Dipoto has done some nice things this offseason with the trades for Dee Gordon and Ryon Healy. But the big hubbub of the first day of the winter meetings — the introduction of Giancarlo Stanton as a New York Yankee — underscores the challenge the Mariners are facing.
ORLANDO, Fla. — To Jerry Dipoto, the question hung there like a batting-practice fastball, waist high: Did the Mariners’ failure to sign Shohei Ohtani, coupled with his decision to join a division rival, add any urgency to Seattle’s offseason building plans?
“Not really,” he said pointedly. “As you may have ascertained, we’re pretty urgent.”
Indeed, Dipoto’s frenetic pace in transaction completion has become his trademark, and the source of much good-natured ribbing. But the shuffling of bodies does not a playoff team make. The addition of Ohtani would have been a huge uplift for the Mariners on dual fronts — pitching and hitting — and his signing with the Angels has made Seattle’s ever-elusive path back to the playoffs that much more daunting.
That’s not a fact Dipoto was willing to concede, not surprisingly. And when he ran down the list of the Mariners’ virtues — an everyday lineup that has power, speed and balance (and more youth than you’d think, he said, with the statistics to back it up); a rotation Dipoto feels is better than anyone gives it credit for (“our front three lines up with most teams in the American League as far as their front three”); and a bullpen with a strong closer, solid veteran setup men and likely to be augmented before the winter is over — well, he spoke with the zeal of a true believer.
“We like our group,” Dipoto said. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to make it better, because we have a big gap to make up with the Astros, but we’re not shying away from the idea of being a contender, because we think we are.”
I’m not quite there yet. Dipoto has done some nice things this offseason with the trades for new center fielder Dee Gordon and first baseman Ryon Healy, and he indicated that a pitching addition could be forthcoming here during the winter meetings. But the big hubbub of the first day of the meetings — the introduction of Giancarlo Stanton as a New York Yankee at a packed news conference — just underscores the challenge the Mariners are facing.
Dave Cameron in FanGraphs wrote recently how the American League could be beginning to resemble the National League in the potential divide between the powerhouses at the top and the scrubs at the bottom. The AL recently has been a much more equitable division, with few dominating teams but far more clubs that had realistic playoff aspirations. But perhaps that’s the case no longer, with the Stanton-led Yankees projected to become a “super team” along with the Astros, Indians and Red Sox.
That doesn’t even take into account the Angels, who figure to add pieces around Ohtani (rumors have linked them to Mike Moustakas, among others), and the Twins, who landed the second wild-card spot last year. Cameron speculates that more AL teams may face the reality that they have little hope of breaking into that upper echelon and dismantle their team for a rebuild, as so many NL teams have done.
“A few teams almost certainly keep pushing in the short-term,’’ Cameron wrote, “but the days of the AL Wild Card contest being a race to 88 wins are probably over.”
The Mariners are unquestionably going to keep pushing, and pushing hard. They have steadfastly rejected the notion of a total rebuild and don’t have the roster composition that lends itself to one, with their two highest-paid players (Felix Hernandez and Robinson Cano) being virtually untradeable by virtue of their contracts. That playoff gap of 16 years and counting haunts the organization as well, and they feel they are too close to back off now.
But after finishing 2017 at 78-84, the ninth-best record in the league (and seven games out of the second wild-card, despite being in contention for it much of the year), are the Mariners capable of making up the necessary games? The Mariners haven’t won as many as 88 games in a decade, and now they’ll likely have to do better than that.
Baseball has a funny way of defying expectations, of course, and it’s certainly possible that the Mariners could be a 90-win team if things break right, and the right people stay healthy (we’re looking at you, Hernandez and James Paxton). It’s always hard to make definitive projections in December, when the final composition of the ballclub isn’t yet known.
But landing Ohtani would have made the Mariners’ outlook so much rosier, which explains why they put so much time and effort into it. Dipoto said he wasn’t second-guessing anything the Mariners did in their pursuit of the enigmatic Japanese star (“we played it the way we wanted to play it”); my hunch is that Ohtani’s decision would have been the same regardless of the mechanics of their presentation.
“We always felt we had a shot,’’ Dipoto said Monday in addressing Ohtani’s decision for the first time since he chose the Angels. “From the very get-go, we felt we had a shot. We were definitely very public about our willingness to try to run him down. We felt very comfortable about the process.”
The beauty of Ohtani is that he would have given the Mariners quality depth both in their rotation and lineup. Now they have to choose which spot to provide an extra player, with an apparent lean toward having a 13th pitcher rather than a 13th position player.
“There’s a lot of really talented pitchers out there,” Dipoto said. “We’ll just see how much impact we can add.”
Nothing is guaranteed, but unless every scout is wrong, Ohtani would have been instant impact, at least on the mound. Now the Mariners have to pivot and try to make a jolt in other ways.