It is clear listening to established Mariners leaders like pitcher Marco Gonzales and shortstop J.P. Crawford that their thoughts don’t mirror those of general manager Jerry Dipoto, who has expressed lessened expectations, such as just hoping to compete for a postseason spot, or the somewhat nebulous goal of individual development for future seasons.
To them, wins and results still matter, and mistakes and losing shouldn’t come with the excuse of inexperience or learning.
“I don’t listen to what other people say outside of our clubhouse doors,” Gonzales said. “There’s too much noise out there. And frankly, you can get confused and it can get complicated. So I have a pretty simple mindset, and that’s to go out and win every day. I’ve had the same mindset since I was about 10 years old, through travel ball through high school, through Gonzaga, through St. Louis and through here. It’s the same thing every day, you go out and win the ballgame. That’s what I get paid to do.”
Said Crawford: “It’s time to win. Everyone wants to do it. That’s been my main goal since I got here. I just want to win.”
As the staff ace, the ultracompetitive Gonzales has been the unquestioned leader of the pitching staff the last few seasons, growing more assertive and vocal with each outing. His boyish appearance and good-natured personality can quickly be replaced by a ruthless competitor with a biting edge toward failure.
An example came when he was asked about the front office’s plan to carry over the six-man starting rotation model from the shortened 2020 season into the 2021 season. Gonzales took great pride in making 34 starts and pitching 203 innings in 2018. The loss of possibly five starts, if not more, doesn’t fit that mindset.
“I appreciate the question, but it’s not my job to comment on that sort of thing,” he said bluntly. “My job is to take the ball whenever it’s given to me and go out and win a ballgame. I’m not going to comment on the structure of our rotation.”
A non-answer can say plenty at times. But as a team leader, it is his job to be the voice of the players, even if it is questioning the validity of a plan, strategy or path.
The Mariners he joined in the midseason of 2017 featured Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Kyle Seager, Jean Segura, James Paxton, Dee Gordon and Edwin Diaz and had the oft-spoken goal of putting the organization in the playoffs for the first time since 2001.
It didn’t happen.
With the Mariners’ decision to rebuild following the 2018 season, Gonzales has watched all but Seager, who could be gone after this season, move on. He’s flourished personally despite rosters that weren’t constructed for optimal success or with winning as the primary goal.
Questions about the development of his teammates, who were learning at the big-league level, seemed to grow wearisome to him last season. He understood the front office’s reasoning for this process. But heading into the third season of this rebuild, he’s ready for something more. So while he maintains the rotation structure isn’t his job, changing the team mindset is a major part of his job as a leader.
“You’re in charge, and it’s your responsibility of defining what the culture of the team is — the character, the common goal of the team, the direction, the spearhead,” he said. “You’re in charge of where we go as a group. You’re in charge of what, you know, defining what it means to be a part of this team, setting expectations for your teammates and holding them accountable, holding myself accountable.”
In that way, he doesn’t believe growth and improvement — individual or team — comes from simply being out there and playing games at the MLB level. The quantity must be met with some quality and accountability.
“I think the only way to improve and develop is to win,” he said. “I think you have to learn how to win. You have to set the standard, set the expectations on winning. That’s how you get to where you want to go.”
Crawford wasn’t quite as emotional, but he’s past the point of hearing about developing and building for the future.
“I think it’s time to go,” Crawford said. “Everyone has had their time. Everyone’s got their little cup of (coffee), and I think we have a competitiveness to go out there and win every night and be a winning team. If we just all believe that, and we all play like that and show up each day like we can do that, it will make a big difference.”
While neither would dare say it publicly, they know it would make a big difference if the front office added some more experienced talent. A few days ago, Gonzales had a Twitter exchange with free-agent pitcher Taijuan Walker, who started with the Mariners last season and then was traded to the Blue Jays.
The exchange featured this line from Gonzales: “Come back to me we’ll take the AL West.”
Gonzales smiled when asked about it.
“Me and Taijuan love to engage on Twitter,” Gonzales said. “Obviously, he’s become one of my close friends, so I would love to have him back. I don’t know how much headway I can make. It’s not my job to get him here.”
At the time of the trade, Dipoto and manager Scott Servais talked about bringing the 29-year-old Walker back to be part of this rebuild. But sources indicate that the Mariners haven’t approached Walker’s agents with a serious offer yet.
Adding Walker wouldn’t guarantee winning the AL West, but it would make the Mariners better.
“On the AL West front, I don’t think I’m alone in seeing a window and seeing an opportunity to really make a statement in this division,” Gonzales said. “With the young talent that we have and the culture that we’ve begun to create here, we are on our way. That’s where the expectation lies right now. I won’t settle for anything less.”