Jon Heyman: Making sense of the Mariners' sudden about face and shaky future

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The Mariners appear to have made some worthwhile trades this winter — the one to deal high-priced veteran star Robinson Cano and land three prospects including Jarred Kelenic looks solid on paper — but their overall deal-a-day strategy hasn’t paid off to this point, their seemingly constant churn won’t prevent them from extending their worst-in-sports playoff-less streak to two decades (yes, worse than the Cleveland Browns) and they look like they are currently left with a team with a $100-million-plus payroll (actually close to $130M) and certain non-contender status (or worse).

“They may be the most reckless team in sports,” one rival exec suggested.

If it’s reckless, it’s reckless with a purpose, Mariners GM Jerry Dipoto says in response. The bright and personable Dipoto seems to have good answers for everything, and to be fair, he deserves big credit for facing his critics at this low point (he can make anything sound good but they have basically conceded the next two seasons following one in which they won 89 games).

Dipoto consistently makes great points. And he always has a plan.

It’s just that it’s the opposite of the plan from six months ago.



It made sense when he entered three years ago with a roster of productive veterans to gather pieces to complement them. So he did that. And it seems to make sense to “reset” now (Dipoto doesn’t like the word “teardown," as to him that means dealing everyone including young All-Star Mitch Haniger; while he did ultimately traded star closer Edwin Diaz, Dipoto says, definitively, “We are not going to add Haniger to any (deals)” and to collect fine future pieces.)

The reckless quote may be an exaggeration, but they are not in the place they expected to be now, certainly not a place to compete, and certainly not compared to the previous flowery verbiage of Mariners president Kevin Mather, who suggested sustained greatness had arrived only five months ago. It was only in July when Mather, who was bizarrely promoted to run the team following his own much more serious issue(link to the Seattle Times story), had this to say: “Our major league club is not only better than when we started, we are younger and more athletic with a window of opportunity that is just opening. We are expecting to compete every year for a playoff spot and to win the World Series.”

Obviously, that has changed now. At the time of that comment, the Mariners were 58-35. They finished 31-38 as the clubhouse and team imploded in the second half. Here’s what we wrote (link) late last year about the clubhouse issues, which were real (Dipoto admitted as much but noted that it was hard to see it coming since they thrived in the first half).

Anyway, less than a half year after Mather issued that glowing quote, Dipoto surveyed the situation, and determined that while they are fifth in the AL over his three years in win percentage, they were in too deep with the Red Sox, Yankees, Astros, Indians and Rays so strong, and it was time to rebuild, or reset (or tear down if you prefer that). When he took "a hard look at the organization," he figured they could maintain at 85 wins (they won 89 last year) had they stayed the course.

When he took that hard look, he concluded: “It was clear we were stuck in the middle.” He also concluded of the changes: “I think we are still stuck in the middle, with a lot more flexibility.” (They do have more flexibility; rather than $110 million in contracts for 2021, they may have that much in spending money.)

But as far as whether it’s odd to reverse course so abruptly, and whether they are still “in the middle,” well, those things are debatable.

Dipoto also concluded: “Two years from now things would have looked “awfully bleak.” So he decided he needed to act, and he did so significantly.

“This was the opportunity and we took it.” After a reassessment the Mariners determined to do a teardown of the team, (again, Dipoto continues to differ on that word), the team has traded starting catcher Mike Zunino, star slugging second baseman Robinson Cano, ace James Paxton, starting shortstop Jean Segura, star closer Edwin Diaz and their three set-up men — Alex Colome, Juan Nicasio and James Pazos -- with more presumably to come (or more to the point go). So, at least by our definition this isn’t just a teardown but a teardown of epic proportions.



Word is Ryon Healey could be next, though an average first baseman likely wouldn’t draw more than a middling prospect. Of course, recent acquisitions Carlos Santana, Jay Bruce and Anthony Swarzak could also be next. As could Mike Leake, though his $36M to go would necessitate taking another bad deal back, if he can be dealt at all.

Mariners legend Felix Hernandez is untradeable at $27 million for 2019 off a season in which he lost his rotation spot at least for a little while (Dipoto rightly refutes the rumors they could release Hernandez, saying, there is “zero” chance of that happening this winter, calling him "beloved," and adding “out of respect to the career he’s had he deserves the opportunity” to start the year with the team).

Third baseman Kyle Seager is close to untradeable as well. There have been reports Seager is on the block, and that’s well and good, but they tried and failed to trade Seager last winter before the teardown, and no one wanted him; beyond the fact he has struggled since mid 2017 (he played with a fracture in his foot last year) he has what’s known as a poison pill in his contract; in addition to the $56 million over the next three years to run, his $15-million team option for 2022 becomes a player option if he is dealt, making it $71 million for a player who hasn’t been himself for more than a year. The only way to trade either of them would be to attach it to Haniger, who came from Arizona in one of Dipoto’s best trades (he also got Segura in that one for Ketel Marte and Taijuan Walker). Leake has been talked about with teams, but other teams seem less than enthused and he has a full no-trade.

