Dipoto said standings don’t reflect it yet, but team has made strides in future planning. He also doesn’t think the Mariners need to acquire a big-name starting pitcher.
So now what for the Mariners?
Reload? Rebuild? Resume the myriad of roster moves of past offseasons?
General manager Jerry Dipoto, always upbeat and optimistic, wasn’t in the mood to joke about his nonstop offseason activity on Tuesday afternoon at Safeco Field. It wasn’t surprising since he was discussing a just-finished season where reachable expectations went unmet and MLB’s longest postseason drought, now at 16 years, continues.
“Well, there’s holes to fill, but I don’t think you’re going to see frantic movement,” he said.
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Really? Are you sure about that?
“It’s easy to smile and I’ll take the darts,” he said. “I deserve them from time to time for the level of activity we’ve had. But that’s how we were able to churn out 200 plate appearances for younger players. That’s how we were able to churn out almost a third of our innings being thrown by pitchers aged 26 and younger. We got younger and we didn’t get younger at the A level. We got younger at the big-league level without a system that wasn’t providing that two years ago. So I feel like we’ve made a significant move forward. You just don’t really see it in the standings quite as much as we might see it in future planning.”
Still, the standings at the big-league level are what matters most to ownership and fans that are frustrated by Octobers spent watching other teams participate in the postseason. And while the Mariners are younger on the 25- and 40-man roster with players that seem like contributors beyond next season, there will be moves to fill those “holes” on the roster.
If you look at the Mariners’ daily lineup, they’re relatively set at seven positions. The Mariners return designated hitter Nelson Cruz (who is in the last season of his contract) and second baseman Robinson Cano, third baseman Kyle Seager and shortstop Jean Segura — all in the midst of multi-year deals. Meanwhile, left fielder Ben Gamel and right fielder Mitch Haniger have established themselves after strong rookie seasons, and Mike Zunino reaffirmed their belief in him as the foundation catcher after a breakout season.
The apparent position-player needs are first base and center field.
With Yonder Alonso and Danny Valencia eligible for free agency and Daniel Vogelbach unable to establish himself in a role that had previously been given to him, the Mariners will need to find an experienced first baseman for next season.
“We got a free look at Yonder, who’s a free agent in a pretty flush class of free-agent first basemen,” Dipoto said. “Would he be a consideration to return? Absolutely. Do I think he enjoyed his time here? I think he did, got along with his teammates. And I’m sure those are conversations that we will have in the coming days while we plan the roster, and then ultimately will have with Yonder and his people.”
Beyond Alonso, the free-agent market includes Mitch Moreland, Lucas Duda and Logan Morrison — all of whom would be relatively cost-effective. The top first baseman, Eric Hosmer of the Royals, is likely to command a contract out of the budget of the Mariners.
Dipoto wouldn’t commit to the specific need for a center fielder. But with Jarrod Dyson exiting for free agency and Guillermo Heredia undergoing offseason shoulder surgery, an outfielder that could handle the defensive responsibilities of center field at a high level would be ideal.
“I don’t know if it will be particularly in center field, but for certain we will address the outfield at least in one player,” he said. “I feel like with Guillermo Heredia, Guillermo’s an exceptional defender. It’s really hard to truly assess his offensive performance this year. This guy was playing with a dislocated shoulder virtually all year long, never complained. He had four different instances where it had to be put back in place.”
That shoulder issue contributed to Heredia’s offensive decline in the second half of the season. On Aug. 16, he was hitting .287 with a .744 OPS. Over the next 34 games he hit .140 with a .393 OPS, three doubles, two RBI and 22 strikeouts.
“At the All-Star break, he was quite fine with the bat in his hands, so I don’t want to overreact to the offensive struggles he had in the second half,” Dipoto said. “He’s a part of what we’re doing as is Ben Gamel, as is Mitch Haniger. We’ll go out and augment that group likely outside of the organization whether it’s a corner outfielder or somebody’s playing the middle. That’s going to largely depend on what’s available to us because we feel like with Guillermo and even with Mitch Haniger, we’re very comfortable with Mitch Haniger playing center field.”
But to most people, the most glaring need is starting pitching. After all, the injury issues with the rotation and the bullpen were what torpedoed the 2017 season. Pitching is always a need.
Judging by what returns, if you had to slot out the Mariners’ starting rotation from what is available it would be James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez and either Marco Gonzales, Andrew Moore or Ariel Miranda filling out the final spot. Is that a rotation capable of pushing the postseason? If the Mariners truly want to improve their playoff hopes, signing an established starting pitcher through free agency seems the best route to fill a No. 2-3 spot. Dipoto wouldn’t commit to it.
“You shop for what’s in the store,” he said. “Do we need more? Yes. Is more available? I don’t know. We’re going to see what we can do in that regard and I will answer that question the same way for virtually every team not named the Cleveland Indians in baseball. Everybody always needs more pitching. We do too, but I think I just reeled off James Paxton, Felix Hernandez, Mike Leake, Erasmo Ramirez, Marco Gonzales, Andrew Moore. We do have Ariel Miranda. We have Nick Neidert who came through the AA level this year, and we really think highly of his upside. “
So, you don’t think you need to acquire another big starting pitcher?
“No, I don’t know,” Dipoto said. “Would we like one? Sure. Do we need one? No.”
While he would only give one-world answers about Japanese phenom pitcher/hitter Shohei Ohtani, the Mariners will make a run at him in the offseason, particularly since MLB rules won’t allow it to become a bidding war. With all money being basically equal, the team with the best plan to fit Ohtani’s versatile skill set and allow him to pitch and hit will likely be the team that signs him. Would signing Ohtani’s close friend and hero Yu Darvish to a contract help get him?
Going into this third season as general manager, Dipoto believes the organization is better than when he took over, which is a fair assessment. But in the results-based business of baseball, it’s still another season without the playoffs, just like the previous 15.