The self-realization of who they were and who they never could become came at different moments for the Mariners’ decision-makers.
Why pretend to be something you’re not?
For the baseball side, that recognition came in the cruel days of August and early September, when a team seemingly destined to snap a postseason drought dating to 2001 faded from relevance, stymied by a stagnant offense and the panic of being passed by the Oakland A’s, a team with equal or less talent and a significantly lower payroll.
The blemishes can’t be hidden. The coldness of analytics only verified what they’d witnessed. This team wasn’t as good as its record indicated.
The business side didn’t see it at first. The wins were easy to remember, and the reasons for losses were easier to push aside in their view from above. Meaningful late-season baseball in Seattle hasn’t been common. True postseason hope yields an intoxicating intensity that can’t be replicated. That addictive stimulation leads to a desperate feeling of never letting it end.
But eventually, when presented with the hard realistic and analytical outlook from the baseball side, the business side also began to understand this would never last.
Put simply: Something needed to change. The current direction was untenable for sustained success. Any moments of triumph in the immediate future would be fleeting, and the organization would eventually regress back into the mediocrity that has defined it for much of its voyage in Major League Baseball.
The organization has avoided and ignored this path to its own detriment, instead trying to piece it together with money and decisions that ended up regrettable. The word “rebuild” was considered taboo.
Going back to the Mariners’ last postseason appearance in 2001, there has never been this sort of definitive and transparent transition plan put into place: a plan that puts a priority on future seasons while detracting from the current product.
The Mariners often refer to the plan as a “step back.” You can call it a transition, or a process, or a re-imagination. It’s a plan they believe will lead to consistent future success — something more than a one-game wild-card appearance.
This is a look at how they finally decided to do it.
The first meeting came the second week of August. General manager Jerry Dipoto, team president and CEO Kevin Mather, chairman and managing partner John Stanton and Chris Larson, the most visible member of the minority ownership group, began to discuss a preliminary plan for the upcoming offseason and the 2019 season.
These meetings are standard for any team. They provide a broad look at the projected budget, possible roster additions and subtractions, the player market and overall direction.
During these meetings, the roots of change first began to take hold. Dipoto entered with a somewhat-unexpected admittance of the current team. Yes, the Mariners were on pace for more than 90 wins — and in almost any other year that would be enough to earn a spot in the wild-card game — but it likely wasn’t sustainable into another season. The record wasn’t reflective of the talent. They had a great record in one-run games that was based largely on closer Edwin Diaz’s magical season, unlikely to be replicated.
Even if they retained Nelson Cruz for one more season and signed an important free agent like center fielder A.J. Pollock or lefty Dallas Keuchel, that might only make them a win or two better, not good enough to beat the Astros in the American League West or even host a wild-card game. Dipoto had been having these discussions with baseball operations staff and manager Scott Servais.
“We felt like we were always gonna be short even with adding one more piece. Even more importantly, it felt like the timing wouldn’t work because the integral parts of that club were gonna age out in the not-so-distant future,” Dipoto said. “We looked at it from just about every angle.”
The one angle that made the most sense to Dipoto was to remove major pieces from the roster via trade in hopes of bringing back younger big-league-ready prospects for a farm system that was lacking them. Restructure in a way to get young, reduce payroll and still be viable quickly.
During a season in which the Mariners would win their most games since 2003 and have the highest attendance since 2008, their general manager was telling his bosses the team he constructed would no longer perform to the level everyone hoped.
“We didn’t know how they would react,” Dipoto said.
Larson, the minority owner, was immediately intrigued with the change in direction. But Stanton, the chairman and managing partner, had some reticence. The fan in him loved the feeling of June and July when the team was rolling. The ballpark was fun again. And that lure of the postseason was hypnotic.
“It wasn’t easy to hear, especially given our success for so much of the season,” he said.
Nothing was finalized in that meeting. The group would reconvene in late September, with Servais joining the conversation.
Servais’ presence convinced Stanton of the new path.
In the Ken Griffey Jr. conference room of now-T-Mobile Park, Stanton bluntly asked Servais if the current team, with the addition of a perhaps one middle-level piece, would be good enough to compete for the wild card or more in 2019.
“He said, ‘No,’ ” Stanton said. “And that’s when I knew.”
Servais tried to downplay his role in delivering the harsh outlook.
