The Seattle Mariners’ rebuild is just underway, yet fan frustration is already mounting with GM Jerry Dipoto. Bad news folks, the situation will worsen before improving.
Just last weekend, Dipoto traded Edwin Encarnación, Seattle’s likely All-Star game representative. Dealing Encarnación wasn’t the issue; the Mariners’ return raised blood pressures.
Seattle received Juan Then from the Yankees, a prospect Dipoto previously dealt to New York for a since-released Nick Rumbelow. Receiving so little for Encarnación infuriated fans, especially with the hated Yankees involved.
Even worse, a tweet from MLB insider Mark Fiensand describing Seattle’s trade rationale.
According to sources, other teams offered more talent to the Mariners for Encarnacion, but weren’t willing to take on as much of his salary as the Yankees were. Sources indicated the Astros and Rays were also actively involved, with the Rockies in the mix to a lesser extent.
— Mark Feinsand (@Feinsand) June 17, 2019
For some Mariners fans, Fiensand’s tweet confirms a long-held belief – ownership won’t go all-in to build a winner.
Perhaps this perception is true, but waiting to assess the team’s financial motives until the after it finishes dealing veterans seems appropriate.
According to Jeff Passan of ESPN, the wait may be brief.
Jay Bruce is just the start of a Seattle fire sale. The Mariners are looking to deal almost every veteran on their roster, sources tell ESPN, and have shown a willingness to eat significant money in doing so. In the Bruce trade, Seattle guaranteed Philadelphia 87% of money owed.
— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) June 3, 2019
Assuming Passan is correct, Mike Leake, Dee Gordon, Wade LeBlanc, Tim Beckham, Roenis Elias, Tommy Milone, Anthony Bass, and Hunter Strickland may be leaving. All but Beckham (age-29) are on the wrong side of 30, plus the team owes Leake and Gordon a combined $41.5 million for 2019-20.
Realistically, Seattle doesn’t have untouchable players. Sure, Dipoto has suggested Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales were keepers and he seems genuinely fond of Kikuchi. But his trade history suggests anyone is tradeable.
“By midseason 2020 a new and far more robust farm system has a chance to crest and make us what we think is a really interesting team in the second half of 2020 as we move into 2021.” – Jerry Dipoto
Based on Dipoto’s comments, a realistic target year for the Mariners to be serious contenders is 2022. If true, Seattle’s four-year timeline would mirror one recently executed by the Chicago Cubs.
That said; let’s explore the Cub’s march to October glory after a century of disappointment and discuss similarities to Dipoto’s current undertaking.
Theo Comes To Wrigley
In October 2011, former Red Sox GM Theo Epstein became the Cubs’ President of Baseball Operations. Joining Epstein was former Padres GM Jed Hoyer, who assumed the same title in Chicago.
Epstein’s arrival fueled high expectations in the Windy City. He built World Series winners and ended Boston’s 86-year championship drought. Similarly, the Cubs hadn’t won a Fall Classic in over a century.
Despite Epstein’s reputation, his task would be challenging. Here’s where the Cubs stood in several key areas when the duo arrived.
Cubs 2011 MLB Rankings
Essentially, the Cubs had an aging roster with bloated contracts. Moreover, their minor league system couldn’t support a resurgence. Weren’t the Mariners in a similar position last October?
Good, Meh, and Ugly
The 2018 Mariners won 89 games, but run production and prevention resembled the output of a mediocre team. Even worse, the roster was the oldest in MLB and the farm system among the least productive.
Mariners 2018 MLB Rankings
The Mariners’ $158 million payroll wasn’t top-5, although several well-compensated players weren’t delivering adequate results.
Félix Hernández (age-33) hasn’t pitched well since 2016, but remains the club’s highest player ($26.9 million) this year. Similarly, Kyle Seager (31) has under-performed his $19 million paycheck in recent years.
Despite the challenges facing Epstein and Hoyer, they transformed Chicago’s lovable losers into NLCS participants in four years and World Series champions a season later. How’d they do it?
Methodical deconstruction of their aging, overpriced roster and the incremental introduction of young, controllable contributors. Sounds similar to what Dipoto is attempting, right?
The following were the priciest players Chicago’s systematically jettisoned during 2012-13.
Costly 2012 Contributors
First to go was Carlos Zambrano, a top-5 Cy Young Award vote getter in 2004 and 2006-07. The right-hander became expendable after a suspension and eventual banishment to the disqualified list in 2011.
