The Mariners are stuck with a difficult decision heading into 2019: Should they blow it all up and start over or add pieces to try for a postseason run? The front office's answer seems to be somewhere in the middle.
In his time as general manager of the Mariners, now heading into a fourth season and beyond thanks to a midseason multiyear contract extension, Jerry Dipoto has been many things in discussing the future of the organization — both immediate and beyond. He’s been open, direct, decisive and very, very verbose.
There was always a plan, a direction and a philosophy to the changes he would make. And while some fans or analysts might not see it or agree with his thinking, it’s what inspired his multitude of roster moves.
Get younger, get more athletic, control the zone, roster flexibility, raise the floor, chart of serendipity and other things have been said as he always tried to push the Mariners forward into a level of baseball relevance and toward a playoff spot that still is unearned.
But on Monday, it felt different when Dipoto and manager Scott Servais sat on the dais of the main interview room of Safeco Field. Dipoto was still talkative, expressive and articulate in his answers, but there was uncertainty toward the future of the franchise, specifically next season, that hadn’t been apparent in past years. Is Nelson Cruz coming back? Does Robinson Cano return to second base or move to first base? Can Dee Gordon go through another year of bouncing around the field? Tear it down? Go for it?
There was a wait-and-see element that hadn’t been apparent in the past when Dipoto seemed so resolute to a process.
Perhaps it was the immediacy of the moment. Dipoto and his staff had just started end-of-the-season meetings and he will also have more meetings with ownership next week to make final determinations on the direction of this offseason.
“Anything’s possible, and we’re just starting those meetings in terms of how we view this roster, and what we want 2019 and beyond to look like,” he said. “Every year, every roster is a new development, and we have to consider all the different possibilities with this one.”
The current roster is heavy on guaranteed money, with slightly more than $112 million guaranteed to eight players in 2019. Meanwhile, three of their best players, Mitch Haniger, Edwin Diaz and Marco Gonzales, will each make just over $500,000 in 2019. Simple projections with arbitration-eligible players could put a 40-man roster of only returning players close to $150 million going into the season.
“We do have some guys that are aging,” Dipoto said. “We do have some guys that are just coming into their own, and I think that makes us like most every other team in the league. We just have to determine what our direction is, and a lot of our direction is going to be based on the core players that Scott mentioned (Diaz, Gonzales, Haniger). We do have a nice group of young, controllable players that we do intend to continue to build around. It’s just a matter of where that happens, when it happens, and how it happens over the course of the next six or eight months.”
The failure to reach the postseason despite winning 89 games and the realization of their team’s place in the baseball hierarchy is apparent.
“So you have all heard me talk about how we have built this, and with the intent of being sustainable,” Dipoto said. “We want to be forward thinking. Since 2016, we have had the fifth-best record in the American League. We are trapped behind four teams that have had extraordinary success, and we’ve not been able to get over that last hump.”
Indeed, Seattle has compiled a record of 253-233 (. 521) in that span, trailing the Red Sox (294-192/.605), Astros (288-198/.593), Indians (287-198/.592) and Yankees (275-211/.566).
It has yielded Seattle a metaphorical pat on the back and early vacations in October.
While the disappointment of losing what seemed like a guaranteed wild-card spot was palpable, the long-term goal is something more than just making a brief postseason appearance and snapping a 17-year drought.
“Now we have to figure out as we move forward what it takes for us to catch the front-runners, because we don’t want to make it to a wild-card game,” Dipoto said. “We want to be a consistent playoff presence. You know, for us to get there and ultimately win a World Series, we’re going to have to reassess where we are in the marketplace, and those meetings start now.”
From the outside, the Mariners appear to be stuck in a philosophical purgatory.
They aren’t one or two free agents away from being better or as good as any of the four top teams in the AL. So a huge free agent go-for-it move isn’t likely.
“I don’t think that makes a whole lot of sense, but it’s not something we won’t take part or consider in some way,” Dipoto said. “It doesn’t make sense because the four teams that are ahead of us are not ahead of us by a little. As we just saw, we won 89 games and we’re sitting here today. We were closer to 10 games back of the sixth-best team, or the fifth-best team. That is a challenge, and we have to consider that. So we’re not a piece away from making that type of move, and frankly as we sit here we have to assess where we are in terms of our age, our win curve, and what makes the most sense for us.
