable stars were high school draftees – Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Nolan Arenado, Christian Yelich, Cody Bellinger, Bryce Harper, Zack Greinke, and Clayton Kershaw. True, but the gestation period for a college player tends to be several years shorter than for high schoolers. Perhaps this reality matters to an organization, like the Mariners, trying to reduce the time it takes to become relevant again.

To make up for lost time and resources squandered by previous leadership, Dipoto didn’t simply rely upon Seattle’s draft picks to elevate his system and organization. The New Jersey native did what he’s best known for doing – wheeling and dealing. Specifically, for former high-round picks of other clubs. So far, the results are promising.

The Mariners’ legion of evaluators and teachers have done a superb job of identifying and developing homegrown amateur talent. However, several of the organization’s most prominent youngsters were high round picks acquired via JeDi player swaps.

Early Picks Added Via Trade During Step Back

Round
Age
Pos
From
Jarred Kelenic
1
20
OF
NYM
Justus Sheffield
1
24
LHP
NYY
Justin Dunn
1
24
RHP
NYM
J.P. Crawford
1
25
SS
PHI
Jake Fraley
2
25
OF
TBR
Dom Thompson-Williams
5
25
OF
NYY

In a 2018 deal with the Mets, the Mariners acquired their top prospect – Jarred Kelenic – plus pitcher Justin Dunn, who has a shot of being in the starting rotation this year. Both Kelenic and Dunn were first round selections by New York.

Also coming from the Big Apple – Justus Sheffield. The southpaw was the Mariner’s key pick-up in the trade sending James Paxton to the Yankees. Sheffield was a first round pick out of high school by Cleveland in 2014, but poised to reach the majors when Seattle acquired him.

Acquired with Sheffield, minor league outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams and right-handed pitcher Erik Swanson. Churchill projected Thompson-Williams, the Yankees’ fifth round pick in 2016, would begin 2020 with Class-AA Arkansas before the COVID-19 shutdown. The right-handed Swanson was an eighth rounder by Texas in 2014 and projects to compete for a bullpen spot with the Mariners this year.

Jake Fraley, selected in the second round by the Rays four years ago, came to the Emerald City with Mallex Smith in the deal sending Mike Zunino, Guillermo Heredia, and minor league pitcher Michael Plassmeyer to Tampa Bay. This winter, Prospect Insider rated Fraley as a top-20 prospect in the organization. The former LSU Tiger has a realistic shot at beginning this season as an everyday corner outfielder.

Another high-round step-back acquisition in 2018 was J.P. Crawford from the Phillies. Crawford was Philadelphia’s first round selection as a high school senior in 2013. The Mariners intend to give the 25-year-old every opportunity to prove he’s Seattle’s shortstop of the future.

More recently, Dipoto acquired former Rockies third-rounder Tom Murphy from the Giants after San Francisco designated Murphy for assignment in March 2019. The Buffalo alum doesn’t fit into the prospect category, but he did have a breakout campaign with the Mariners. Now, he’s the club’s number-one catcher.

A Familiar Practice

It’s worth noting Dipoto has been scooping up the high-round talent of other clubs long before the Mariners’ rebuild began. Other former first rounders acquired by the Virginia Commonwealth alum include two players initially expected to be key cogs on the Mariners’ 2020 roster – Mitch Haniger (2012) and Marco Gonzales (2013).

Unfortunately, Haniger suffered rehab setbacks this winter, which likely jeopardizes his 2020 season. On the other hand, Gonzales projects to be Seattle’s Opening Day starter for a second consecutive year.

Now, to be clear, not every former high round pick grabbed by Dipoto has proven productive or even as promising as the players we’ve discussed thus far. Third rounders Ryon Healy and Max Povse, plus Dillon Overton (second), and Adrian Sampson (fifth) didn’t pan out for various reasons. Furthermore, the jury remains out on former Padres fifth round pick Mallex Smith, who’s at a crossroads with the Mariners.

The future of Cubs former second-round pick Daniel Vogelbach, acquired in 2016, is also uncertain. Vogelbach emerged as Seattle’s regular designated hitter last year. Nevertheless, Seattle’s lone 2019 All-Star suffered a horrible second-half swoon clouding his outlook with the team.

And who can forget the deal landing Dodgers former first round pick Zach Lee in June 2016? Certainly not Seattle fans. To get the right-handed pitcher no longer with the Mariners organization, Dipoto dispatched shortstop Chris Taylor, an important contributor to Los Angeles reaching the 2017-18 World Series.

Despite the fan angst created by dealing Taylor, Dipoto’s overall success from snagging other organizations’ former high picks appears to be an effective way to accelerate his club’s return to relevance. The combination of JeDi’s dealing with Hunter’s recent early-round selections and recent world events may deliver an opportunity to do something unique in 2020 – a sneak peek at the future.

Trying Times, Unique Opportunities

The abbreviated 60-game season due to the COVID-19 outbreak is like no other in MLB history. To address the challenge of navigating through a short season, clubs will have 30-man taxi squads to manage pitcher workloads and as insurance for unplanned losses due to injury or the virus. This provides the Mariners with a potential opportunity to accelerate the arrival of their top minor leaguers.

Just today, Mariners CEO John Stanton appeared on 710 ESPN Seattle to discuss the upcoming season and his expectations. During his conversation with John Clayton, Stanton stated he anticipates several of his team’s top prospects, including the recently drafted Hancock, will be part of the team’s 30-man taxi squad assigned to an alternate site – probably Cheney Field in Tacoma.

How the Mariners actually utilize their cadre of young prospects in 2020 likely depends on decisions made by Stanton’s baseball people and the virus. Still, even the notion of seeing some of the team’s best and brightest in big-league action this year is an exciting one in an otherwise dreary sports year.

Realistically, it may be quite some time before we actually know the long-term value of Kelenic, Dunn, Sheffield, Crawford, Fraley, Smith, Vogelbach, and even Murphy. Still, the Mariners are getting closer to being relevant again with a much brighter future than Seattle fans have seen in nearly two decades. That’s a good news story we can use during these trying times.

All we need now are real games for the kids to play in.

My Oh My…

Featured Photo By John Froschauer/AP

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