Let’s flash back to June 19, which seems like another lifetime ago for the Mariners. The ballclub had just lost its fourth out of five games to the Angels at home — the second in a row by shutout. It was 10 games under .500, the season was in shambles, and the universe of angry Mariners fans was imploring GM Jerry Dipoto to fire or cut someone.
I asked Dipoto, warmed by the glow of 16 wins in the next 19 games, if he was tempted at the time to execute such a bold stroke of a move.
“Not at all, because I think they also wanted to fire me,” he said with a laugh.
On a more serious level, Dipoto said he learned long ago to guard against reactionary moves when mired in the valleys of a 162-game season. It’s better to have the courage of your convictions — which in this case was a firm belief that the Mariners were a lot better than they had showed.
“You can’t get emotional in the way you react to a baseball season; otherwise you’ll do irrational things,” he said. “You have to take a broader or global look at a season.”
It’s a decision that has proved wise. The one move Dipoto did make, acquiring veteran first baseman Carlos Santana in a trade with Kansas City, has proven hugely beneficial. With all their suspensions finally served after Wednesday’s first game in Washington, D.C., and the returns of Kyle Lewis and Mitch Haniger getting ever closer, the Mariners are suddenly poised for a strong playoff run.
Just as Dipoto envisioned at the start of the season. Even if that grand plan seemed to have disintegrated in June. Dipoto says that “I pinch myself” as he reflects on the surge that has resurrected their hopes.
“The first thing that comes to mind is that we thought we were a better team than we were playing like to begin with,” he said. “I always subscribe to the notion that you’re going to find your water level. I didn’t really anticipate that it was going to come in the form of winning 16 of 19 games or how quickly it all came together.
“But we did think that we had a good team. I said it in spring training. And I know Scott (Servais) has never wavered. This is the most talented team we’ve ever had. And that is particularly true when we’re at full strength. And the amazing part of the last three weeks is that we haven’t been in full strength and this group was still able to pull off what they have to date, and don’t appear interested in stopping.”
With the trade deadline looming (it’s Aug. 2 this year), I asked Dipoto if the Mariners’ run into wild-card position has changed his thinking on how aggressively he’ll tap the market. He says it hasn’t, because his goal is always the same: to get better now and in the future.
The difficulty this year is that because of the extra wild-card berths, there are maybe seven teams who will be sellers, which means more than 20 who will be buying. That dynamic will drive up the cost in prospects meteorically.
Add to that the fact that there appear to be no available impact players at the position of greatest need for the Mariners — second base. Which means they will likely be counting on a revival from Adam Frazier, who has had a miserable first half.
“With Fraze, it’s never about lack of contact,” Dipoto said. “He makes a lot of contact. Right now he’s running an absurdly low BABIP (batting average on balls in play). That’s usually portends the idea that at some point, it will turn. But it’s been an elongated stretch. I’d venture to say it’s probably the worst offensive stretch in his major-league career. In his career, he’s roughly been an offensive metronome. When we acquired him, our expectations were that this is a ‘slow and steady wins the race’ type of player. I do believe that he will ultimately get back to that.”
Dipoto notes, “There is no real gaping hole on our team, when you consider those bats coming back. But if we have a chance to be opportunistic, we would love to do that.”
Would the Mariners go out and get one of the top pitchers who might be available, such as Frankie Montas (if he shows himself to be healthy) or Luis Castillo? It would no doubt be tempting, despite the inevitably exorbitant asking price (think Emerson Hancock, Noelvi Marte and/or even Jarred Kelenic). One of those arms could be the difference in ending the Mariners’ 20-year playoff drought and making a deep postseason run.
But as Dipoto points out, the rotation as constituted has been the key to their run. He is hesitant to disrupt that chemistry and success.
“We love our five starters,” he said. “If you acquire a starter, someone obviously gets displaced. And, right now, I don’t know who that would be. You’d be taking someone out of the rotation who is almost certainly as good or better a starter as you can go acquire. That’s the first thought that comes to mind.”
But he is also mindful of the mounting innings of rookie George Kirby and the fact the rotation has thus far escaped injury, a circumstance not guaranteed to last the entire season.
“Like we did at last year’s trade deadline when we picked up Tyler Anderson, if there is the opportunity to add a veteran starter who gives you the high-floor certainty to protect us, and that is willing to pitch as a swing man in the bullpen. … I don’t want to go to a six-man rotation and bust up the mojo this group has right now,” Dipoto said. “But we’ll consider anything if we feel like that allows us to add impact.”
It’s a happy dilemma to have, just like the one facing them when Lewis, Haniger and Taylor Trammell eventually come off the DL. They will have to find a way to rotate those three plus Jesse Winker, Ty France and Santana through four positions — the two corner outfield spots, first base and DH. Dipoto said they are hoping to have Lewis play in the outfield on occasion to make that task a bit easier.
“That’s what we’re focusing on in his rehab right now: Take a little extra time to make sure that he can manage the outfield a couple of times in a week,” Dipoto said.
Preparing for a potential playoff run is a far cry from the Mariners’ dire outlook just three weeks ago.
“The fact that we fell on our face for about five weeks really was a frustrating time where we underperformed our own ability,” Dipoto said. “We dealt with some unfortunate injuries and played the toughest part of our schedule all while that was happening.
“And now, hopefully, we’ve experienced the reverse of that, where we do have flourishing players who right now are really clicking and seem to really enjoy playing together. And we have done what we needed to do to get back in the mix.”
Now on to the new challenge: staying in the mix.