“I didn’t just say, ‘No,’ ” he said with a chuckle. “I’ll clarify that one. I just thought that if we were going to bring back the same crew, and we didn’t feel comfortable in adding to what we had, the chances of us winning 90-plus games weren’t there. I just said it was going to be really hard to duplicate that again. We had a good year. We won 89 games, but it wasn’t enough, and you have to look at that. We had a lot of things go our way, and to get to 93 or 95 wins, I thought it was going to be really hard.”
Face to face with his collection of bosses in the room, Servais didn’t vacillate.
“When the question got asked, you have to be honest,” he said.
But beyond Servais’ assessment, Dipoto had the data and research to show why this was the right move.
“There’s one thing I learned about John and that I’ve known about Chris truly since the day we met is that A, they’re smart people,” Dipoto said. “And B, if you present something that has been well thought out, that is logical and that you can effectively paint a picture of what this might look like, both the journey and the end result, or goal, they’ll listen. They’ve been all for everything we’ve presented from the very start back in 2015 when I got here and they were supportive of this.”
Stanton was resolute in reflecting on the process.
“It’s very difficult to be honest with yourself sometimes,” he said. “It’s very difficult to say that we had players that we didn’t believe that collectively could compete for a championship.”
And yet if the Mariners had made the playoffs, or even if they started slow and surged to 89 wins late, would this path have been the same?
“It’s a much harder decision,” Stanton said. “The way the season played out last year made the decision easier to make. I don’t know. I think we would have reached the same conclusion.”
As part of this process, Dipoto and 15 other members of his front office/baseball operations staff had a homework assignment.
The task was simple — create a roster for the 2019 season given the parameters of a $155-165 million payroll budget that was expected. You could make legitimate and logical trades that were actually possible, and you could also sign free agents within reason for projected salaries to the market. Those moves were later vetted by the group as being viable.
The goal was to compare the rosters and plans to see where people felt the organization was at and where it should be headed.
“Every single one of the 16 people, myself included, submitted a roster that had some version of this: some pull back to get younger with the idea of growing in a more significant way,” Dipoto said. “And in some cases the target players in our re-imagined rosters were so repetitive. And one of them, maybe the most oft-mentioned of the target players was J.P. Crawford.
“We actually used those rosters as a bit of an early prepping of the players we wanted to target in each trade.”
There was no plan submitted to “go for it” for just one more season and capitalize on the 2018 success in hopes of ending the postseason drought.
Dipoto knew an extra year would lessen some players’ trade value, and optimal return was needed. James Paxton and Mike Zunino would’ve had only one season left until free agency instead of two — and they’d have higher contracts due to arbitration in another year. Robinson Cano and Jean Segura would be a year older, and Edwin Diaz’s value would never be as high as it was after a 57-save season.
“It would’ve been a huge gamble. … The one more year with those guys, you could go from them having what we thought was considerable value to zero, and not just because of injury, because of underperformance, because the market may have changed or because the market was flooded,” Dipoto said.
Zunino turned down a three-year, $24 million extension, and the team wasn’t going to extend Paxton.
“We knew with Zunino and with Paxton that this was the time because they had two years of (club) control,” Dipoto said. “And in James’ case, you were going to wake up next year and he was going to be in his 30s as a left-handed starter with one year of control, and while you still would have been able to cash in on a pretty good return for James, we didn’t think you’d be able to leverage it into multiple building-block pieces.”
They were the first two players traded to begin the step-back process.
The plan was pushed to another level during a five-day stretch in late November and early December at the MLB general managers meetings. There, Dipoto first discussed the concept of trading Cano with new Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen, who once served as Cano’s agent.
An aging superstar, coming off an 80-game suspension for violating the drug policy and with a bloated contract of more than $120 million remaining, Cano seemed impossible to trade, even for trade-happy Dipoto.
“Going into the offseason, we hadn’t spent a whole lot of time burning brain cells on putting together potential deals for Robbie, because our assumption was that the deal would probably look so unappealing in the end — that we wouldn’t want to do it because Robbie’s still a really good player,” Dipoto said. “And the idea of sending away really good players for lesser talent returns and then paying the freight is, to me, that’s just bad business.”
The Mariners didn’t want to part with Diaz because he still fit in their plans. But his value would never be higher, and it allowed them access to the Mets’ prized prospects, Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn, if he was included. Even with Seattle agreeing to pay $20 million of Cano’s remaining contract, they were still getting serious relief from years of expected salary.
A day later, the Mariners traded Jean Segura and relievers Juan Nicasio and James Pazos to the Phillies for Crawford and designated hitter Carlos Santana, who was traded a few weeks later.
