After Jerry Dipoto was hired as the general manager of the Mariners late in the 2015 season, his early tenure with club became one of the most anticipated programs of the fall season. How would he remake one of the most disappointing teams in the major leagues? Would he tear it down, or would he attempt to reload on the fly and stay relevant in 2016? One thing is for certain: it didn’t take very long to find out.
The champagne was barely dry in the road locker room in Citi Field when Dipoto began his handiwork. Much like an accident scene on the highway, the Mariners’ 2015 season and roster was briefly cordoned off, the gruesome but necessary cleanup work performed, and the road re-opened as good as new. Now that the first 13-week installment of “The Jerry Dipoto Show” is in the books, let’s look back at the highs and lows, and try to make sense of what it all means for the near- to intermediate-term future of the Seattle Mariners.
Dipoto hit the ground running, just a few days after the end of the World Series, with one of the two largest and perhaps most controversial deals of his first offseason. Outfield and starting depth were two prime Mariner concerns for 2016, and middle infield one of their few areas of depth. Exit Miller, who was supplanted late last season by Ketel Marte at shortstop, only to struggle in a multi-positional role afterward.
I was in the Mariner front office for, and was a key factor in, the drafting of Miller and another traded player to be discussed later. Along with Dustin Ackley, Erasmo Ramirez, Justin Smoak and others, Miller was one of many young Mariners to rise through the Mariner system, experience some early success, but ultimately fail to develop at the major league level in Seattle. Still, he was a better-than-average hitter from the left side — quite an asset considering his position — and a playable defensive shortstop. Morrison was a potential non-tender; Farquhar, a live arm who’s had plenty of ups and downs, solid big league bullpen inventory.
Karns was the big get here, a hard-throwing righty whom the Rays successfully molded into a starter who could survive two or three times around the lineup. Only thing is, Ramirez, obtained from the Mariners last spring for pennies on the dollar (LHP Michael Montgomery) is roughly as valuable a trade asset. Think about it: Ramirez for Montgomery, Brad Miller for Ramirez equivalent. The first trade wasn’t Dipoto’s to be sure, but in both cases it would appear that the Mariners sold low on quality assets.
Riefenhauser would be flipped in a later deal, and Powell might turn into a sleeper asset for the Mariners. For more on another theme of the Mariner offseason to which Powell is pertinent, see Episode 3.
If there had been any doubt about the Mariners intention to contend in 2016, it was dispelled by this deal. Neither prospect dealt was particularly highly regarded in the Mariners’ relatively subpar system. While possessing solid upside, De Los Santos is still miles from the big leagues.
This deal was about bringing aboard an $8 million above-average reliever for his age-38 season. WAR-wise, the exceedingly reliable Benoit will likely be worth around his contract value, and the assets being exchanged are lottery tickets of varying value which may or may not pay off down the road. A boring episode, but a useful one from a Seattle perspective.
By the second half of the 2015 season, after the trades of Austin Jackson and Dustin Ackley to the Cubs and Yankees, respectively, the most damaging endorsement of the prior Mariner regime was this: they had no capable defensive outfielders under contract past 2015 on their major league roster.
Franklin Gutierrez, who has been re-signed, was set to hit free agency. Seth Smith, would be a DH for most AL clubs, but was a Gold Glover among this group. Jones, moved in this deal, is speedy but erratic in the outfield, and Mark Trumbo and Nelson Cruz should not own outfielders’ gloves. To add insult to injury, Miller was running around the outfield with absolutely no training or prior preparation, and to add injury to insult, solid defensive corner outfielder Ramon Flores (see Episode 4) was sent to Triple-A after being acquired for Ackley, only to break his leg.
Dipoto is betting on a bounce-back offensively from Martin, who in any event should be a clear upgrade defensively. He’s doing so primarily at the expense of late-inning bullpen depth in Williamson and an intriguing, though older, bat prospect in Kivlehan. With Benoit in hand, this becomes an understandable, if relatively low-upside, deal that addresses a gaping hole.
Episode 4 – “Exchange of Spare Parts”
Traded OF Ramon Flores to Brewers for SS Luis Sardinas.
Another low-key episode. Sardinas is still quite young, and is a solid defensive shortstop. His bat is very light, but you can never have too many shortstops. That said, the Mariners might regret losing Flores if he fully regains his form following his serious leg injury. He’s a tweener, who doesn’t profile to hit for the power desired of a corner outfielder, and wasn’t quite athletic enough, even prior to the injury, to be a fit in center field. Still, Flores is a major league bat, while Sardinas at best is a utilityman. I’d go advantage Brewers here, though they have assumed the most risk in the deal.
Episode 5 – “Trumbo”
Traded 1B Mark Trumbo and LHP C.J. Riefenhauser to Orioles for C Steve Clevenger.
This one likely caused some head-scratching among Mariner fans, as the centerpiece player in their 2015 pre-trading deadline strike, Mark Trumbo, was dealt for a backup catcher and salary relief. They had moved Welington Castillo, the man who would have saved them from their Mike Zunino/Jesus Sucre offensive black hole for the ages, plus two prospects for Trumbo. And now this.
There is a defense for this deal, however. Salary relief is a real thing: Trumbo is a better player than Clevenger, but is he $9 million better? The Philadelphia Eagles did the same thing, moving LeSean McCoy to Buffalo and $10 million of salary relief, and… well, I guess that’s not a great example. But Trumbo is no McCoy, so this makes some degree of sense.
This closes the book on the second pick in the 2009 draft, who hit everywhere before and after his time in Seattle. Ackley actually hit very well his first couple months with the Mariners, but developed some bad habits which weren’t addressed until seemingly the second he landed in Yankee Stadium. Ramirez? He throws hard. The previous regime liked that. Harper’s a better pitcher, both are likely to be Quad-A relievers. Not much to see here.
