Recently Marc, over at USS Mariner, wrote an interesting piece about the Nick Rumbelow trade, and how it was the latest move to “cede the development role in AAA AND trade away a minor league team’s worth of low-minors pitchers.” We joke a whole lot about Jerry’s “trade addiction” (something I wish we didn’t joke about, since addiction and the stigma that surrounds it are painfully serious, but I can work to ignore that on my own), but as we enter the third offseason of Dipoto’s regime it’s time to start considering the underlying rationale that drives the fervor of his trades.
Last season Dipoto appeared on The Ringer’s MLB podcast, where he spoke about, among other things, his defense of making so many trades because they would increase the likelihood that one would turn out well. In fairness, he also acknowledge the increased likelihood that there would be a few more bad moves in there as well. That’s all fine and well; it’s the nature of trades- sometimes you’re the toaster, sometimes you’re the burnt toast. My concern, and Marc alluded to this in his piece too, are the broader implications of what made them decide to carry these trades out.
It started with the 2016 international prospect signings. I'm sure there were some other small-scale trades beforehand that alluded to this issue, but the international prospect engagement is what initially gave me pause. In 2016 the Mariners signed three of those prospects- only two teams in MLB signed fewer. It seemed odd that an organization with such a weak minor league system wouldn't choose to take advantage of the opportunity to grow said system however they could. Perhaps they were going for quality over quantity, signing the 29th and 49th-ranked prospects? Then in 2017 the Mariners signed five international prospects- this time three eligible teams signed fewer. As of today, only one international prospect from 2016 remains in the system. I was flummoxed and, frankly, still am. There's specific money designated to these signings, so it doesn't mess with their budget. The quality over quantity approach excuse loses more merit the longer you consider it. The only thing that made sense was something that Grant Bronsdon mentioned last season, when he noted that Dipoto had shown a tendency to trade for upper-level minor league players. International prospects are usually signed as teenagers, so their paths to the majors is often longer than prospects signed during the amateur draft.
Which brings us back to today, and the recent trade of Juan Then (17-year-old 2016 international signee) and JP Sears (21-year-old drafted in 2017) for Nick Rumbelow (26 years old, 15 2⁄3 innings of major league experiences). In an article in the Seattle Times, prior to this trade, Dipoto said, in discussing his moves over the last season "'We got younger and we didn't get younger at the A level. We got younger at the big-league level.'" It's true; Dipoto has gone out of his way to acquire players who are major-league ready and all around 26 years old. Prior to his takeover, the M's had one of the oldest rosters in the league, so this strategy is good in a vacuum, but has unfortunately been executed at the expense of young talent. I worry about what these moves say about Dipoto's priorities, and I worry about what these moves say about the priorities of the organization overall but, most importantly, I worry about what these moves say about the Front Office's confidence in their own systems.
As Mariners fans we're used to the failures of prospect development and minor league systems, which was one of the big reasons why so many of us were excited by Dipoto's initial hiring. He spoke of much-needed change, and organizational unity, and of Controlling the Zone throughout the org. Andy McKay joined the front office, and the promise of a not-disastrous minor league system beckoned to us all. Perhaps this will all turn out to have been a grand success - we've seen bits and pieces of that success in the minor league team performances, and in the development of players like Art Warren, Braden Bishop, and Nick Neidert. Unfortunately, though, the frequency with which Dipoto churns through lower-level minor league players makes it difficult to assess whether those strategies are really working.
I reached out to erstwhile editor and prospect king, Ethan Novak, to get his take on this trend. His quote (turned slight rant) has been included in its entirety, because it perfectly encapsulates the frustrations with this approach.
"As we enter offseason number three of the Dipoto era, I can now definitively say that the most frustrating aspect of the organizational philosophy is the complete lack of interest in allowing toolsy, lower level minor league prospects to stick around and get some mileage under them in this development system. From the moment Dipoto took over, one of the major points of emphasis that was preached was the desire to overhaul the farm system via several strategies (consistent communication, stronger support systems, and so on). I have very little doubt that, at its core, the developmental side of the farm system under Dipoto can be much more successful than the farm system under Jack Z (yay, low bars!). That being said, we've seen a mass exodus of the younger, more interesting talents in the system over the last year. Alex Jackson is now in Atlanta. Zack Littell is gone. Brayan Hernandez is in Miami. Luiz Gohara went away. Jio Orozco, Juan Then, Alexander Campos, Pablo Lopez, Brandon Miller, Drew Jackson, JP Sears, Aneurys Zabala, Carlos Vargas–all gone. The results from that group are mixed, but their talent is undeniable. And when you look at it all, these are the guys who stand to gain the most from your development system–guys who are going to be in the system for years before (hopefully) setting foot on Safeco. If we truly believe in the development system in place, why are the Mariners flopping lower level guys for lower-ceiling, MLB-ready guys at such an alarming rate? There's a time and place for those trades and I don't have a problem with all of them, but this philosophy has turned what was already a fairly rough farm system into one of the worst in baseball, unfortunately. I don't know, it's concerning. I'm not sure how anyone can say their process on the farm is a success at this point when all of their samples keep getting plane tickets chucked at them."
It’s difficult to come to a black and white consensus about anyone, let alone a General Manager, particularly when it comes to assessing what is still a work in progress. Heck, people have even changed their opinions about Jack Z in the years that he’s been gone. The other issue we often run into is that, to varying degrees, we’re conditioned to defer to those in positions of power and authority. It’s certainly been my default thought process: “Well, they hired him for a reason; he’s been working in baseball for a while; there are all sorts of things going on that I’m not privy to.” So this isn’t an assessment of Dipoto’s status as a Good or Bad GM, and it’s certainly not an indictment of his tenure, but there are some valid concerns about the future of this organization. From the outside, a worrisome trend is beginning to emerge; one that makes it all too easy to craft a narrative about the impatient GM on a three year contract, with a team who hasn't been to the playoffs since 2001.
In a few years a once all-26-year-old team could very well be a hole that another GM is trying to dig this franchise out of.