Mariners fans have long been tired of the press for patience. And who can blame them? It’s been 20 years since their home team made the postseason, and 18 since it won 90 or more games.
But when a group led by John Stanton purchased the Mariners in 2016 the deal brought new hope. Five years later and the short leash fans gave the new group is gone. And it should be.
When Jerry Dipoto took over as GM and VP of Baseball Operations prior to the 2016 season, it was clear what needed to happen. The organization needed a rebuild. A foundational top to bottom, left to right, tear-it-down, build-it-up.
The problem at the time was the roster was aging, expensive and had two mega contracts, which complicated starting a rebuild, and Stanton may not have liked the idea of spending, in the form of covering portions of contracts, to start over in 2016.
So Dipoto and company began their tenure running the club in ‘do-what-you-with-what-you-have’ mode. And they did. It was a mediocre team at best at the time and continued to be the first two years. Once 2018 hit, a few things began to pan out and the team win 89 games.
I’ve read a lot of criticism about the club’s decision to rebuild after winning 89 games. Some of the reasons I’ve heard and read include “they were an 89-win team, build on THAT,” and “if you can’t take an 89-win team and get to 95 from that you’re a terrible GM.”
But the fact is, it was the perfect time to turn it over:
- Robinson Cano was 35, had half his $240 million contract remaining, and had just come off a suspension for testing positive for banned substances. But he performed well after the suspension, so if a team was willing to take on a good portion of the $120 million left, do it and don’t look back.
- Edwin Diaz had an elite, and unrepeatable, season as the club’s closer. He’d yet to hit arbitration status and there were four years left of contract control. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about relievers over the years, it’s their insane level of volatility.
- Feliz Hernandez’s contract had two more guaranteed years, rather than five (at the start of Dipoto’s tenure)
- The club was out from under the contract of Nelson Cruz after the ’18 season, too, which isn’t a reason to start a rebuild, and it wasn’t a hindrance to house the deal it was a bargain, but having Cruz, Cano, Kyle Seager, and Hernandez was a great hamper to rebuilding, and was actually a bit of an opportunity to see what the roster could do, despite having very little opportunity to go add significant pieces (see: near-empty farm system, available financial assets stretched to a top-10, $175M payroll.
Waiting and trying to make the most of the 2018 roster with an aging Hernandez, Cano, and Seager pulling away from his prime, no farm system, no significant financial flexibility — seriously, that roster wasn’t one $15 million player away, it was two stars and three average players (maybe $50-60 million proven players) from being a 95-plus win team — would have been a disaster.
They would have lost out on the chance to take advantage of Diaz’s career year — it’s still by far his best year and may always be that way — shed a large chunk of Cano’s remaining contract, maximize the value of James Paxton and Mike Zunino, who each had two years of control remaining (had it been four, keeping both may very well have made sense), and most of all rebuilding the foundation itself — the farm system.
Passing on the opportunity to do any or all of the above would have been a fireable offense for any GM and a senseless preference for an ownership. It takes commitment and financial guts to approve such a plan. At the time, the ownership was worthy of applause.
Well, that’s faded, if not gone altogether, and not solely because the club still isn’t winning — this season was always marked as the corner, not the year the team had a great chance to win — but because the ownership has done nothing but shoot itself in the foot, even since the rebuild began two and a half years ago.
First, by acting like a corporation that doesn’t care enough about its employees, when they cut their pay because the team’s profits were hit by the pandemic, and let it impact their plans to build a winning team — more on that in a minute.
That was an opportunity to stand out in a positive way, both in the community and among ownerships in baseball. Failed.
Then came the Kevin Mather fiasco. Not only did the president of the baseball team make racist comments, which is bad enough all by itself, he spit on a very good and loyal player, and admitted the club was manipulating the service time of prospect Jarred Kelenic, a practice long deployed in Major League Baseball, but never one that was carelessly and braggadociosly stated to those outside an organization.
Mather, at the time, was a minority owner on top of his president role.
But rather than the club acting swiftly, removing Mather from the role, and starting the process of booting him from ownership, he was allowed to resign, and Stanton, in a press conference the following Monday after Mather’s comments on a Zoom call to the Bellevue Rotary club were made public, would not even answer the question of whether he would have fired Mather had he not resigned.
The owner of the team did nothing to stand up for Julio Rodriguez, Seager, Kelenic, and at the end of the day, for a franchise that cannot afford further embarrassment.
Perhaps Stanton lacks the ability to serve as the mouthpiece. I’ll grant him the benefit of the doubt there. But he’s the owner of the team. He can say whatever he wants whenever he wants, and he hasn’t been heard from in any meaningful capacity since. Not on the future of the on-field product, not on the Mather situation, not on further steps the organization has taken to create the right culture for people, including players.
