Jerry Dipoto knew the initial reaction would be emotional from people around baseball — a small world filled with hundreds of people in scouting, player development, baseball operations and game staff — and from Mariners fans already skeptical of the organization’s tactics and frustrated by the team’s lack of on-field success.
Over the past three days, the organization, specifically Dipoto and Andy McKay, the director of player development, have been informing employees in the scouting department, baseball operations and player development about their future with their organization, specifically whether their contract would be renewed for 2021 or the team would let it expire after Oct. 31.
As rumors from text messages were verified by MLB sources and news reports began to permeate to people not being brought back, the expected feedback and backlash within the inner circles of the game and from fans on social media followed. The Mariners were being labeled as cheap or penny-pinching on Twitter, while texts from scouts and player-development people in and outside of the organization criticized the Mariners’ motives, saying they were already one of the worst-paying organizations in baseball and now they are reducing the number of employees, while others accused Dipoto of being a megalomaniac and a tyrant to work for.
“It is what it is,” Dipoto said in a one-on-one, socially distant interview in a boardroom at T-Mobile Park. “It reads how it reads.”
He labeled the calls “heartbreaking.”
“Each of the last three days, I’ve had to make a lot of these phone calls, and not just to our scouts, but people around our baseball operations. This is an ongoing thing,” he said. “We started making organizational changes some months back. This dates back to May, June, and through, really no control of our own, we as a human race have been put in a position to have to adapt to a new world around us, and we as an organization have had to adapt as well.”
On Thursday, multiple MLB sources confirmed that more than a dozen members of the scouting department, including Tom Allison, the team’s director of scouting, were informed they would not have their contracts renewed and should begin the process of seeking new employment with another team.
The exact number of scouts that were non-renewed was not given by the Mariners, who have a club policy to not speak about the job status of employees unless circumstances dictate otherwise.
On Saturday, the Times confirmed that McKay had begun the process of informing members of the player-development staff that they would not be retained in 2021. The extent of the staff reductions are not known, but MLB sources confirmed that Rainiers manager Daren Brown, a fixture in the organization and Mariners interim manager in 2010, was not being brought back along with Rainiers trainer Tom Newberg, who has been the affiliate’s longtime trainer.
Brown was entering his 20th season with the organization and his second stint as the manager of the Rainiers. He is the winningest manager in franchise history with 494 wins. But it was mildly curious that he wasn’t invited as part of the coaching staff for the alternate training site in Tacoma.
Also not returning will be Dave Berg, who was slated to manage Class AA Arkansas and Denny Hocking, who was supposed to manage High-A Modesto.
The Mariners won’t give the exact number of staff removed from player development either.
Upon first glance, it’s a bad look. But staffing reductions for the Mariners have already taken place in other parts of the organization, particularly non-field staff like business, marketing and sales. And staffing reductions for most companies are prevalent with an uncertain economy and very little current optimism about slowing the coronavirus spread.
Dipoto reiterated what Mariners chairman John Stanton had said on Friday, that there were layers to these decisions.
“Incredibly difficult, but the obvious is that we are all being forced to adjust to a world that is different than it was four or five months ago,” Dipoto said. “The changes that we’ve made in scouting, some in player development on some level were inevitable because the game is just getting smaller. But the biggest part is just simply trying to adapt to conditions worldwide, both in terms of the need to be more efficient and in our process economically, based on the world we’re living in. That’s just the reality and incredibly painful.”
Dipoto was adamant they weren’t dismissing employees. All of the employees will be paid through Oct. 31, but some won’t be brought back.
“When these discussions began, we were forced to take a look at our structure and look at it in a different way,” he said. “That was just simply because of the changes around the game and in the world. Would all of these changes have occurred were it not for COVID-19? Probably not. But some of were inevitable, and that is the result of change that is outside of our control.”
The changes Dipoto referred to are the reduced revenues from baseball being played without fans in 2020 and for an unknown amount of games. And it’s not impossible to think that MLB games in 2021 won’t have fans at the beginning and a reduced number when any ban is lifted.
There is also the expected reduction of minor-league affiliates by Major League Baseball and commissioner Rob Manfred. Some 40 teams will likely be contracted from the MILB system. The Mariners will likely lose at least one of their Class A affiliates, possible West Virginia in the reduction.
And realistically, given the continued spread of the pandemic and the curve not flattening, the lack of a viable vaccine, the 2021 minor-league season in its traditional form is also in doubt. A more hopeful goal might be a shortened season instead.
The other change to baseball is the likelihood of a shortened MLB draft and a looming international draft. The 2020 draft was reduced from 40 rounds to five rounds due to baseball being shut down and the uncertainty of the season. While it’s unlikely to remain just five rounds going forward, there is a belief that it will be limited to 20 to 25 rounds in the years to come.
And while Dipoto didn’t mention it, there is also the looming expiration of the collective-bargaining agreement and the strong possibility of a work stoppage based on the contentious negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA before baseball’s resumption.
“None of these changes were performance related,” Dipoto said. “We just had to downsize for all the changes I mentioned.”
When Dipoto informed staff making more than $60,000 in baseball operations, player development and scouting of salary reductions instead of layoffs due to the pandemic, baseball’s shutdown and the expectation of games without fans, he also told them he would inform them of what their 2021 season would be like by late July-early August.
“The timing of it, we thought the right thing to do for this group was to get with them as soon as these decisions were made so that they had some small advantage in trying to find a landing spot while the market was open,” Dipoto said. “Somewhere at the end of September, early to mid-October, employees are informed who will be renewed, who won’t be renewed and you negotiate new deals. Inevitably, there are a number of people who are put in a position where with no time remaining on their existing contract, they’re forced into the prospect of having no job.”
Since the Mariners had made the decision to restructure and reduce the scouting department and player development staff, they decided to inform those that wouldn’t be a part of the changed groups early.
“We knew there would be changes based on the need to restructure due to downsizing across baseball,” he said. “It’s not just going to be us, it’s going to be 30 teams. And we wanted to give our group the advantage of having more time on the market while they’re still drawing paychecks every two weeks with full benefits. We hope it just gives them a better chance. We thought it was the more human thing to do. The fact that we are standing I guess on the island alone right now makes it a little more ominous.”
As for the restructuring of the scouting department, Dipoto said the actual process began over a year and a half ago.
“We started an intentional shift toward incorporating more video, more data and more technology in how we were scouting,” he said. “We used all of those elements and teaching our scouting group how to apply them. Those that won’t be here after October 31, and those who will remain here after October 31, were fully well aware that this was an oncoming movement, not just with the Mariners, but around the game.”
Dipoto made similar changes to the Diamondbacks scouting department.
“We intended on this being a two- to three-year transition into this model,” he said. “The results of a pandemic that we can’t control, it upped the timing when would we transition full time into that type of model. We didn’t kick scouting to the side. We are trying to find ways to maximize the returns of the scouting program. We still have a very large scouting staff, it’s just not going to be as large as it was before November 1.”