Of course, Cano and Segura also had full no-trades but they gladly waived them to go to teams that are trying to win, and some also believe, to leave a team whose clubhouse was divided. Segura, Cano’s best friend on the team, was in a physical fight with Dee Gordon, who had taken Cano’s second base spot.

The late clubhouse implosion seemed to come out of nowhere, but it happened. As Dipoto noted, “The same group got along in the first half.” He said that in any case the trades were made due to the more obvious reason, and not to alleviate clubhouse woes; when you are rebuilding, or “resetting,” you trade high-priced veterans for younger players.

Cano, who is known for a princely personality, to his credit never complained publicly about losing his second base spot after his PED suspension, and always appeared to be a good soldier, but rightly or wrongly, team officials are said to have blamed him for even saying anything in the clubhouse about the issue, suggesting his remarks on the second base debate didn’t help the clubhouse division. Segura is said to idolize Cano, as many young players do, and he took Cano’s side, which could have been the underlying reason for the fisticuffs with Gordon, who got Cano's old job. (Dipoto declined comment on any feelings about a front office belief that Cano's clubhouse comments helped divide it, saying only that Cano is “a great second baseman and Hall of Fame talent.”)

Anyway, the perceived division picked up an ugly chapter when Lorena Martin, who was hailed as a savior when hired away from the Los Angels Lakers a year ago but fired less than halfway into her contract), publicly accused a trio in Mariners management — including Dipoto and manager Scott Servais — of treating the Latin players in the organization differently. MLB is said to be looking into it, but fairly, Dipoto and Servais have no history of discrimination or different treatment. Dipoto seems to be non-discriminatory when it comes to trades; anyone's available to go. His history suggests he will trade anyone no matter the ethnicity, and it’s very likely coincidental that six of the players traded so far are Latin; if anyone’s keeping score, they also acquired three Latin players: Santana plus Gerson Bautista and Omar Narvaez.

The more obvious issue is the team, which is all but sure to hit 20 seasons without a playoff game since it hasn't played in October since the magical season of 2001 — hard to believe for an organization that has fairly consistently been in the top 10 in revenues among the 30 MLB teams.

There have just been too many misses on deals and draft picks, though many occurred before Dipoto took over. Before Dipoto arrived, multiple top-six draft picks (Dustin Ackley, Danny Hultzen, Alex Jackson) didn’t work out for a variety of reasons, including injury. The pre-Dipoto contracts of Cano and Hernandez were solid or better for the first half of them, at least, but some of the others have been regrettable.

Seager's deal looked high to start but looks much worse now. Segura looked reasonable to start, but judging by a trade where they took back the overpriced first baseman Santana, it’s fair to conclude no one else loved the Segura contract, perhaps due to a lack of need at the shortstop position. Taking the Leake and Gordon contracts made little sense to most at the time, and in Gordon’s case, not only did they take the $38 million that remained and aimed to change the position of a former Gold Glove second baseman but they gave up three prospects that were better than advertised (pitcher Nick Neidert was the Marlins organization Pitcher of the Year and is considered part of their future). In their endeavor to contend and break the playoff-less drought, they dealt away a lot of kids.

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While they haven’t traded any superstar prospects, the list of the ones they have moved is long, and Baseball America recounted 10 of the better ones (link). Now they are gathering prospects, and Kelenic from the Mets deal is highly regarded and Sheffield from the Yankees is almost as highly regarded. Dipoto, who back in 2010 traded veteran starters Dan Haren and Edwin Jackson (for Patrick Corbin, Tyler Skaggs and others) as an interim GM in Arizona, understands he isn’t on the popular side of things now. And while the distant future looks much brighter thanks also to a couple productive recent drafts and these trades, in the immediate future, Seattle looks to go starkly south.

Dipoto points out their projected WAR hasn’t changed that much, and Mariners people still expect 70-plus wins. But the reality is that the rotation is filled with slow throwers (only Sheffield, assuming he makes it, regularly cracks 90 mph; Hernandez, Leake, Wade LeBlanc and Marco Gonzales do not) and that middle of the order (at least as it stands) is even slower; the team that strived so hard to become “young and athletic” would have Santana, Bruce and Seager as the middle of its order (barring further trades). Not to mention, the bullpen is practically nonexistent now. Some are predicting another Baltimore.

In any case, there is logic in their efforts trying to drastically change what’s been done; it just looks weird after talking up their team so much in the middle of last season. Anyway, they are doing the exact opposite of what they did before. They are looking to add prospects rather than subtract them.

Dipoto is seen by many as the very man to do it, because no one is a bigger dealmaker than him; someone reported that in recent years Dipoto has been responsible for roughly 20 percent of the deals that have been made.

That doesn’t count the one he made last summer with the team where he received a multiyear extension. The Mariners are one of those teams that won’t say how long their executive deals are for, but one person said he believed it was for three years, and another said five (Dipoto also declined to say which was right).

In any case, Dipoto would seem to have plenty of time to undo what he has done so far.

Jon Heyman is Fancred's baseball insider. He publishes his weekly Inside Baseball column each Thursday on the App and FancredSports.com. You can download the App here and interact with Jon by following him right here.

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