While the reason for the morning video media conference was to discuss the decision to call up ballyhooed prospects Jarred Kelenic and Logan Gilbert to make their MLB debuts Thursday evening, it was also the first opportunity in a few months for the local media to ask general manager Jerry Dipoto questions about the status of the Mariners and the 2021 season to this point.
Always thorough with his answers, Dipoto provided information on a variety of other topics.
With the Padres reeling from positive COVID-19 tests of Fernando Tatis Jr. and Wil Myers and contract-tracing quarantines for several players, and similar issues looming with the Yankees, Dipoto was asked about the progress of vaccination in the organization.
The Mariners present an interesting dichotomy to vaccinations. The minor-league players are almost all vaccinated, while the MLB club is hovering around 50% or less of players vaccinated.
“Our organization at large, we’re highly vaccinated,” Dipoto said. “Through the minor leagues, really from every level, we are 90-plus percent across the board. And most notably the team in Tacoma, where we are close to 100%. It’s a very high number.”
If the Mariners reach an 85% threshold for Tier 1 employees, the stringent COVID-19 protocols can be relaxed. Coaches and players won’t have to wear masks in the dugouts, players can leave the hotel on road trips, and most important, fully vaccinated players won’t have to automatically quarantine if they are contact-traced from a teammate or coach that tests positive.
“Obviously, that’s disappointing from a health and wellness perspective,” he said. “And there’s some ominous hangover from a competitive standpoint, but it’s the decision of the individual, and while I can be disappointed and hope that time solves that, there’s not a lot I can do other than express that we are doing very well as an organization, which is lagging behind with our big league club, and hopefully that resolves itself soon, because like has happened at other places around the game eventually it’s likely to crop up. It seems impossible that we’ve been able to avoid it for this long.”
The Mariners offered vaccinations during minor-league spring training, hoping to get as many players as possible fully vaccinated before the minor-league season opened and teams started traveling.
For players on the Rainiers’ roster, getting vaccinated had professional benefits, specifically being called up over a non-vaccinated player.
Based on protocols sent by MLB just before the season, only players from the Triple-A roster can be called up to the big leagues. And the intake protocols for players who are fully vaccinated are different.
So when Kelenic, Gilbert and Paul Sewald were called up and coming from Tacoma, they didn’t have to go through an initial test or quarantine to join the Mariners. A non-vaccinated player would have had to take a rapid test and be negative and another the next day.
And if players were to board a commercial flight to join, a player who’s fully vaccinated has to pass only two rapid tests before being cleared. A non-vaccinated player has to pass a test, quarantine for 48 hours and then pass another test.
So while the Mariners can’t have a policy of preferentially calling up players because they’re vaccinated, the protocols make it advantageous to do so.
Asked about continuing to use a six-man starting rotation with only five healthy starting pitchers moving forward, Dipoto said that plan won’t change any time soon.
“I don’t know another way around it,” Dipoto said. “We don’t have another logical solution. So some combination of guys like Robert Duggar, Erik Swanson and Paul Sewald, they’re going to have to figure out how to get us through this. There’s no free-agent market that I’m aware of that’s spawning starting pitchers in the middle of May.”
There are a handful of veteran starters, such as Rick Porcello, Anibal Sanchez, Cole Hamels and others available, but none would address the Mariners’ needs now. And by the time they are ready, Marco Gonzales would likely be back from his forearm strain.
“We don’t think that the easy way to resolve it is by shortening up to a five-man rotation, frankly, because then we will do just the opposite of what we just set out to do,” Dipoto said. “We’ll run out of innings with some of these young guys, and I know from a competitive standpoint the six-man rotation has been questioned mostly by a lot of the faces I’m looking at now, and many among our fan base, but at the end of the day, this was all built in mind (with) what is happening today, adding Logan Gilbert, bringing along inning counts for guys like Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn, finding ways to keep guys like Chris Flexen and Yusei Kikuchi on what is a typical, interval work time for them.”
That’s not to say there might be a time where an off day will allow them a skip day for a bullpen start and the starters to get five days’ rest.
“We’re going to go with it until we can’t,” he said. “And we feel like once we move back to a five-man rotation, there’s only one move here. We’re a six-man rotation until we’re not. We’re not going to toggle back and forth, because we feel like that creates even more of a dangerous scenario.”
Evan White’s struggles were also addressed. There seems to be a growing thought that the Gold Glove first baseman should be sent down to rediscover his swing, approach and some confidence.
“Evan’s struggled,” Dipoto said. “He struggled last year in a 60-game season, he has struggled this year in a different way. We’re seeing two different versions of Evan. I do think that he’s shown some signs in the last week or so that are more positive than what we had seen prior. Clearly, through 300-ish plate appearances, it’s been a struggle for him in the big leagues. We will continue to evaluate.”
Will that further evaluation lead to a demotion?
“If the guys need some help, we’re gonna give him some help,” Dipoto said. “Whether that be trying some adjustments here in the big leagues, or giving them the opportunity to catch their breath in Triple-A, which I can’t say is out of the question for anybody here, including Evan.”
Dipoto offered a few injury updates:
Gonzales (forearm strain) is a week out from getting on a mound and starting his throwing.
Right-hander Andres Munoz (Tommy John surgery) visited his surgeon for a follow-up May 4. He was put into a throwing program. As for joining the M’s bullpen, the timeline is late in the season.
“Let’s say ballparking sometime in August, but more likely something August-September-ish is what we’re anticipating with Andres,” Dipoto said. “Most importantly, we want to make sure that when he arrives, he arrives ready to go and not as part of a rehab cycle. He’s still such a young player who’s growing and in building a skill set. We want to make sure he’s 100% healthy before he walks out to a mound.”