General manager Jerry Dipoto could either go the rebuilding route and forfeit the 2019 season (at least), or keep his best players and perpetuate the Mariners' increasingly torturous mediocrity. He made the right choice dealing his ace to the New York Yankees.

Share story

Most people, I imagine, would not enjoy getting punched in the face. But if they had to choose between getting punched in the face or, say, getting hit by a truck, they would probably pick the former.

That’s essentially what Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto has been dealing with this offseason. He could either go the rebuilding route and forfeit the 2019 season (at least), or keep his best players and perpetuate the M’s’ increasingly torturous mediocrity.

Monday, Dipoto made his strategy clear. He shipped ace James Paxton to the Yankees in exchange for New York’s top-rated prospect, pitcher Justus Sheffield, along with minor-league outfielder Dom Thompson-Williams and minor-league pitcher Erik Swanson.

It couldn’t have been an easy move. Not when we’re talking about Paxton. Not when we’re talking about the lone survivor from the Mariners’ “Big Three,” which included Danny Hultzen and Taijuan Walker.

But painful as it might have been, Dipoto made the right decision. The Mariners had to start over. They weren’t going anywhere.

Those protesting the Big Maple trade might point to the M’s 17-year playoff drought, which is the longest in major American sports. They’ll say the organization owes it to their fans to remove that hovering cloud as quickly as possible.

After all, the team just went 89-73, which would have been good enough for the postseason every year from 2013 through 2017. Why not go for it?

Well, for one, the 2018 Mariners might have been the worst 89-win team in MLB history. They had a minus-34 run differential, which was three runs worse than the 77-85 Mets. In fact, the Pythagorean Theorem used to forecast Seattle’s record predicted it would go 77-85. The M’s basically won every single coin toss and still couldn’t get to a 163rd game.

Secondly, the Mariners’ 17 seasons of futility don’t fall on Dipoto. As much as some fans might want him to, he can’t take the past into account when trying to build this baseball team. Doing so would only increase the odds of having this same conversation in 2028. A tear down — or at least something resembling one — was necessary.

Sometimes I think Dipoto took on the least enviable executive role in sports. When he arrived, a declining Felix Hernandez had four years left on his $135 million deal, an aging Robinson Cano had eight years left on his $240 million deal, and Kyle Seager — who performed well below expectations last season — was a year removed from inking his $100 million extension. Those guys are untradeable.

He also inherited a farm system that experts incessantly rank at the bottom of baseball, which hamstrung his ability to make splashy deals. A day like this — when the M’s part ways with their best pitcher since Felix — was borderline inevitable.

Dipoto acknowledged that this move was “taking one step back to take two steps forward.” He is not predicting success next year but rather eyeing the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

As far as other moves he’ll make before opening day? He left that possibility open. But he did say teams would have to “wow” him in order to give up players such as Mitch Haniger or Edwin Diaz, who are under club control through 2022.

Paxton, like recently traded catcher Mike Zunino, would have been a free agent after the 2020 season. The odds of the Mariners making the playoffs in those two years with him would have been slim, as would the odds of them being able to afford him afterward. I don’t know if Sheffield will develop into the solid No. 2 starter that he’s projected to be, or if the Mariners made a particularly good haul Monday. But I know they had to do something.

Rebuilds in baseball are impossible to predict. The Astros’ and Cubs’ transformation from bottom-dwellers to World Series champions romanticizes the approach, but there are plenty of other teams that failed to hit pay dirt. And now Dipoto is asking fans of the most playoff-starved franchise in sports to wait it out a little longer. Rough. But it needed doing.

If I’m working in Mariners’ ticket sales, I’m freaking out right now. “2021 is just 740 days away!” isn’t a winning slogan.

And if I’m a Mariners fan, I’m still nervous about the future. This trade improves the farm system, but it doesn’t fix it — there’s still a lot of dough tied up in unreliable players.

Even so, Monday’s trade needed to happen. Dipoto knows the definition of insanity.

The M’s weren’t likely to get results next year. At least now, they’re more likely to get them later.