LAS VEGAS — Is it a continuation bluff based on positioning where the Mariners pull the jackpot at the end in a play few saw coming?

Or is Jerry Dipoto simply checking to the expected bettors and raisers like the Yankees and Dodgers, seeing the free-agent board and understanding he’s holding a foldable hand based on the percentages of the expected outcome.

Or will his known early position put him on tilt and chasing in the end?

Excuse the gambling references, but a few days in Vegas will leave you talking like a character in “Casino.”

But after being resolute in the Mariners postseason news conference, saying J.P. Crawford would be the Mariners starting shortstop in 2023 despite a free-agent class that features four impact shortstops, who all represent upgrades at the position, Dipoto doubled down (OK, just one more reference) on his position during Tuesday’s media availability at the MLB GM meetings.

Standing in the rooftop foyer of the new Resorts World Casino, with top executives — mostly general managers — from the other 14 American League clubs talking to assembled media, the Mariners president of baseball operations reiterated the expectation of Crawford being the starting shortstop in 2023. And the Mariners would ask any potential shortstop signees to move to second base, where the team has a glaring need.

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“Our preference is that J.P. plays shortstop, because I think he’s a good shortstop and all of the things that I said at the end of the year wrap-up remain true today,” Dipoto said. “Part of what has aided the evolution of our club is the static nature of the roster. There’s a lot of guys that have played together now. And that means something when you’re trying to build a lasting, a cohesive, forward-moving, sustainable team. J.P. is our shortstop. He’s been our shortstop for the last three years. We’d like him to be our shortstop for the foreseeable future.”

The Mariners signed Crawford to a five-year, $50 million contract on the first day of the 2022 season.

After posting an unsustainable .363/.454/.582 slash line with 33 hits in 108 plate appearances to start the season, Crawford had a .218/.314/.283 slash line with 18 doubles, two, triples, two homers, 32 RBI, 55 walks and 67 strikeouts over the next 119 games.

That’s not impact production at the plate. And his defense, while still solid, wasn’t quite at the elite levels of 2020 and 2021.

Per the Wins Above Replacement measure, Crawford was worth 2.0 wins on FanGraphs (fWAR), which was 17th best among MLB shortstops and 2.8 wins on Baseball Reference (bWAR), which was 16th best.

It’s significantly less than the top four free-agent shortstops:

  • Trea Turner: 6.3 fWAR, 4.9 bWAR)
  • Carlos Correa: 4.4 fWAR, 5.4 bWAR
  • Xander Bogaerts: 6.1 fWAR, 5.8 bWAR
  • Dansby Swanson: 6.4 fWAR, 5.7 bWAR

So why do the Mariners remain so firm in keeping Crawford at shortstop, limiting their options. MLB insiders and those close to the game had plenty of theories as to why with one being quite obvious.

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“Realistically, Jerry can say that because he knows they probably can’t sign any of those four shortstops unless they really overpay,” said a MLB agent, who didn’t represent any of the four shortstops. “Even then, that might not be enough. It kind of lowers the bar for him.”

Indeed, even if Dipoto came out and said they were willing to move Crawford to second base for one of those four shortstops, it doesn’t significantly improve their chances of signing one. The length and total salary represents the driving force.

A year ago at the GM meetings in Carlsbad, California, Dipoto made a similar statement about Crawford’s future at the position.

“One of the first conversations I had this offseason was with J.P.,” Dipoto said last November. “I told him: ‘Hey, you are our shortstop. You will see that we are courting other shortstops, but it is with the understanding that the inquiry is made with the intent that that player is willing to move to another position.’”

There were five premium middle infielders available on the market last season, Correa, Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, Trevor Story and Javier Baez.

The Mariners felt Semien was their perfect fit for them, but they never got past the initial inquiries and he signed with the Rangers. Seager was an obvious non-starter. Correa was initially looking for a 10-year, $300-plus million deal but settled for a three-year, $105 million contract with the Twins that he could and did opt out of after one season. Baez’s swing-and-miss issues made him the least attractive of the group. Story eschewed basically the same offer from the Mariners to sign a six-year, $120 million contract to play second base for the Red Sox.

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Failing to get an impact hitter from that middle infield group in the lockout-shortened offseason, Dipoto instead pivoted and acquired Jesse Winker and Eugenio Suarez from the Reds at the start of the delayed spring training.

The situation surrounding the Mariners and the middle infield is different this season. Following the team’s first postseason appearance since 2001 and the success of the 2022 season, the expectations for 2023 will be sky high. The Mariners know they need to add production to an offense that was highly inconsistent. To take the next step from a postseason qualifier to World Series champion, the roster needs to add impact hitters.

Though Mitch Haniger wants to return for next season, and the Mariners are interested in re-signing him, there is no guarantee he returns. That would mean Dipoto could possibly have to find two corner outfielders and a middle infielder.

“We’re not gonna sign all of them via free agency,” Dipoto said. “That’s just not how we operate. We will wind up doing some type of trade, and it’ll be a combination of trade and free agency. My sense is that the middle infield free-agency market is unlikely to move quickly. But there are a number of players both in the middle of the infield and the corner outfield on the free-agent market who fit us well. There are also a number of guys that might be available in trade that we’re interested in. So we’re not in a terrible rush.”

But they are moving with purpose.

“My guess is of those three things, like we did a year ago, we’re likely to do one thing sooner than most just because we tend to move quick in the market to get the thing we want,” Dipoto said.

But what if they can’t get what they want? Can they really be steadfast in keeping Crawford at shortstop when a lineup-changing shortstop might be available perhaps at a contract rate they find palatable? Dipoto left the possibility of changing plans in play.

“If the impact we find to add to our roster comes by way of a shortstop who’s unwilling to move to another position, and we’ve not been able to exercise those other positions, we have to minimally consider that,” Dipoto said. “But our great preference is that J.P. plays shortstop.”

Will priority trump preference? It might not be in the cards.

Carlos Correa

  • Age: 28
  • Rep: Boras Corp
  • Rumors: Correa’s deal with the Twins was to set him up for free agency again this season after failing to find the deal he wanted last offseason. The youngest of the group, he seems to want a long-term deal for more than $30 million per season. The Dodgers and Yankees have that sort of money. Would the Mariners invest in that sort of commitment?
  • Prediction: Dodgers sign him to an eight-year, $245 million contract with vesting options to push the deal to 10 years and $350 million

Trea Turner

  • Age: 30
  • Rep: Creative Artists Agency Sports
  • Rumors: Most insiders believe that Turner, a Florida native and resident, would prefer to play closer to the East Coast with the Dodgers being the only team to keep him on the West Coast. The Cardinals and Phillies are motivated to add an upgrade to their infields. But he fits any team.
  • Prediction: After declining a club option on Jean Segura for 2023, the Phillies sign Turner to an eight-year, $240 million contract.

Xander Bogaerts

  • Age: 30
  • Rep: Boras Corp
  • Rumors: Bogaerts opted out of his contract but has been vocal about wanting to remain with the Red Sox moving forward. He’s performed well under the scrutiny that comes with playing in Boston. There is a belief the Sox can’t keep both Bogaerts and third baseman Rafael Devers
  • Prediction: The Red Sox re-sign Bogaerts to a six-year, $160 million contract, make a larger offer to Devers and trade him if they fail.

Dansby Swanson

  • Age: 29
  • Rep: Excel Sports
  • Rumors: The Braves have locked up so many good young players to team-friendly deals that they could push their comfort zone and sign him for market value. And Swanson is a Georgia kid, growing up a Braves fan.
  • Prediction: Cardinals swoop in and sign him to a seven-year, $175 million dollar contract.