There’s magic happening at T-Mobile Park, and it’s time to reward the architects of the most unexpectedly meaningful season in recent Mariners history.
Manager Scott Servais and general manager Jerry Dipoto have been dangling with expiring contracts all season. It was prudent to see whether the burgeoning rebuild would stay on track and provide tangible evidence that the payoff was imminent.
Conversely, if the season fell apart and the Mariners flirted with 100 losses — which wasn’t out of the realm of possibility, certainly not by the projection models — then some serious re-evaluation needed to be done.
I’ve seen enough to say: Give Dipoto and Servais contract extensions, and let them see this rebuild through to the end. Two or three years with an option sounds about right to me. They’ve earned it. That would get them to the arrival of Julio Rodriguez and the pipeline of young pitching that could propel the team to championship caliber.
The Mariners on Tuesday announced the hiring of Catie Griggs, their new president of business operations to replace Kevin Mather. But under a management restructuring, her role is separate from baseball operations. Dipoto’s contract is presumably team chairman John Stanton’s call, and Servais’ contract would then be in Dipoto’s purview.
Back to the magic: Here we are, a full 101 games into the season entering Tuesday night, and the Mariners sit nine games above .500, one game behind the A’s for the American League’s second wild-card berth.
It’s a playoff chase no one saw coming, one that defies the metrics, not to mention common sense. They are winning games they have no business winning, exemplified by Monday’s electrifying win over Houston after being down 7-0. Their margin of error is razor thin, and a backslide has always seemed to be lurking just around the corner.
But you can’t deny the black-and-white reality of the standings. This team has overachieved more than any in baseball, and it’s time to stop wondering when the magic is going to run out. Yes, I’m as guilty of that as anyone. But when you sustain it for four months, it ceases to be a mirage or fluke, and instead becomes the true measure of the team.
That’s a positive reflection on Servais, who has taken a squad that’s filled with holes and has been annihilated by key injuries, and guided them past all the other wild-card contenders. They are gaining momentum, confidence and swagger as the season progresses. Few teams in baseball, even the powerhouses, are playing better baseball over the past month or so, which is amazing for a team that still ranks near the bottom of MLB in offense.
Now just one team, Oakland, stands between Seattle and the ever-elusive playoff berth, a pursuit that has become a two-decades-long mission, and eventually an obsession, for the Mariners. You can pooh-pooh a wild-card berth that might result in nothing more than a solitary playoff game, and on the road, no less. But I don’t think you can underestimate the symbolic importance for the entire organization of getting that massive stigma — longest postseason drought in major men’s American professional sports — off its resume.
These Mariners play good, sound, fundamental baseball, which is a result of the pregame work they put in under the auspices of Servais and his coaches, particularly Perry Hill.
They have fire and personality. They are likable, and seem to like each other. The camaraderie is tangible. Again, a reflection of the manager. You can always pick nits with any manager and second-guess strategic decisions. But when a bullpen has performed as consistently well as the Mariners’ has this year, the button-pushing has to be right more often than not.
As for Dipoto, the culmination of the rebuild has been a moving target, largely because the COVID-19 ramifications have thrown prospect development back a few steps. But it’s increasingly hard to argue that the Mariners aren’t moving toward the goal, which is championship contention. They are indisputably in playoff contention, which is what was once promised at this juncture but amended when the minor leagues were shut down in 2020. Yet here they are.
Certainly, some of the key pieces of the rebuild have been tenuous. Outfielder Jarred Kelenic, touted as a superstar in waiting, is still in the midst of a massive offensive struggle. It’s imperative for the Mariners’ big-picture outlook for him to figure things out — and unless every baseball evaluator is wrong, he eventually will. Kyle Lewis’ chronic knee injury is a huge concern, as is the health of first baseman Evan White. Those are three cornerstone pieces of the grand plan.
Yet rebuilds aren’t linear. Invariably, they take a “three steps forward and two steps back” track. Dipoto has built a farm system of tremendous depth that should start reaping increasing results in the coming years. Already, Logan Gilbert looks like a top-of-the-rotation starter, and Cal Raleigh has shown enough flashes to give hope that he’ll be a plus catcher. Rodriguez will reach the majors next year, with hopes of a stream of top-flight pitching prospects like George Kirby, Emerson Hancock and others to follow.
Meanwhile, the Mariners are still winning in 2021 while waiting for the youngsters to arrive and click. Dipoto, an inveterate wheeler and dealer, hasn’t hit with all his trades and signings, but there is enough of a core that he has brought in — the likes of J.P. Crawford, Ty France, Mitch Haniger, Chris Flexen, Yusei Kikuchi — to sustain things. And he managed to construct a lockdown bullpen out of the island of misfit relievers — Kendall Graveman, Paul Sewald, J.T. Chargois, Drew Steckenrider and Anthony Misiewicz, most prominently — who were all plucked out of relative obscurity.
Now as Friday’s trade deadline approaches, Dipoto will be tested. His first move Tuesday, dealing Graveman to Houston for infielder Abraham Toro and 37-year-old reliever Joe Smith, frankly was puzzling and disappointing. It detracts from Seattle’s playoff push and is reminiscent of a deal that a team looking more to the future than the present would make. Yet Dipoto says he is working on a series of moves that will ultimately help the Mariners this year, and put the Graveman trade in a more reasonable light. I’ll reserve final judgment until it all plays out.
The Mariners desperately need a fifth starting pitcher after injuries systematically wiped out their depth. And they need at least one productive bat, preferably right-handed and able to play second base or the outfield, to spark an offense that is overcoming its deficiencies by being the most clutch unit in MLB.
It would have been prudent to stock Tacoma with more fringe major-league pitchers to mitigate against the bullpen starts that have been so problematic all season. But if Dipoto had been empowered to sign eventual All-Star starter Taijuan Walker (not to mention second baseman Kolten Wong) instead of having ownership quibble over the contracts, he wouldn’t be working the phone lines quite as furiously as he is right now.
This will be a very delicate balance for Dipoto as the Friday trade deadline approaches. After rousing victories such as Monday’s, he has a mandate to do everything possible to reward the players and fans by bolstering the roster. The buzz over this team is reaching deafening levels.
But he also has to do so without mortgaging too much of the future. That said, it’s worth keeping in mind that teams build strong farm systems for two reasons. Stocking the major-league roster is the obvious one. But providing depth for trade acquisitions to push you toward the playoffs is the other.
The fact that the Mariners have worked their way into position to have these discussions is something that few saw coming. It’s also something to savor; it’s been a long time — interminable, really — since a playoff berth in Seattle was a legitimate aspiration, not a remote pipe dream.
That doesn’t happen by accident. And the people responsible should not be lame ducks any longer.