March 24, 2017
Looking Back on Tomorrow
Between now and Opening Day, we'll be previewing each team with a focus on answering the question: "How will this team be remembered?" For the full archive of each 2017 team preview, click here.
To determine what will be remembered of the 2017 Mariners, let us hop into a baseball-centric version of Carl Sagan’s “Ship of the Imagination” and make a few trips to the recent past.
The 2008 Mariners traded Adam Jones, Chris Tillman, George Sherrill, Kam Mickolio, and Tony Butler to the Orioles for Erik Bedard. The previous iteration had won 88 games, and despite all signs—including a negative run differential—pointing to that season’s success being an anomaly, the franchise went into “win now” mode. Instead they became the first team in baseball history to lose 100 games with a $100 million payroll. General manager Bill Bavasi was fired. When Bedard retired in 2015, the ill-conceived trade that brought him to Seattle was held up as his lasting legacy.
In 2010, fresh off a season that saw first-year general manager Jack Zduriencik build a surprisingly competitive roster through an at-the-time revelatory emphasis on defense, the Mariners traded for Cliff Lee, an All-Star at the height of his powers. Paired with an equally lethal peak Felix Hernandez, the Mariners were preseason darlings, cover boys of ESPN The Magazine. Mariners fans felt as though they finally had a leadership they could believe in. “In Jack We Trust,” we said.
The 2010 Mariners lost 101 games, fired manager Don Wakamatsu, lost franchise icon Ken Griffey Jr. to an abrupt and contentious retirement, scored 3.16 runs per game, and were perhaps the least enjoyable baseball team to grace cable television. While Zduriencik kept his job, the season’s failure unraveled his trust in not only defense, but the analytical wing of his front office. The last five years of the Zduriencik regime were an endless parade of designated hitters playing the outfield, second basemen converted to outfielders, Kendrys Morales acquisitions, rushed prospects, power obsessions, increasing paranoia, breakdowns in communication, and eventually near-anarchy.
But 2015 was going to be different. In lieu of outsmarting teams, the Mariners had finally acquiesced to trying to outspend them. Big-money free agents Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz were in place, Felix Hernandez was filled with a lust for vengeance from losing the Cy Young award to Corey Kluber, and an 87-win roster was recalibrated and tuned. It was time. In 2015 the Mariners lost 86 games. Mike Zunino was allowed 386 plate appearances while producing a .196 TAv. Fernando Rodney wandered into the forest, literally and metaphorically. Zduriencik was fired. And one month later, Jerry Dipoto took over as GM.
For a region that prides itself on its education and worldliness, it’s equal parts baffling and endearing that, only two years later, Mariners fans have maintained enough energy and enthusiasm to fully throw themselves behind Dipoto’s vision. Dipoto has become something of a phenomenon in baseball, turning 2015’s disappointment into a vastly improved 87-win team in 2016. Beyond simple wins and losses, there are the trades. Dipoto has spent his 18 months in Seattle living out the fever dream of every fantasy baseball manager ever, with more than 40 trades over that span.
For a fan base currently suffering through the longest playoff drought in baseball (15 years and counting) there is no doubt some satisfaction taken from the mere cathartic act of casting aside so many players connected to past failures. However, Dipoto has seemingly wrestled a competent-to-above-average roster out of the mire of waiver-wire acquisitions and Wade Miley’s various happenings.
From a fan perspective, Dipoto says all the right things, and I mean all the right things. He addresses spin rates, knows about swing plane adjustments, talks about psychological profiles, and is hip to every advanced analytical, Statcast-fueled defensive metric you can name. He talks like a combination of aw-shucks-guy-next-door and dazzlingly handsome, silver-tongued baseball huckster. If House Dipoto had a crest, it would be two piercingly intelligent blue eyes on a field of teal, with the house words “Hi great to meet you that’s a fine question let me tell you about a report I read recently on the subject!”
