Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto is doing what he has always resisted: Tearing the roster down to the studs, to use his phrase. Will it work? It depends on the prospects that are suddenly flooding Seattle’s way, and how well, and how quickly, they develop.
Two things about the impending trade of Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz to the Mets, on top of all the other foundation-ripping moves the Mariners have made and the inevitable ones still to come:
1. Dark, desolate times are ahead, no way to sugarcoat it. The Mariners will be a lousy baseball team in 2019 and 2020. Then we’ll take inventory and see how the rebuild is going, but you can probably add on a couple crummy years on top of that. That’s if they’re lucky.
2. This is nevertheless the right way for the Mariners to go, weighing all the circumstances at play.
Reconciling those two opinions will be difficult, maybe impossible, for Mariners fans, who have been beaten down by so many years of bitter disappointment and management malfeasance. And it’s important to note that it’s the right way for the Mariners to go only because of a tidal wave of bad decisions they’ve made over the years.
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But that’s where they are. And there’s salvation in squarely facing reality.
This is a potential path out of the vast middle ground they have found themselves mired in. I’ve gone over this before, but they are light years behind the Astros in their own division, and the Red Sox/Yankees in the wild-card race. So for the foreseeable future, their best-case scenario was the second wild card.
On top of that, the 2018 Mariners were an 89-win team in name only. Their path to that total last year was so fluky, and so unsustainable, that I give Jerry Dipoto credit for not clinging to the wishful delusion that they were better than that. Anyone with any baseball acumen could see the Mariners were headed for a fall in 2019.
So now Dipoto has started the process, with the fervent hope that when it all gets rebuilt, they will be in a far better place than they would have been by muddling along, hoping for miracles.
They’ve traded their ace pitcher, James Paxton. They’ve traded their defensive-whiz catcher, Mike Zunino, and one of their shutdown relievers, Alex Colome. They’re letting their best power hitter, designated hitter Nelson Cruz, move on with minimal or no effort to re-sign him. Same with outfielder Denard Span.
And now, once the deal is officially announced, they’ll be without their unparalleled reliever, Edwin Diaz, and their superstar second baseman, Robinson Cano. After that, you can pick names out of a hat to see who’s next to go: Jean Segura? Mike Leake? Dee Gordon? Kyle Seager?
Dipoto is doing what he has always resisted: Tearing it down to the studs, to use his phrase. Or, if Dipoto decides to hang on to Mitch Haniger, their best and most marketable player remaining, tearing it down to the stud.
At this point, though, why not go all the way? By the time the Mariners come out the other side, Haniger will be in his 30s and approaching free agency. Once they have dealt Paxton and Diaz, the Mariners in essence are making the statement that no one is off limits.
Will it work? It worked, to the hilt, for the Astros and Cubs, who got a World Series crown out of their tear-down. It’s working right now for the Braves and possibly the Phillies. The jury is still out on the multitude of other teams who are going the “tanking” route, to use the most pejorative description (one that will never, ever escape Dipoto’s lips). The ideal scenario will be to accelerate the rebuild, ie, minimize the misery, with the Brewers as the role model.
It all depends, of course, on the prospects that are suddenly flooding Seattle’s way, and how well, and how quickly, they develop. One need only to say the names “Jesus Montero” and “Justin Smoak” to understand the pitfalls that are lurking. But now, at least, the Mariners will have star-quality (maybe even superstar) talent in what had been a barren farm system. It would serve them well to obtain even more of it.
After that, it would help to get a little lucky. The Astros wouldn’t have gotten where they did without a 5-foot-5 infielder they signed with little expectation out of a Venezuelan tryout camp, Jose Altuve. He became the best player in the American League in 2017. The Cubs don’t get where they did without an unnoticed trade for Jake Arrieta, a washout with the Orioles who became a Cy Young Award winner.
And it would behoove the Mariners, obviously, to draft much better than they have, particularly with their top 10 picks. The Mariners’ draft failures, more than any single thing, are what got them into this predicament. Incongruously, they will be drafting 20th overall in 2019, uncommonly low for a team in tear-down mode. But that’s those 89 wins at work. They should be back in the top 10 by 2020.
The bulk of the team the Mariners put out on the field this upcoming season will be of the makeshift variety. The real drama will be on the minor-league level as the next wave of talent starts down their path. Whether those players get to the finish line with the full realization of their potential is anyone’s guess. The baseball landscape — especially the Mariners’ landscape — is littered with failed prospects.
There are no guarantees, in other words. The whole endeavor is fraught with danger. The playoff drought will push, or surpass, two decades.
But it still beats the alternative.