Overhauling comes with the territory.
When Jerry Dipoto and his new regime took over the Mariners following a perpetually disappointing 2015 campaign, they weren't just inheriting a major league roster full of holes, they were taking on a farm system that was experiencing failure on a cataclysmic level.
It was hard to look anywhere in the organization and not find an issue. Former big name prospects were struggling to clear the lowest of bars up in Seattle. The overall talent level of the current crop of prospects had plummeted, leaving the Mariners with one of the worst systems in baseball. The talented pieces they did possess were struggling at an alarming rate. Alex Jackson looked overmatched no matter where they sent him. D.J. Peterson was broken. Raw prospects like Gareth Morgan showed no signs of progress, in some ways even taking a step back. The best catching prospect in the entire system likely needed a third trip through Advanced-A ball. Players who did perform even a little bit were clung to by eager Mariners fans like a film protagonist hanging on to the edge of the cliff after being beaten to shreds by the villain. And this all doesn’t even begin to touch on the depressing state of the starting pitching depth.
There were many hurdles to be jumped, but rebuilding the farm system from top to bottom would be perhaps the most difficult. Jerry Dipoto–a man who had left behind an equally bad farm system in Anaheim–took a unique approach to the problem, bringing in sports psychologist Andy McKay as the farm director:
"Of all the hires we've made, I'm so excited about seeing what Andy can bring to the table and how he connects an organization from top to bottom...That's the next great frontier, understanding how to conquer the mind. Finding out how players are wired, how they tick and then giving them the best opportunity to not get in their own way."
In addition to stressing the mental side of the game, Dipoto also heaved emphasis on things like ‘communication flow’ throughout the system and the ‘Control the Zone’ concept, which we have become very familiar with. The vision was made clear in this video released by the Mariners last offseason:
There was no telling whether it would work, but one thing was for certain: Jerry Dipoto was going to succeed or fail as General Manager of the Seattle Mariners by doing things his way.
Unless you can catch enough teams in their most desperate trade deadline moment, building up a farm system is a long, arduous process. That being said, Year One of the Great Dipoto-McKay Experiment couldn’t have gone any better:
It’s hard to compare and put stock into team-wide numbers under a multi-year scope in the minors due to crazy roster overhauls, but you can see signs of progress here. I didn’t include short season squads because the small samples and random assortment of players that come with those leagues is such a crapshoot and Triple-A Tacoma doesn’t get a spot because Triple-A clubs are primarily full of journeymen baseball lifers who just weren’t quite good enough to land a starting gig with the San Diego Padres.
In additional promising news, every single affiliate in the Mariners organization made the playoffs last year. Two of them (Double-A Jackson, AZL Mariners) won titles. That doesn’t happen by accident.
Does this mean the Mariners’ farm system is now the best in baseball? Of course not. An increase in winning percentage amongst affiliates does not strongly correlate to an increase in winning percentage at the major league level. And teaching players how to be successful against minor league competition does not mean they will be successful against major league competition. There’s a reason why there are so many players who can mash Triple-A pitching with one hand behind their back, but are unable to find success against even the most mediocre of MLB pitchers. Being a MLB player is hard. For every David Eckstein, there are hundreds of scrappy minor leaguers you’ll never hear of. While development is a key cog in this whole shindig, at some point you’ll need some legit talent to go along with it. The Mariners are not quite there yet. A pitching prospect or two would help.
They are, however, on the right track, which is a sentiment that hasn’t been shared in this farm system for awhile. The success stories are everywhere. Tyler O’Neill transformed himself into one of the thirty or forty best prospects in baseball. Ian Miller got his season back on track after the organization made it a point to express confidence in him. Dan Altavilla had his career path transformed in the best of ways after being converted to a reliever. Thyago Vieira turned his thunderous fastball into lightning. Well-regarded prospects Max Povse, Dan Vogelbach, and Mitch Haniger have been brought in via trades. Alex Jackson started hitting again before he was sent packing. Marcus freaking Littlewood even managed a 143 wRC+ out in Double-A Jackson.
And for me, that’s the biggest takeaway from last year. While they haven’t made many gains in terms of raw abilities, there is now a system in place for all current and future players to succeed. The talent will come. It may not be this year or next, but the talent will come; it’s really freaking hard to maintain a bottom-five system over a long period of time. And when that talent does come, when the Mariners have a few impact bats and a couple pitchers with mid-rotation or higher potential, they’ll actually have a system that doesn’t feel like it’s designed for failure.
Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of having (typically very brief) conversations with several types of people who are in some way connected to this crazy world of minor league baseball. Amongst all of these talks, there is one quote that has always stuck with me. After watching their son sputter out of the Mariners organization and out of baseball entirely during the Jack Z era, a parent stated coldly and bluntly:
“The Seattle Mariners ruined my son.”
The Mariners are still recovering from the mistakes of the Jack Z regime and will be for a long time. But believe me when I say that the current regime has made all the necessary strides, short of hosting a fire sale at the MLB level, to start righting the wrongs on the farm. Year One was remarkably fun.
Bring on Year Two.