The contract extensions for Jerry Dipoto and Scott Servais on Wednesday prompted an impromptu “State of the Mariners” evaluation by the parties involved.
The consensus, as you’d expect, was a mixture of satisfaction with the Mariners’ progress since tearing down the team after the 2018 season and a declaration that the rebuild job is not complete.
“We certainly haven’t accomplished our goals, but we’re making great progress,” Dipoto said.
“We’re playing for the end game here, and the end game is to win the World Series,” Servais echoed. “It’s not to try to sneak in, or stay close in a playoff or wild-card hunt. We’re there right now. And I hope we can get in. But that’s not the end game. The end game is to win the division, get deep into the playoffs and win the World Series.”
Dipoto noted that with a 3.5-game deficit in the American League wild-card race and 29 (now 28) games to play, “There is a window to squeeze in there.”
To get beyond the “squeezing/sneaking in” stage for the Mariners will clearly require a significant financial commitment by the Mariners in the offseason. Whether that takes the form of higher-caliber free agents than they’ve shopped for since the “step back,” or acquiring established (i.e., expensive) veterans via trades, remains to be seen. But after hearing promises for years that ownership will open up the wallet at the appropriate time, it’s hard to imagine a satisfactory justification for arguing that the time has not arrived.
But I’ve got a slightly different take when pondering the Mariners’ path to this still-mythical end game. Yes, an influx of proven talent to augment the current nucleus is a vital step. But it’s not ultimately what will determine if the Mariners meet their goal of perennial contention and legitimate championship potential.
No, that will be decided in the same place the Mariners began their climb back to respectability after voluntarily breaking apart what Dipoto on Wednesday termed the “critically flawed” 2018 team that won 89 games: the farm system.
And by the highly touted players that have started to emerge from the minor leagues into key roles in the majors.
Let’s face it, virtually every dynastic run in the modern era has been fueled by a homegrown core of players. That’s the proven way to sustain success, because once you start relying on free agents to fill your holes and solve your problems, it can become a very slippery slope.
The most famous homegrown example is the Yankees’ “Core Four” of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada and Andy Pettitte (which should really have been dubbed a Core Five that included Bernie Williams). That group won four World Series titles in five years, but they also had the benefit of the Yankees’ financial might that gave them the capability to both retain those players when they hit the megabucks, and to constantly surround them with elite talent.
A more pertinent recent example is the Astros, whose blueprint the Mariners have followed, with a few divergences. The Astros famously tore down their team to the studs (to use one of Dipoto’s favorite expressions), lost 100-plus games for three consecutive years to get the No. 1 overall draft picks and came out the other side with two World Series appearances, one title and five playoff appearances in the past six years.
Putting aside the cheating scandal, it was a textbook rebuild job — marked by initial misery and gradual emergence into prominence. And it was predicated by their homegrown core: Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman, George Springer and Lance McCullers Jr., and now Kyle Tucker, Yuli Gurriel and Yordan Alvarez.
Yes, the Astros filled in beautifully with the likes of Gerrit Cole, Michael Brantley, Justin Verlander and Charlie Morton. But what has led to their mini-dynasty is (and remains) savvy drafting, international signings and player development.
The Mariners have all the accolades you could want for their player development, peppering the prospect lists and moving up to No. 1 in Baseball America’s most recent farm-system rankings. Dipoto talked Wednesday of “a next wave or waves” of young players “that we believe are going to continue to flood our system.”
But it’s fair to have a little bit of tension, or perhaps apprehension, about whether it’s all leading to the formation of a homegrown core (including players acquired in trades while still in the minors) that lives up to its billing.
Outfielder Kyle Lewis, the 2020 AL Rookie of the Year, has missed most of the season because of the latest iteration of a serious knee injury. So has first baseman Evan White, who has not shown he can hit major-league pitching. For that matter, that goes for catcher Cal Raleigh and outfielder Jarred Kelenic, the latter being one of the two most prominent faces of the rebuild, with outfielder Julio Rodriguez. Pitcher Logan Gilbert has had shining moments but also just endured a prolonged slump.
Both Dipoto and Servais remain bullish on Kelenic, who sits at .153/.237/.272 after a homestand in which he struck out in half his 28 at-bats. They see his struggles as all part of his growth, yet those are hard lessons to learn in the context of a playoff push.
“I have full confidence in his ability, and his ability to adapt,” Dipoto said. “He’s been frustrated. There’s no question about that, but he’s also shown you flashes of what he’s capable of. He’s still roughly about six and a half, seven years younger than the average player. That should tell you what you need to know about how much is in front of Jarred Kelenic, and other players that we have.
“He’s not the only one that’s transitioning through the big leagues and learning how to manage those struggles. That’s maybe the most important lesson that those young players will learn, is how to get through it.”
No rebuilding team, mind you, hits on all its prospects. With the No. 1 overall pick in successive years (2013 and ’14), the Astros took pitchers Mark Appel and Brady Aiken; Appel is still kicking around the minors in the Phillies organization. Aiken, who the Astros never signed (leading to the Bregman pick in 2015 as compensation), is out of baseball.
The Mariners have built a solid core of young players acquired in trades, starting with Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales and including the likes of Ty France, J.P. Crawford and now Abraham Toro.
But can this rebuild soar to the heights that the Mariners envision, and fans dream about? These waves of young talent ripening on the farm that we’ve been hearing raves about for so long need to yield a copious amount of stars with staying power.