If there were a day that Major League Baseball, the Mariners and the chamber of commerce in Peoria, Arizona, could use to sell to fans as a reason to come spring training, Thursday, March 5 might have been it. A high of 84 degrees that felt warmer in the sun, a slight breeze to cool you down and just enough clouds to provide moments of heat reprieve.
On that near-perfect day as the Mariners lost 3-0 to the San Diego Padres at Peoria Stadium, the concept of this imperfect situation that baseball, and really, the world, is dealing with now following the rapid spread of the novel coronavirus seemed improbable.
Yes, the coronavirus was a known concern, but in the utopian and somewhat pollyannish world that is MLB spring training, the idea of a disease interrupting spring training, let alone shutting down the entire sports world, never seemed real.
Well, we know how that ended.
And on that day, with none of what we are dealing with now even a consideration, with 20 days remaining before opening day of the 2020 season at T-Mobile Park against the Rangers, general manager Jerry Dipoto sat down for a one-on-one interview of 35 minutes with The Seattle Times. The purpose was to discuss the main story for the annual Mariners season preview special section.
The focus of the interview and the story was about the Mariners’ plan to play a large group of players with less than two years of MLB experience, many of them less than three months of experience, for the entirety of the season. This part of Dipoto’s “stepback” rebuild plan would feature position players like infielders Shed Long, J.P. Crawford and Evan White, and outfielders Jake Fraley and Kyle Lewis amassing 400-500 MLB plate appearances. Starting pitchers Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn would generate more than 150 MLB innings while relievers like Joey Gerber, Sam Delaplane, Art Warren, Aaron Fletcher, Taylor Guilbeau and others would get 30-plus game appearances. There was also an expectation that top pitching prospect Logan Gilbert and catching prospect Cal Raleigh would make their MLB debuts by midseason, with even outfielder Jarred Kelenic pushing to get called up.
It was supposed to be a season of growth and development at the MLB level, with the win-loss record secondary in importance. And on paper, there weren’t expected to be many wins. But Dipoto felt this was a necessary progression to see if this group could be the core of the rebuild.
In that lengthy conversation, the word coronavirus never came up. It was out there, lingering as more of a far-off fear than a true threat.
So it seems instructive to take a look back at a few of the relevant questions asked and Dipoto’s answers to them and analyze the reality of the current situation where the hope is to play 60 regular-season games, there is no minor-league season for development and no real way to get the missed time back.
It’s hard to find an example, but has there been a team that you can think of that rolled out this many young guys and said this is our future?
Dipoto: All at the same time? Yeah, probably not. Although I do think when the Cubs came out of their rebuild, there were a lot of guys on the field, although it happened more over a two-year stretch. Frankly, that’s the way we see this is, over a two-year stretch. It began last year, introducing guys like J.P. Crawford, Justus Sheffield and Justin Dunn. This next stage obviously is providing even greater opportunity for Shed Long, Kyle Lewis or Jake Fraley, allowing it to start to build up.
We do think there is a time between now and when we’re sitting in here in the spring of 2021, where the players who might not be logical candidates to break camp with us this year are very much either candidates to break with us next year or have already appeared in the big leagues in the 2020 season. So that by the time we are ready to roll at the end of 2020 headed into 2021, we’ve gotten as many of those players (as much) experience as we can, because getting comfortable in the big leagues is step one in realizing your potential.”
New reality: This is will be an underlying theme, but the 60-game schedule changes so much of this goal. The volume of experience — plate appearances, innings pitched, leveraged situations and anything else — has been severely reduced. The idea of a player experiencing the grind of a 162-game season at baseball’s highest level — remember, it’s only 140 games in the minor leagues — is lost. Crawford was the closest to living it last season, and he wilted from mental and physical fatigue in the final months.
And those players who weren’t logical candidates to break camp but might get their first MLB experience, like Gilbert, Raleigh or Kelenic, are unlikely to do so in this shortened season since they had no minor-league games to build them up.
Do you think they’re ready for it?
Dipoto: “Yeah, we’re gonna have young days. But I do think because they’re talented, and baseball history tells us that if you take talented players and you give them an opportunity in the big leagues, and it might take one of them no time at all and they’re ready to go from day one, and another might take 300-400 plate appearances, this guy might take 50 innings, the other guy might take 150. But usually in that first year, you learn so much and you learn to slow the game down and you get those active experiences. I suspect that if we afford each one of the guys we think are ready for it, playing time and exposure, that by the time we are sitting here a year from now, we are so much better for it. That’s why we think that the ability to go contend is not too far down the road for us. We feel like it’s much closer than maybe the casual observer thinks.”
New reality: The casual observer as well as opposing MLB scouts and front-office people had a fair amount of skepticism about the timeline for the team to contend. But any pessimism is also due to past Mariners failures not under Dipoto’s regime. It will be difficult to get 250 plate appearances in this season with starting pitchers likely to get maybe 10 starts and 60-plus innings. And reliever usage is even more unpredictable. How much can be learned? Will the stress of only 60 games provide added pressure for players fearful that a chance like this might not come again?
How much do you think this will tell you about the stepback process and where it’s at after the season?
