Jerry Dipoto stood in front of about 200 hard-core Mariners fans on Wednesday and explained, in detail, how well he thought the step-back plan is progressing, and why. The general manager did so at the same time that the M’s are limping to the end of one of the worst seasons, by many measures, in club history
That’s a delicate balance, but Dipoto spoke with the zeal and conviction of a true believer. Not surprising – Dipoto’s fate is dependent on the success of a rebuild that is still in Phase 1.
That’s always the most painful phase and the one that engenders the most doubts, for good reason. It’s hard to rebuild a baseball team, and many a grand plan fizzles out well before fruition. We’ve all seen that play out here.
But Dipoto depicted joy and champagne just around the corner – and, I must say, did so convincingly.
“Our organization, our prospect system, and our future are really brighter than they’ve ever been,’’ Dipoto said.
The event at T-Mobile Park was billed as a town hall, but it was essentially Dipoto’s “State of the Mariners’ Address.” Spoiler alert: In his mind, it’s progressing right on schedule.
That’s admittedly a tough sell when the Mariners are headed toward their third-highest earned-run average in history, their fifth-worst batting average in history, and their third-worst fielding percentage in history – a trifecta of all-around woe. And also heading to their 18th consecutive year out of the playoffs, with a chance to finish further out of first place than they ever have, or close to it.
Yet this year was never about winning for the Mariners, even when they started 13-2. Part of one’s buy-in to the M’s master plan revolves around whether you believe it was the right tactic to tear the team apart in the first place. I always have, for the reasons that Dipoto succinctly laid out Wednesday:
“We had an old team, we were running a very high payroll, and we were headed in the wrong direction despite what our record looked like,’’ he said. “What I can tell you is you can’t take a 89-win team that finishes double-digit games in back of the wild card, throw some money at it, and go make a run at the most powerful teams in the league. That’s a fool’s errand.”
But even if you agree with the intent, it takes another leap of faith to believe that the Mariners are executing it well. It’s always that way when so much is predicated on prospects, who are unpredictable by nature.
The sneak preview of players such as Kyle Lewis, Shed Long, J.P. Crawford, Jake Fraley, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn has been enticing. Dipoto on Wednesday gave a long, mouth-watering rundown of the talent wave below that, the Jarred Kelenics and Julio Rodriguezes and Evan Whites and Logan Gilberts and Cal Raleighs knocking on the door, and the group behind them – the likes of Noelvi Marte, George Kirby, Brandon Williamson, Isaiah Campbell, Juan Then, Juan Corneal, Aaron Fletcher, Sam Delaplane, Joey Gerber, Milkar Perez and Austin Shenton.
Some of those are as young as 16 or 17, and many aren’t even in the consciousness of Mariners fans. But Dipoto sees a farm system as deep and talented as just about any in the game, one that will sustain the success he sees coming. And one that will eventually be augmented by a rainy-day fund the team has accumulated by ridding itself of $160 million in future payroll obligations with the 19 trades Dipoto has made since the end of last season.
Of course, fans will want to see that money spent, and not pocketed (and judging from the line of questioning at the town hall, what they’d REALLY love to see is ownership reduce rather than raise ticket prices while the rebuild is in process – not an unreasonable request). Here’s what Dipoto had to say about future spending of the payroll they’re saving:
“We don’t intend to go throw that at the free-agent market, because quite frankly we’re not one player away, as you can see,’’ Dipoto said. “We’re watching this group grow, but we now have the ability in years where we would have been spending $24 million on (Robinson) Cano and $14 million on Jean Segura, and go on down the line, we now have the ability to determine where the hole is on a competitive team and go spend there. It gives us great leverage when this group starts to hit in what we think is 2021.”
Yeah, it’s likely to be another trying season in 2020, when the faith of Mariners fans will be tested even more. But that should get progressively easier as those young players hit the major leagues, with White, Gilbert and perhaps Kelenic in line to be up at some point in 2020. Especially if they make the kind of impact Lewis has.
“I’d like to tell you we’re doing the smart thing,” Dipoto said. “We’ll find out, is the real answer. What is different this time as opposed to the last 17 years is right now we do have a burgeoning farm system. Right now, we do have the ability to re-invest a lot of payroll we’ve been able to pull out of 2020 and beyond, and reallocate it toward what we think is finishing pieces once this group is fully fleshed out and developed.
“There is no scientific answer to the question. I can’t give you a decimal point or a dollar amount or a date and time when it’s all going to crest. But we feel like we’re building talent in a traditional way and we’re adding, let’s call it new, modern techniques of player development and player analysis that we feel make us a little bit different. You got to do something a little bit different in order to beat the teams that are out in front of us.”
Dipoto told the story of a chat he had with third baseman Kyle Seager about two weeks ago. He complimented Seager on his resurgence and the way he’s embraced the rebuild. According to Dipoto, here was Seager’s reply:
“I’ve been here a long time. Somebody needed to do this a long time ago. Mostly, I’m excited about the quality of the players. This is going to work.”
There are promising signs that he’s right. But it’s still very much an act of faith.