“That created a new dynamic for us and gave us the chance to put the car into fourth gear,” Dipoto said. “As a result, rather than a full rebuild, we built a 25-to-28-year-old group at the major-league level. We think we have a chance to be very competitive now, and that by next year, when that first layer of prospects joins them, now we have a chance to be a very interesting team.”
The hoped-for result
The offseason moves added young prospects to an organization that was lacking them. Per Baseball America, the Mariners added nine players that rank in the publication’s Top 30 Mariner prospects, headlined by left-handed pitchers Justus Sheffield (No. 1) and Yusei Kikuchi (No. 2) and outfielder Kelenic (No. 3). That large infusion of talent will go with key in-house prospects Evan White (No. 4), Julio Rodriguez (No. 5), Logan Gilbert (No. 7) and Kyle Lewis (No. 8).
“There’s enough depth in the system that when you add two more drafts, two more international classes and start building those layers, it really starts to look like a flush system,” Dipoto said.
The Mariners kept starting pitcher Marco Gonzales and outfielder Mitch Haniger to be the foundation when the prospects begin to arrive to the big leagues at varied times. They added younger big-league players, such as Mallex Smith and Domingo Santana, in the process.
Dipoto said MLB players typically are in their primes from 26-32. By 2021, the Mariners will have only Kyle Seager and Kikuchi as players over 30 on the roster with a payroll significantly reduced.
“Our goal was to set ourselves to be as flexible from an age, from a system and from a payroll perspective as we could in that 2021 launch,” Dipoto said. “(Kikuchi and Seager) will be the only players on our roster that are earning north of arbitration numbers. That gives us incredible spending power in the free-agent market at a time when some of the best players of this generation might be available in free agency.
“It gives us time to allow this group of players that are currently at the A-ball, AA levels, to start to ascend toward the big leagues. And when they get there, they will be joining a group that we feel like is already in their prime years.”
Dipoto maintained that a tear down and rebuild can vary from six to 10 years. He’s trying to reduce it by trading for MLB-ready prospects.
“And if it all works out with this, we cut our standard 10-year rebuild, perhaps we’ve cut it by 60 percent or 70 percent,” he said.
A big part of this plan is comparing the Mariners to their American League West competition. In two years, the Astros will become very expensive with young stars such as George Springer, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman in, or nearing, free agency. The A’s will have to make tough decisions on Matt Chapman and Matt Olson.
“They’ve got a fragile amount of time,” Stanton said of their foes. “I think we will be in great position to win the West. I really don’t want to just make the wild card and have our season depend on one arm. I want to win the West and have a series where we are the home team for it and it starts out in Seattle. Our fate won’t be determined by one game. You hope to play three series and ended up in a seven-game series.”
Selling the step back
Many Mariners fans, crushed by the organization’s missteps over past decades, met this plan with skepticism.
While they’ve never heard a plan like this before, they’ve heard other promises that never resulted in anything more than watching other teams in the postseason.
Why should they believe in this?
“They’re not going to, until it starts playing out on the field,” Servais said.
Indeed, most of the players critical to this plan will start the season at minor-league affiliates. This year’s team is a transition piece with placeholders in positions that young players are expected to assume by next season.
Dipoto knows he can’t change fans’ perception. He has to account for his actions and take on the emotional baggage left behind by former general managers Jack Zduriencik and Bill Bavasi. He’s more than willing to “wear” his own mistakes, misfired trades and missed opportunities.
“I say this respectfully, we as an organization have spent a lot of time and decades apologizing for the things that we haven’t done, instead of trying to create a game plan that will allow us to focus on the things we want to do,” he said. “We’re doing those things now, and I understand fans are apprehensive of what might come.”
He isn’t begging for patience or optimism, but pragmatism.
“I think by the time you open your eyes in the second half of this season, or by the time you open up your eyes midseason 2020, we are going to have such a fun, young team to watch,” he said. “And we’re not asking our fans to sit through a decade of wondering what our first-round draft pick is like and having to wait for six years for him to gestate in the minor leagues to see what it looks like when he gets to the big leagues.”
Both Dipoto and Stanton use the word transparency to describe the process. And they’ve been more than willing to discuss it at length. That’s how they can sell this to doubting fans.
“We want to be good,” Dipoto said. “We don’t want to compete for the second wild-card spot perpetually, and drive ourselves into a decade of despair trying to get that one moment. Because, you know, you play in a wild-card game and you lose that wild-card game, and then you set up 10 more years of losing, was it really working?
“I don’t think — I know — we did the smart thing.”