Probably the biggest, most interesting deal of the lot. From the Red Sox’ viewpoint, hey, we got Carson Smith. It’s very difficult to make contact against him, and virtually impossible to elevate the baseball. In 2015, produced a 32.4% strikeout rate, 64.8% grounder rate — a mindboggling combination that no one prior to Smith and Oriole closer Zach Britton had reached. Plus, Elias could be considered as Miley-Lite, at a much lower salary. Normally, I go starter over reliever, but I will go elite reliever over modest starter, making this call a little dicier.
The Mariner perspective is a bit more subtle. David Price had just signed for $217 million over seven years, Zack Greinke for $206 million over six. The club likely had assumed they had a great chance to re-sign Hisashi Iwakuma, but when the Dodgers guaranteed a third $15 million season, he was out the door. Assuming the lesser free agent options would be paid even more, Dipoto decided to get creative. Wade Miley — a third starter if you like him — and, more importantly, his attractive three-year (including a 2018 option), $27 million deal were available. Greinke gets an opt-out; you can look at Miley’s 2018 option as an opt-out from the club perspective.
To land that asset, the M’s had to make the difficult decision to part with Smith. He did have a difficult stretch early in the second half when his command abandoned him; he isn’t exactly a truly proven commodity. Smith is the other player, besides Miller, whom I had a very direct role in drafting. He’s a really hard give-up, but I certainly understand the club’s logical process here.
Pretty much a no-brainer from the Mariner perspective, assuming they believe they are 2016 contenders. They are ceding three live teenage arms, but which are all unfinished and miles from the big leagues. Missaki is the most advanced — he dominated Low-A Midwest League hitters in a brief 2015 stint — but he’s currently recovering from Tommy John surgery. Lind, like Benoit, is likely to be worth just about his $8 million salary in his one remaining year of control.
One must at least consider, however, that the Mariners have dealt a large slice of lower minor league depth, of which they had little to begin with, in the Benoit and Lind deals. They’ll worry about that later, and they did get two similar low-level arms headed their way last summer from the Jays in the Mark Lowe deal. Advantage Mariners.
If you utilize strikeout-to-walk ratio as a primary method of narrowing down the reliever field, then you love Scribner. He posted an unbelievable 64/4 K/BB ratio in 60 innings last season, and has a career mark of 134:27 in 147.2 innings. Oh, but he gave up 14 homers in those 2015 innings. Plus four more in 11.2 innings the year before. While pitching his home games in a cavernous stadium, similar to Safeco Field.
All of that said, he’ll make little money in his first year of arbitration, and there is clearly something with which to work here. Even subtle improvement in contact management could make Scribner a key pen contributor, at the cost of a middling prospect, at best. Like it for the Mariners.
Gutierrez is a feel-good comeback story. He’s no longer the impact centerpiece that he was once first acquired by the Mariners at the 2008 Winter Meetings, but he’s a legit part-time bat and viable defensive outfielder. He signed at a hometown discount. Good for both parties. Iannetta is their insurance policy until Mike Zunino is deemed ready to return. Iannetta is a good framer, has patience and retains some power at the plate. It is very possible, however, that his decline phase began in earnest last season.
Aoki will play right field for the Mariners in 2016. On the positive side, he makes contact and is reasonably athletic, though a bit uneven in the outfield. On the negative side, he has no power at all, and is coming off of a serious concussion that prematurely ended his 2015 season. A modest floor, low ceiling option. Cishek signed an incentive-laden contract to be the Mariner closer for the next two seasons. His velocity and command suffered last season; he’s yet another player brought aboard at the trough of his value. My guess is, however, that he is unlikely to regain his peak form. De Fratus was knocked around as a Phillie last season, but has carried a heavy innings load and showed flashes of ability in the past; a low-risk, 11th-12th man on the staff signing.
Nothing overly sexy coming aboard, and the departure of Iwakuma necessitated the trade of Miley, which cost them Carson Smith, which triggered in part the signing of Cishek. No bad, big dollar contracts either, however. Just relatively low-risk hole-fillers on what the Mariners hope is a contending club.
Daniel Robertson is yet another functional defensive outfielder; Blash is a Wily Mo Pena-esque all-or-nothing bat who will attempt to stick with the Padres. John Hicks is a defense-first catcher who would have been relegated to backup duty behind Zunino at Triple-A in 2016, and Olmos got caught up in the logjam of bullpen detritus accumulated by the previous regime. He’ll cast his lot with the Orioles.
Overall, there clearly appears to be a plan in Seattle. Getting more athletic, buying low and betting on bounce-backs, and steering clear of the free agent mega-contract would all appear to be among the overarching themes. They also appear to clearly repudiate the approach previously taken. On balance, the Mariners’ major league roster appears to be in a somewhat better place than it recently has.
We must, however, put all of this into the context of where this club currently fits into the AL playoff picture. Is this a contender? Well, compared to where 2015 playoff clubs like the Rangers and Astros were this time last year, the answer would have to be yes. Take a closer look, however, and this is a pretty old group, especially on the position player side, without much depth behind its core players. A lot would have to go right.
This is Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, Felix Hernandez and Kyle Seager’s team, and none of those guys are on the upswing. There is much work to do on the farm, at all levels. To get this job, Jerry Dipoto likely needed to try to win with this group, and he has shown a logical approach in his attempt to do so, without totally mortgaging the future.
Bottom line, 2014-15 was this club’s window, and it was wasted. The Mariners made some bad decisions, and let the Rangers and Astros back into play a year early. With his actions this offseason, Dipoto has found a viable middle ground between “going for it” and “rebuilding” that should enable him to quickly pivot toward a combination of dismantling the current nucleus and adding core pieces to the next Mariner contender when competitive circumstances dictate.