Once the chaotic lead-up to Friday’s MLB trade deadline ended without any more deals by the Mariners, a reality emerged.
Simply this: Your reaction to the three trades the M’s made this week — and even more to the point, the numerous ones they could have, but didn’t — will boil down to your belief in the grand plan of general manager Jerry Dipoto.
And, your level of confidence that Dipoto is leading them to the huge payoff that will make all the intermittent pain worthwhile. That has been the selling point all along, after all. But the timetable very likely was pushed back one more season by Dipoto’s insistence on remaining dedicated to the rebuild rather than risk sacrificing any of the future for immediate gain.
It will no doubt remain a tough sell in the Mariners’ clubhouse, as Dipoto recognized. The frustration of this week, I am quite certain, only grew as the Mariners watched one established star after another switch teams Friday while the Mariners stood pat. It would have been far easier to buy in if a Trea Turner, Jose Berrios or Whit Merrifield was coming their way.
In a moment of particular honesty shortly after the deadline expired with no Mariners trade, Dipoto said, “The team’s done a wonderful job. And we do feel like we added to our major-league club. There’s no question about that. Whether it’s deemed enough in the scope of things, I don’t know. A lot of teams around us got a lot better today.”
Indeed, the three teams in direct competition with the Mariners for the second American League wild card — the Yankees, Blue Jays and A’s — all loaded up. The Mariners’ path to the playoff berth that has eluded them since 2001 is far more daunting than it was four days ago. If players feel management didn’t have their backs — and that’s still the prevailing mood — the bitterness will be pervasive, and damaging.
The Mariners made three moves of far more incremental advancement. After the first one, the roundly reviled (at least in the Mariners clubhouse) trade of closer Kendall Graveman and designated-for-assignment reliever Rafael Montero to Houston for infield prospect Abraham Toro and struggling 37-year-old reliever Joe Smith, Dipoto said he was working on more deals that would help relieve the in-house angst over that trade.
I highly doubt he accomplished that. Dipoto traded two lower-level prospects to Pittsburgh for pending free-agent starter Tyler Anderson, who fills a big void in their rotation. And he dealt a better prospect, Austin Shenton, as well as reliable reliever J.T. Chargois, to Tampa Bay for its erstwhile closer, Diego Castillo, who brings impressive numbers and four more years of club control.
The abysmal timing of the Graveman trade, coming as the Mariners pulled within one game of Oakland in the wild-card race after an exhilarating win, will be hard to overcome. It led to as big a 24-hour mood shift as I’ve ever experienced in three-plus decades around the game.
Here’s what Dipoto said when I asked if the moves in totality will help the players understand his thinking:
“I think that way, but you know, again, they have their own opinions, and they’re people; they deserve to have that. So I can’t tell you what they should feel. But, logically, I feel like we just made the team better in the present. And we feel like we made the team considerably better for the future.
“That’s always been the line that we’re trying to walk. And the sensitive position of that is, I guess, juxtaposed to pouring it all in for a run as a wild-card threat in a division where we trail the leader by a considerable amount.
“But we couldn’t be irresponsible in what we were doing here. That just would have been the wrong thing to do. And we had opportunities to do that. But we have to stay disciplined to the plan that we laid out. I think we’re following along that plan and running on or ahead of schedule in getting there.”
You can certainly make the case that when you put everything together, the organization, long term, is better off now than it was at the beginning of the week.
Toro has a chance to be an infield fixture, and Graveman was going to walk after the season. With Anderson, the Mariners no longer have to endure the cringeworthy starts by the bullpen or a Class AAA fill-in that have plagued their season. And Castillo has been dominant at times this year.
But I’m not sure it’s enough to warrant the disruption of the always-delicate chemistry that had developed over the course of the season. I think you can make a strong case that the Mariners would have a better chance to make a successful playoff run this year if they had passed altogether on the Graveman deal and instead made only the other two.
Which comes back to your evaluation of Dipoto: If you believe that his eye for talent is keen enough to trust that, in particular, Toro will provide a long-term payoff that justifies the temporary disruption of morale, then you applaud the move.
I think you can point positively to previous acquisitions such as Mitch Haniger, Ty France, J.P. Crawford and Chris Flexen, all of whom were correctly identified by Dipoto and his staff as breakout candidates. Toro could conceivably be the next one that moves the Mariners closer to their long-term goal.
But there is an ancillary question hanging over the week to add to the ones I posed before: Does aggressive pursuit of a playoff berth right now warrant potentially mortgaging any part of the future?
This is where I would veer off track from Dipoto, who said he steadfastly turned back repeated attempts this week from GMs to raid the Mariners’ farm system.
“We were resistant to trading our top prospects for short-term gain. As I’ve said, throughout, we were willing to consider roughly anything, if it allowed us to continue to build forward,” Dipoto said. “But we were unable to do that. And obviously, we didn’t make any moves today as a result.”
I believe that the Mariners were close enough to the playoffs — one game out before dropping two to Houston in the malaise that followed the Graveman trade — and that they had an obligation to push hard for this year. Even if it cost a prospect who might burn then down the road. Because it has simply been far, far too long.
Dipoto has built an admirably deep farm system, and one benefit of that is to provide trade fodder, with confidence that you have enough future stars to compensate. Certainly, the Padres have been following that blueprint quite successfully, with maximum aggressiveness, for the past few years.
I’ve heard it asked this way: Would you rather be a wild-card team now and have one playoff game, or be a World Series candidate in years to come?
I would respond by pointing out that you make yourself a World Series candidate first by making the postseason. Once you get in, anything can happen. Ask the 2014 Royals, who barely made the playoffs and trailed 7-3 to Oakland in the eighth inning of the wild-card game. They came back to win and advanced to the seventh game of the World Series. The next year, the Royals won it all.
One thing Mariners fans know all too well is these chances are as precious as they are rare. There’s no guarantee the Mariners will be back in this position next year. You can’t keep kicking that chance down the road.
Yet it is a credit to Dipoto’s building job that you can certainly see a road map to the sort of perennial contention this organization has experienced for only a flash in the late 1990s/early 2000s. And his discipline this week may yet make the payoff even sweeter — for those who can summon the patience to wait a little longer.