Dipoto: “It’ll be huge and very telling. Frankly, right now, we couldn’t be happier with the talent that we’ve been able to amass in the last year and two months. We went from a really rough farm system with not a lot of burgeoning talent to one of the more well-regarded farm systems in the league. And there’s some really interesting young talent on our big-league roster that, frankly, aren’t getting a lot of the credit or adoration of third parties, like our system is right now. I’m really excited about the talent that we put in place. And where we are at the end of this year will reflect whether this group is ready to go out and compete at a high level in 2021, or if we’re a year out. We know we have the right group of players. Now it’s just a matter of, are we a year out? Are we two years out?”
New reality: The talent is there and supplemented by another MLB draft, albeit a shortened one. But will they really know about this core group of young players after this kind of season? It’s hard to believe that this stretch can provide a real evaluation of a player’s lasting competence at the MLB level. Two words: Dustin Ackley. That’s why this season hurts Dipoto’s plan, the top MLB teams who Seattle wants to compete with, have a core group of established, successful MLB players to rely upon and build around moving forward after this shortened season. With Kyle Seager’s contract up after 2021, Dee Gordon and Taijuan Walker headed for free agency after this year and Mitch Haniger’s health uncertain, it leaves only Marco Gonzales as an established player for that core group, with the rest question marks.
Would the development – good or bad — affect how you approach your offseason plans to supplement the roster with experienced players?
Dipoto: “I think it’s almost certain that we will go supplement the roster in some way at the end of 2020 just viewing where the holes are, because once we give those young players the experience level, now we want to support them enough that we can go out and effectively focus on winning games. In 2021, there will be a different feel to the team. And we want to put enough veteran players in the mix to be able to find a balance rather than just sending as many young players as we can to get an education. If we get to the end of the season, and we haven’t done a good job in helping those young players develop, then we have to reassess. Do we go into another season where we’re getting this kind of experience? Because if we’re being honest, there’s probably some players that we’ve already determined. A full season gives us a great start to figure out where we’re going to be in ’21. But I can’t imagine a scenario where we don’t go out and supplement this group in the offseason of 2020. That seems a bit far-fetched.”
New reality: Nobody is quite certain about what the free-agent market will look like after this season. It certainly won’t be robust, since owners claim they are losing hundreds of thousands of dollars each game without fans. The Mariners’ plan was to spend a fair amount this offseason in free agency or on a veteran trade to start building up the roster for one season and possibly go for it in 2022. Without the coronavirus season, they would have been in good payroll shape, carrying only Seager and Yusei Kikuchi’s guaranteed contracts for the 2021 season and no longer paying millions for players not on their roster. The financial planning was for payroll flexibility for this coming offseason and high spending after the 2021 season. But do you start investing millions after taking a massive financial hit on a team you aren’t certain is ready to compete?
What is the best reasonable scenario for this season?
Dipoto: “That we get better. That the players we think are going to be at the center of this all get the experience and grow that in the second half of the season. We’re going to go through some lumps, and I suspect that the first half is going to be a little lumpier than the second half, but that we see this group in the second half really starting to jell and become that highly competitive team that we think we’re going to be moving forward. If that starts to take shape for us in July, August, September, when the veteran teams who are putting together their playoff runs and starting to get in gear, we get to be the team that they say, ‘I don’t (want to) play the Mariners.’ It’s that we are that team that starts to really catch the attention of the league around us in the late summer. If I had to point to the best-case scenario is that all the players that we just mentioned get their time, they make their adjustments and that in the second half of the season, we become that team that nobody wants to play down the stretch, because we’re young, we’re talented and have fresh legs.”
Reality: This isn’t faulty thinking from Dipoto. Young teams have done this before as the season wears on. But this season will be less than a half of a normal baseball season. There is possibility of nothing but lumpiness for 60 games and that could wear on the psyche of young players. It’s not wrong to believe to think the lumps of 2020 carry into 2021, particularly if the season ends early due to the coronavirus.
Beyond the wins and losses, what would be the worst reasonable scenario?
Dipoto: “I could think of a million things. It’s injuries because you can’t help players get better if they’re not on the field. So the worst scenario would always revolve around injury. And it would also be if we’re unable to help these players make their transitions. We don’t have delusions that we’re going to take them from spring training, and by mid-April, they’re going to be seasoned veterans who are ready to roll. We understand the road in front of us. I guess the worst outcome, assuming that everybody stays healthy, is if we lose the opportunity to educate our players, to truly coach them, to help them get better because we get too focused on the win that day.
The bad scenario for us would be if Evan and Kyle Lewis and Jake Fraley and Shed Long and J.P. Crawford or virtually anybody on our field not named Kyle Seager of ultimately Mitch Haniger isn’t able to take the step forward to learn those lessons. We know they’re not all going to step in unison. But if we’re unable to do that with any of them, that would be a failure.
New reality: The worst-case scenario is a fast-spreading pandemic with no vaccine that has taken over daily life, leaving the baseball season gutted and still largely in doubt, basically sidetracking, slowing or hindering all the plans and preparations made for this developmental season.