GM Jerry Dipoto weighs in on Lloyd McClendon, Edgar Martinez, Felix Hernandez, Tom Wilhelmsen and others in a wide-ranging interview on how he’ll approach his first offseason.
At his introduction, new general manager Jerry Dipoto was frank in his assessment of the Mariners’ weaknesses, but also upbeat about his ability to address them. He made it crystal clear he thinks they can be contenders next year.
That’s not unreasonable in today’s baseball world. This season, three teams that lost 89 or more games in 2014 are in the playoffs or close to clinching: the Texas Rangers (95 losses) , Houston Astros (92 losses) and Chicago Cubs (89 losses). The Minnesota Twins, who lost 92 a year ago, went into the final weekend with a shot.
One thing that distinguishes all those teams, however, is strong farm systems that have churned out impact players. The Mariners don’t appear to have that luxury, so Dipoto will to use other avenues to fill the holes.
In an effort to get a handle on just what might transpire in this crucial offseason for the Mariners, I talked to Dipoto on a variety of matters Friday. After four days on the job, he was just as upbeat as he had been Tuesday.
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It seemed reasonable to me that since Dipoto repeatedly stressed the need to improve Seattle’s depth, he might be open to dealing one of his core players in an attempt to bring back multiple pieces.
I’ve broached the possibility of a Felix Hernandez trade before, since he’s at an age (30) where decline seems inevitable. Nelson Cruz, who may be at peak value at age 35 after back-to-back 40-homer seasons, seemed another possibility. But Dipoto all but shot that notion down.
“You always have to remain open to listening on everybody, but there are certain things you just don’t see the value in,’’ he said. “In today’s game, when you’re looking to move players, looking to move pieces, any time we can bring back volume, it’s a plus deal.
“But you make deals like that, particularly with the core players, the (Kyle) Seagers, (Robinson) Canos, Cruz, Felix, you’re taking away such a big piece of what you’re doing now. And I don’t think we are a long-term rebuilding program here.
“The greater likelihood is, we’ll focus on those four guys, and Taijuan Walker, as the core we’re trying to build around. And we’ll have to be more creative in finding ways to augment that group, rather than using that group to build a new program.”
One key decision that will shape the Mariners’ offseason is whether they’re sold on rookie Ketel Marte as their shortstop. If the answer is yes, they can focus on other priorities. If no, then they’ll have to come up with an alternative, either from within (Brad Miller or Chris Taylor) or outside (they’ve been linked by some to Washington Nationals free agent Ian Desmond).
Until this week, Dipoto had never seen Marte play live.
“I really like the athlete. I like the twitch,’’ he said of Marte, who turns 22 on Oct. 12. “I think he’s a major-league player, and he’s ready to play in the major leagues. Whether you’re ready to give him 650 plate appearances as a shortstop remains to be seen, but he’s certainly done a large part toward making me more comfortable to make that move.”
Along the same lines, the future of Hisashi Iwakuma will inform their offseason. If Iwakuma, who is eligible for free agency, signs with another team, Dipoto will have to add “starter” to his shopping list. But if Iwakuma is re-signed, then a Hernandez-Iwakuma-Walker rotation, with James Paxton and Roenis Elias on hand, would only need some tweaking.
“It is a priority,’’ Dipoto said of re-signing Iwakuma. “It’s a priority to at least explore that. I know Kuma wants to be here. We’d certainly like him to be here. Now it’s a matter of sitting down and finding out if there’s a common place we meet. It seems a good marriage.”
Yet another decision that will affect the offseason significantly will be whether to retain Tom Wilhelmsen as closer. Dipoto said that he thought so much of Wilhelmsen that he claimed him on waivers twice while running the Angels (the Mariners pulled back the waivers each time).
“I think he’s done an outstanding job since he’s taken over,’’ Dipoto said. “What you want to remain open to is what kind of talent can we bring in. If the best piece you can bring in happens to be a ninth-inning guy, then Tom Wilhelmsen becomes a great asset. Everybody starts moving backward.”
If not, “I would be very comfortable with Tom Wilhelmsen being the ninth-inning guy. I would also be very comfortable if he were the eighth-inning guy, and I think we’re even in better shape.”
In assessing the Mariners’ needs, Dipoto must also figure out which Mariners team was legitimate: the one that ranked 27th out of 30 teams in runs scored before the All-Star break, or the one that ranks seventh in MLB in runs, second in homers, and third in on-base-plus-slugging percentage (OPS) in the second half.
“Like with most baseball things, I think it’s probably somewhere in between,’’ he said. “A belief of mine: This ballpark gives us inherent advantages in how we build a team. We just have to view it in such a way.
“The second-half offense has been great. Robinson Cano has been excellent in the second half. Nelson Cruz has been fantastic all year long. Kyle Seager has been good, now excellent, in the second half of this season.
“That’s a really nice group to build around. You’ve seen a nice jolt from Marte coming to the big leagues. That’s been a positive. I think Edgar Martinez has done a fantastic job with the offense in the second half as well.
“If we can find some middle ground between the struggles of the offense in ’14, the struggles in the first half this year … I don’t know that we’re going to be an 800-run juggernaut, but for us to get in that 650, 675 zone over a 162-game season with this as our home park, I think it’s a really good goal for us, and something with this core I think we can do.”
Which brings to mind another pertinent question: Is Martinez going to be back as hitting coach, regardless of the fate of Lloyd McClendon as manager?
“We’re going to get into that,’’ Dipoto said. “To be fair, there are things I need to be frank with the coaches about, and I need to talk to Lloyd about before we make those decisions. That’s only fair to all of those guys.
“As I said on the press-conference day, I’m glass half full. Edgar Martinez has done a fantastic job. Stud career. The way he talks about a player is very comforting to me. The way he walks through how you hit, how you score runs, makes sense to me. While the glass is half full with most, with Edgar, it’s pretty full.”
And, finally, the Mariners are in a peculiar position this final weekend where losing would actually benefit them. The teams with the 10 worst records get their first-round draft pick protected, meaning it won’t be forfeited if they sign a free agent who has a qualifying offer from his former team.
The Mariners and Chicago White Sox entered the final weekend neck-and-neck for the final protected spot. That could be significant if the Mariners are aggressive in the free-agent market, perhaps seeking out an athletic center fielder like Denard Span or Dexter Fowler.
“Honestly, and Lloyd can tell you, I’ve not said a word about it. I won’t say a word about it,’’ Dipoto said. “It’s something that as a team-planner, an organization builder, I’m aware of the value that’s associated with that.
“But as a former player, and understanding how it works out there, I try to turn the volume down in my head. Because these guys have to go out and compete. To be frank, I just took this job; I want to win all three of these games. That’s the competitor in you. And I would rather try and solve what happens next in how we acquire talent than going out there and not competing to the best of your ability in a game. No matter what that game is.”