But their roster makes “tearing it down” or “blowing it up,” the now-popular and demanded fan philosophy/meme on social media, less than optimal.
Because of the money they are owed, their age and recent performance, players like Felix Hernandez ($27.5 million), Cano ($150 million), Kyle Seager ($57.5 million) and Gordon ($27 million) are almost impossible to trade.
Diaz, Haniger, Gonzales and James Paxton would be their most valued assets, with Jean Segura having some value despite being owed more than $58 million over the next four seasons.
Dipoto has never been a fan of the “tear-it-down” philosophy. He says it takes an estimated five years to see it through. Given the Mariners’ current roster, the status of their farm system and the number of teams tearing it down around baseball, that process could take closer to seven.
“The likelihood of ever really, truly considering a tear-it-down model, it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he said. “Now that being said, there are a lot of alternatives to teardowns. You know, when I look at teardowns, it’s everybody get out, we’re starting over. That doesn’t make a lot of sense because we just talked about so many positive elements of where our team is. Guys like Haniger, guys like Marco Gonzales, guys like Edwin Diaz, these are the pieces that you’re trying to build around, not the pieces that you’re trying to send away.”
Hmm. So the Mariners can’t trade the pieces they want to get rid of, but want to hang on to the players people covet. Yeah, that’s not a good place to be.
The concept of a “step back” was also mentioned, which isn’t tearing it down or going for it. Some could argue the Mariners have been stuck in that mode for more than decade.
“A tear down, you are selling off anything that’s not nailed down,” Dipoto said. “When you take a step back, there’s the potential of doing something smaller with the hope that — a step back promotes two forward.”
That could mean trading Diaz but also attaching someone like Seager to the deal to remove the payroll obligation, but also get a prospect yield. Dipoto said nobody is untouchable.
“I don’t think there’s ever a player that’s off-limits,” he said. “That’s the way you operate. We are always listening. We are always considering. We are always assessing the best way to do the job we’re trying to do, which is to build a championship roster. And if you limit yourself to not talking about certain players, you’ll never get there.”
But again, what about a teardown? It’s what fans say they want and would embrace.
“A teardown is just ripping into the studs and move to the back of the pack and hope that over the course of the next five or six or seven years and hoping that you could build for,” Dipoto said. “It just doesn’t make sense where our roster is. But anything else is certainly in play for us.”
The Mariners have a handful of players who will be free agents five days after the World Series. The most notable of the group is designated hitter Nelson Cruz. There have been no official talks between the Mariners and Cruz’s representatives. While Servais and several players lobbied to bring Cruz back, Dipoto won’t commit to that path. The current and future meetings with ownership could determine if they make a run at Cruz or let him go to free agency.
“Nelson Cruz is a championship player” Dipoto said. “We are not yet determined on how we want to look at our DH role. But clearly if we were committed to going back to the DH-only, we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. We would have taken care of it much earlier this year.”
That is a point of consternation for Cruz, who was a bit hurt when the Mariners never approached him about an extension before or during the season. He was supremely productive in his four years with the Mariners. He will be 39 next season and is limited in his role.
“Those decisions have yet to be made,” Dipoto said. “We’re looking at all of the different possibilities and potentials, and we won’t know because just in that, right now it appears that there’s a very clear need at DH, and we all know and love Nelson. We have to consider what comes next, and the different creative ways that a roster might come together. But we’ll never close the door on considering anything up to and including bringing him back, and again I think Nellie would like to be back, but I’m sure that he is considering his options as well.”
So how does it work? Is there a time frame when everything gets set into motion, when a decision is made on stepping back or moving forward, when a roster philosophy begins take affect?
“I think it’s an ongoing discussion with us,” Dipoto said. “More importantly, it’s an ongoing discussion with the teams around us because the teams around us are going to let us know what’s possible. Truly that could be a decision that takes us two days or it could take two months to figure out what we are able to access. You can’t make moves unless someone is willing to make moves with you. That’s not a question I can answer by chatting with Scott and talking with ownership. It’s much more complicated.”