The question, then, and the thing that we will look back on and remember the 2017 Mariners for answering, is quite simple: Is Dipoto the Mariners’ Jesus or its Jim Jones? The Mariners are an improved organization, one with demonstrably better depth, and a more cohesive and repeatable philosophical ideal. “People, and process” is the term we hear these days. Through these improvements, and the charismatic way Dipoto and the team present them, it’s hard to not look at the 2017 club and feel very good about it.
Of course, words are nothing without action, and frustratingly to any would-be skeptic Dipoto appears to do many of the right things as well. The days of Mark Trumbo, Mike Morse, and Nelson Cruz starting in right field are gone, replaced by a teeming stable of quality defensive outfielders in Leonys Martin, Jarrod Dyson, Mitch Haniger, Guillermo Heredia, and Ben Gamel. The trade to acquire shortstop Jean Segura pairs him with Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager to form three-fourths of an elite infield. It was Dipoto and company who decided in the middle of last season to convert Edwin Diaz to relief, giving the team an elite, cost-controlled arm at a time when the reliever market exploded.
The hopeful signs extend beyond the big leagues. As a result of Dipoto’s charisma and leadership the Mariners appear to function top-to-bottom as a cohesive, coherent organization. It is a stark contrast to the Zduriencik years, and for longtime fans it stands out in the larger scope of franchise history. Director of player development Andy McKay, one of Dipoto’s first hires, has brought hope to a farm system ground to dust by Zduriencik’s poor communication, overly aggressive promotions, and sink-or-swim philosophy. Despite poor organizational rankings from the prospect experts, every Mariners minor-league affiliate made the playoffs in 2016, something McKay points to as a priority for the organization.
The tide of positivity and goodwill from all corners of the baseball world (Dipoto has his own theme song on a national baseball podcast) is so overwhelming that it seems to have largely obscured a perilously thin, aging, and expensive big-league roster that has almost no surefire reinforcements coming from its still largely barren minor-league system.
Hernandez remains a mystery, caught halfway between the unassailable legend he built from 2006-2014 and the injured, frustrated pitcher with a 3.73 DRA of 2016. High-upside starters James Paxton and Drew Smyly flash quality stuff and nagging injuries in almost equal measure. Zunino is still only a year from seemingly watching his career wash away, and after sending Dan Vogelbach to Triple-A the Danny Valencia-led first base situation projects as one of the majors’ least productive.
Despite the immense turnover of the roster, it’s debatable whether the overall talent level of the franchise has changed during Dipoto’s time in Seattle. Projection systems have consistently rated the Mariners between a good-but-not-elite 81-86 wins both in 2016 and 2017. This is still an incredibly top-heavy organization, and even with all of the new faces its success on the field this season will largely be determined by the performance of Hernandez, Seager, Cano, and Cruz, none of whom were acquired by Dipoto.
More than acquiring improved talent, Dipoto’s roster overhaul appears to have been one built around a sea-change of philosophy, of culture. This change has been trumpeted by Dipoto and his employees at every opportunity, through media, television, print, and social media. It is an uncommonly transparent operation, one that appears to pride itself on clearly stating its goals and ideals, and then proceeding to go out and do exactly that.
Dipoto’s transparency, friendliness, and apparent aptitude ask for more than your fandom. They ask for your belief, for your utter commitment to The Mariners Way. A successful 2017 could elevate the status of the Mariners’ front office into the stratosphere of the game, allowing wealthy ownership in a prosperous city to continue to spend big when necessary, and produce a consistent contender. Failure will simply further drive the region's creeping disinterest in the team, once again burned by preseason expectations and big promises.
The Mariners are a franchise that has expected greatness before in the past decade, and every time it has ended with the organization in chaos, its fan base further embittered, and another year removed from the glory years of 1995-2003. Dipoto can be the Mariners Personal Theo, or he can be just another con man, reaping disappointment from a crop sown with hope. For now, I’d avoid the Kool-Aid. Water is better for you anyway.