The Cubs sent Zambrano to the Marlins for Chris Volstad in January 2012. Miami paid $2.55 million of the Venezuelan’s 2012 salary with Chicago covering the rest. Although Chicago recouped little value for Zambrano, moving past its toxic relationship with the fiery pitcher was their true goal.
In April 2012, the Cubs dealt Marlon Byrd to the Red Sox for Michael Bowden and Hunter Cervenka. Again, Chicago received little in return. Ironically, Boston released Byrd two months after the trade leaving the Cubbies on the hook for his entire salary (approximately $6 million).
Chicago would deal Brigham to Atlanta for a minor leaguer and non-tendered Villanueva. However, Hendricks was a 2016 Cy Young Award finalist and recently signed a four-year/$55.5 million extension.
It’d be another year until Epstein and company disposed of costly contracts via trade, but they did designate Carlos Mármol for assignment in June 2013.
Previous leadership rewarded Mármol with a three-year/$20 million extension after the 2010 season, but his productivity gradually diminished. The new regime parted ways with the former closer despite owing the balance of his $9.8 million salary.
Edwards has struggled with injuries and ineffectiveness this season, but the 27-year-old reliever was a workhorse in 2017-18 and a key contributor during Chicago’s World Series run.
Olt hasn’t appeared in an MLB game since 2015. The Brewers claimed Ramirez off waivers in May 2016, while Grimm spent five seasons with the Cubs before his 2018 release.
The same month of the Garza deal, the Cubs sent Soriano to the Yankees for Corey Black, who never reached the majors. New York paid $1.8 million of Soriano’s 2013 salary and $5 million the following year – Chicago covered the rest.
Meanwhile In Seattle
The Cubs’ purge returned more duds than studs. But shedding veteran salaries reshaped the roster and created opportunities for youngsters essential to the team’s long-term success. Isn’t that Dipoto’s strategy?
Let’s now focus on Seattle’s most costly players entering last November – some were gone by Christmas.
Despite the roster upheaval, Seattle began 2019 with a payroll only $11-12 million lower than last year. That’s due to the offseason additions of Encarnación, Jay Bruce, Anthony Swarzak, and Yusei Kikuchi.
Encarnación joined the Mariners via a three-team deal involving the Rays and Indians. The team acquired him for Carlos Santana, who they previously received in the trade sending Segura to Philadelphia.
Bruce and Swarzak arrived via the Canó/Díaz deal. Dipoto accepted their salaries and sent cash to the Mets to facilitate transferring Canó’s huge contract. No easy feat considering the 36-year-old had $120 million and five years remaining on his deal.
About The Money
Certainly, Fiensand’s tweet serves as ammunition for Mariners fans convinced ownership cares more about the bottom line than the AL West standings. But do the numbers support the Twitter hyperbole?
Earlier this month, the Mariners sent Bruce to the Phillies for minor leaguer Jake Scheiner. Unlike the Encarnación deal, Seattle is paying most of Bruce’s annual salary this season and next.
Similarly, Dipoto sent Swarzak and nearly $2 million to Atlanta for relievers Arodys Vizcaíno and Jesse Biddle. Vizcaíno is out for the year and a pending free agent, but the Mariners accepted him and the balance of his $4.8 million salary to offset Swarzak’s paycheck.
Another tidbit not usually mentioned; Seattle sent $6 million with Santana to Cleveland.
I’ve just discussed a lot of moving parts. Comparing the total money absorbed by the Mariners and their partners suggests the naysayers are wrong.
Follow The Money
A few notes…
Salaries listed are estimates.
The Encarnación, Santana, and Bruce numbers are from each player’s Baseball Prospectus page.
Swarzak’s Mariners pay is from Baseball Prospectus too. However, the “partner” money for Swarzak and Vizcaíno is 69% of their 2019 salaries. At the time of the May 20 trade, approximately 69% of the season remained.
Bottom line: the Mariners are eating more money than some fans and media members realize.
It Just Continues
Ideally, veterans added by Dipoto next offseason will be capable of simultaneously helping the 2020 Mariners compete and serving as trade chips next summer. That’s what the Cubs did, although some deals yielded better results than others did.
In December 2012, Chicago inked Edwin Jackson to a four-year/$52 million pact. However, the team released the right-hander in July 2015 still owing him approximately $13 million.
Scott Feldman signed a one-year/$6 million deal in November 2012. The following July, the Cubs shipped him to Baltimore with Steve Clevenger for future Cy Young Award winner Jake Arrieta and late-inning reliever Pedro Strop.
The Jason Hammel story resembles Feldman’s. Chicago signed Hammel to a one-year contract in January 2014 then dealt him in July with Samardzija to the A’s for prospects Billy McKinney and Addison Russell and starter Dan Straily.