What we have learned in recent months is Mather, long before his appalling comments, meddled in baseball operations when he nixed original payroll plans for the 2020-21 offseason, leaving Dipoto to stand pat over the winter rather than start adding significant pieces to help the club turn the corner.
Dipoto has been calling ’21, in his own words, the corner year since the rebuild began in November 2018, and here it is time to start executing toward that and Mather, the money guy, chose money, derailing Dipoto’s plans and essentially pushing the timeline backward.
But this is on Stanton. It’s on Stanton for not sticking with his commitment to winning baseball, something he has said publicly on numerous occasions, and it’s on Stanton because he asked fans to be patient, and then, asked them for more time, because, well, money.
No. Just… no. These are not the actions of a committed ownership.
And now, to fans, Dipoto’s words ring hollow if he doesn’t deliver. If you’re Dipoto here, you’re not happy at all.
We can argue all day about whether Dipoto can execute as successful a second half of the rebuild process as he has the first half, but none of it matters if the ownership doesn’t stick to its own commitments. Or we need to define the word ‘commitment’ to Mr. Stanton, just so we’re all clear.
1. the state or quality of being dedicated to a cause, activity, etc.
“the company’s commitment to quality”
Ownership committing to winning, and staying committed, does not mean it has to spend until they win, or they’re not committed. It means being competitive with payroll. Taking risks when the club’s baseball people see an opportunity.
It means thirsting for winning like the fans. And that was Stanton’s selling point as majority owner; he’s a fan. The man keeps score. The dude gets distracted at business meetings because he’s checking scores. True stories.
After all that’s occurred the past three years — and really the past nine months — Stanton still has an opportunity to climb out of this as clean as Andy Dufresne. But rather than landing on a beach overlooking the blue of the Pacific, such commitment leads to what sports owners like more than anything — money. Literally, remaining committed to winning will make owners even more money. They just don’t want to take risks.
That has to change.
At the end of the day, the financial backing must be available to Dipoto to expect him to finish what he started. Immediately. Now. It’s difficult enough to build good baseball rosters. There are 29 other teams trying to beat you at the same game, after the same goals, after the same players. Some have committed owners. Those that don’t fail over and over.
You know the teams on both ends of this equation: The Los Angeles Dodgers, Washington Nationals, New York Yankees, New York Mets, San Diego Padres, St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, and a few others, have been committed to winning over the last several years. Others are joining or rejoining the party.
Most of those teams are winning or have won a lot in recent years. And commitment isn’t about splurging for $230 million payrolls every year, or ever. The Cardinals are consistently ranked between eighth and 14th in payroll. The Astros rank No. 5 this season and last, but have ranked eighth, ninth, and 17th during their run to World Series prominence.
Heck, the Mariners themselves were 12th in 2017, 10th a year later, and 13th in 2019. And while there’s no “get back to this number and it’s real commitment” it is “get back to the plan” and especially “let Jerry cook.”
Put the plan, financially speaking, back in motion. Today. Not tomorrow. Today.
If Dipoto (and his lieutenants) has proven anything to team ownership, it’s his ability to be trusted with payroll. He’s cleaned house, has proven adept at working markets with the best in baseball, and has proven he can identify talent, from the amateur ranks through long-time big leaguers. His efforts have protected this ownership’s financial risk for five-plus years now.
Time to flip the script.
Owners can drive their way to more money. They’re billionaires. They’ve done it before — they do it in their sleep. But owners have never steered teams to winning. Baseball people do that, and it’s time Stanton hands the reins back to his baseball people, led by Dipoto, and sit back and enjoy the ride like the rest of us.
But things need to move in this direction quickly or even more fans are going to permanently jump ship. They don’t have another 20 years. They may not have another 20 minutes.
And if Stanton doesn’t think Mariners fans will jump ship and hop on the bandwagon of other sports teams in the city with their heads, their hearts, and their wallets, or even toward a potential MLB franchise in Portland, he’s sorely mistaken.
The ownership of this baseball team must step up. With their words, with their actions, and with their wallets.
The opportunity to be different remains. It’s not too late. It’s never too late be better. To be the outlier in Major League Baseball. To be a place people want to work. To be a place players want to play. To be the team fans want to support.
This ownership still has a chance to do right by Julio Rodriguez and Jarred Kelenic, and to honor the patience of the fan base, by sticking to their own commitment to winning. And there’s no time like the present.
Jason A. Churchill
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