The 2018 MLB Winter Meetings get under way Sunday in Las Vegas, but GM Jerry Dipoto didn't wait to get started. The Mariners have already made five major moves. That doesn't mean there aren't more to come.
LAS VEGAS — Could it happen again?
Ten years ago, the last time the Major League Baseball Winter Meetings were held in Las Vegas, the Mariners were part of one of the biggest trades in the history of the four-day festival of speculation, rumors and occasional meetings.
Then-general manager Jack Zduriencik, who had just been hired, was in the midst of culling payroll under the orders of Howard Lincoln, the Chief Executive Officer of Nintendo America, which had previously owned the team.
At just about 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2008, Zduriencik traded a group of four players, most notably All-Star closer J.J. Putz in a three-way trade with the Mets and Indians that netted the Mariners seven players, including Franklin Gutierrez, Endy Chavez and Jason Vargas. A total of 12 players were moved in the deal.
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Zduriencik’s first trade was one of the biggest in terms of quantity of players in winter meetings’ history.
Fast forward to this year and current general manager Jerry Dipoto is also in the midst of removing payroll and older players from his roster.
The circumstances are certainly different. The 2008 Mariners lost 101 games and became the first team in MLB history with a payroll of more than $100 million to lose 100 games. The dysfunctional team had to be taken apart.
The 2018 Mariners are coming off an 89-win season, their most since 2003. But early in the offseason, Dipoto and the new ownership group, led by chairman John Stanton, decided to not throw more money at an aging roster that can’t compete against the Astros, Red Sox, Yankees, Indians and A’s.
The Mariners decided to take a “step back” that looks like a rebuild or a teardown.
As he has been in the past, Dipoto was unwilling to wait for the meetings to do his work. He’s already executed five trades removing nine players from his 25-man roster. Seattle got mostly prospects in return along with a few veterans, who were included to help even out contracts.
Dipoto is certainly creative enough to throw together another monster deal. He has multiple veteran players he would happily trade for prospects, most notably second baseman Dee Gordon, starting pitcher Mike Leake, third baseman Kyle Seager and recently acquired first baseman Carlos Santana and outfielder Jay Bruce.
Leake or Santana might be the most likely of the group to be traded, given their contracts and their value to other teams. The Mariners may try to see if the other players have strong first halves next season to up their value before moving them at the July trade deadline. Seager’s hefty contract makes it even more complicated to move him.
They’ll listen to offers on all of them, searching for prospect packages that include talent that is almost big-league ready.
But it will be the one player who the Mariners aren’t interested in trading who will draw the most interest. Dipoto will continue to be asked about the availability of outfielder Mitch Haniger. He’s the best remaining trade piece on the Mariners’ roster and his four years of club control are attractive to teams looking for a premium player at a discount.
As painful as it might seem to fans, trading Haniger should be considered if the return is significant. If the Mariners are willing to come this far in their step back, they can’t be afraid to push it further.
While so much has focused on who has been traded and what has been done to get younger, the Mariners still have to play games in 2019. The Mariners’ goal is to put a competitive product on the field while admitting that this will likely be another year without the postseason.
Dipoto will be looking for relievers to fill out a bullpen that has lost closer Edwin Diaz, set-up men Alex Colome, Juan Nicasio, James Pazos and Nick Vincent.
But don’t expect them to be looking at big names or even pitchers looking for multiyear deals. The Mariners will be trying to sign players on one-year deals and looking at players bouncing back from poor seasons or injuries. There is no reason to invest heavily into the bullpen given the plan and the year-to-year volatility of relievers.
The Mariners have already made a handful of notable minor-league signings of veteran players who could compete for an opening-day roster spots, most recently left-handed pitcher Tommy Milone and catcher Jose Lobaton.
The Mariners could look at signing a veteran shortstop on a minor-league deal or a small one-year contract. While the everyday job is expected to be filled by J.P. Crawford, who was acquired in the trade that sent Jean Segura to Philadelphia, the Mariners aren’t going to force Crawford into that everyday role if he isn’t ready. If he were to struggle in spring training or even the start of the season, it would be logical to have a veteran player who can step in if needed.
The starting rotation has Felix Hernandez, Marco Gonzales, Leake, Wade LeBlanc with an open spot for one of the young pitchers Seattle acquired, possibly lefty Justus Sheffield. But Milone or another veteran arm signed to a minor-league deal could fill that spot.
It seems unlikely Dipoto or any GM pulls off a blockbuster like the three teams did back in 2008. Dipoto has already traded away so many pieces that he’s only got a handful left to move. But any trade involving Haniger would certainly be big in terms of quality over quantity.