Fun fact: Hammel returned to the Cubs as a free agent to earn a 2016 World Series ring.
When the Epstein/Hoyer era began, Chicago’s minor league system wasn’t strong. The following were Baseball America’s Top Cubs prospects shortly after the new front office arrived:
- Brett Jackson, OF
- Javier Báez, SS
- Matt Szczur, OF
- Trey McNutt, RHP
- Dillon Maples, RHP
- Welington Castillo, C
- Rafael Dolis, RHP
- Junior Lake, SS
- Josh Vitters, 1B/3B
- Daniel Vogelbach, 1B
Báez became an All-Star and Silver Slugger winner, plus an MVP runner-up with the Cubs in 2018.
Vogelbach is a rising star in Seattle. Dipoto acquired him by shipping Mike Montgomery to Chicago. Most Mariners fans know Montgomery earned the save in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series. That said; Vogey appears poised to deliver more career value.
Castillo is a 10-year veteran with the White Sox. Szczur has five years of big league experience, but currently assigned to the Diamondbacks’ Class-AAA affiliate. The remaining players logged little-to-no MLB time.
Still, the new regime needed to augment their system via non-organic means. For example, they acquired late-inning reliever Hector Rondon via the 2012 Rule 5 draft. They also found value via the trade market.
Hendricks and Edwards Jr. were pearls. So was rookie Anthony Rizzo, acquired for starter Andrew Cashner and minor leaguer Kyung-Min Na from the Padres in 2012. Rizzo is an All-Star and Gold Glove first baseman.
Russell’s unacceptable off-field behavior deservedly tarnishes his standing within MLB. But it doesn’t erase his history of being a fixture at shortstop in 2016-18 and an All-Star.
Worst In Baseball
Dipoto inherited a less productive system, which hit rock bottom in third party ranking entering 2018. To address the situation, he pursued high-end prospects via trade.
This past offseason, Seattle acquired Top-100 prospects Justus Sheffield (36), Jarred Kelenic (39), and Justin Dunn (71) in the Paxton and Canó deals. Throw in holdovers Evan White (86), Julio Rodriguez (93), and Logan Gilbert (95) and suddenly the farm is “far more robust.”
Other recent additions include Erik Swanson and Gerson Bautista, who’ve already pitched for Seattle. Jake Fraley may blossom into a regular outfielder, while Shed Long could morph into a super-utility player.
Our most recent top-10 Mariners prospect list
- Jarred Kelenic, OF
- Logan Gilbert, RHP
- Justin Dunn, RHP
- Julio Rodriguez, OF
- Justus Sheffield, LHP
- George Kirby, P
- Kyle Lewis, OF
- Noelvi Marte, SS
- Shed Long, 2B
- Braden Bishop, CF
It’s worth noting the Mariners also received a 2019 competitive balance pick from Cleveland in the Encarnación/Santana deal.
If You Build It…
After the 2014 season, the Cubs began adding marquee names signaling the club’s readiness to compete. The first addition was manager Joe Maddon.
Maddon just finished a nine-year run with the Rays guiding the team to its first World Series appearance and a 754-705 record. The Cubs have reached the postseason in every year of the Maddon era.
Next, Chicago inked Jon Lester to a six-year/$155 million contract. The Tacoma native has been a proven winner in the Windy City.
In July 2016, the team shipped Torres, McKinney, and fellow prospect Rashad Crawford with reliever Adam Warren to the Yankees for Aroldis Chapman. The elite closer’s arrival cemented Chicago’s championship roster.
Will the Dipoto and ownership be as aggressive when Seattle is primed to contend?
Only time will tell, but the Mariners have more work to do before reaching that milestone.
For now, Mariners fans should expect more of the same – a losing record and trades designed to trim payroll. Some will deliver prospect value; most will not.
That’s a bitter pill for a fan base enduring the longest active postseason drought in North America. But what’s the alternative?
Sure, Dipoto could’ve retained Canó, Segura, Paxton, and Díaz. Perhaps slugger Nelson Cruz stays if the team intended on contending this year. Then what?
Retaining expensive, underachieving players would’ve limited the financial flexibility of a team needing serious upgrading.
Remember, Canó has been on the IL twice this year and Félix remains shelved with no return date set. The Mariners couldn’t compete with these players delivering zero value
The hard truth is Dipoto is taking the Mariners in the right direction. Whether he succeeds is a question best answered in the future. Until then, fans should expect their team to get worse before improving.