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The truthiness of Jerry Dipoto and the Mariners pre-season presser

Every team is optimistic about their chances. What seemed true and what seemed like spin?

MLB: Winter Meetings Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Jerry Dipoto and his front office are nothing if not confident, and that has never been more evident than last Thursday’s press conference. Dipoto threw out words of support for the starting rotation. Andy McKay bristled at Baseball America’s appraisal of the Mariners’ farm system as worst in the league. John Stanton assured fans that payroll wasn’t an issue. The organization believes in themselves, which is good, but they seem to be in the minority.

As Larry Stone of the Seattle Times put it the other day:

The Mariners, it seems, are asking you to believe, to trust, to have faith ... and to have faith that this season will defy the prevailing pessimism and be marked by contention and progress toward the end of their stultifying 16-year playoff drought.

Some of the front office’s claims were fair, while others seemed like a heavy dose of spin. In the spirit of baseball in the Statcast era, I decided to judge some of the evocative quotes by their spin rates.

On the state of baseball...

We’ll start big picture. Dipoto is one of many who has noticed the trend of teams intentionally not attempting to win with the purpose of building up a farm system to succeed in the future. As of now, Fangraphs projects 14 teams to be .500 or better and 16 to have losing records. Included in the “under” group are the Rockies (79-83) and the Brewers (77-85) whose offseason efforts seem focused on contention, even if projection systems are skeptical of them. There are around 8-10 teams that are absolutely not trying to win in 2018, as well as around 5-10 teams whose lack of moves this offseason make it difficult to tell whether they care to make a push or not. Dipoto’s point is a bit hyperbolic, but the sentiment is reasonable: there are more teams certain to be awful than teams certain to be good.

Spin rate: Average - A Marco Gonzales fastball

On youth and team construction...

Team control is a wonderful thing. The fact that the Mariners have nearly every player on their current roster under contract for at least the next half-decade is a boon for the organization. The issue isn’t the years of control, it’s the production that will be generated in those years. Five years of Ben Gamel may not match one year of Nelson Cruz. The White Sox have youth and team control and a terrible team right now, but odds are Yoan Moncada and Lucas Giolito produce at high levels in the next few years. Seattle will need breakouts from unheralded youth to match that performance.

Spin rate: High - An Evan Scribner curveball

On the rotation...

That’s one way of looking at it. Fewer things are more incensing to most fans right now than the Mariners’ refusal to display interest in adding to their starting rotation. After last year’s Puddle of Crudd, it’d be easier to sell fans on a Jay Bruce signing than the idea that the rotation is already solid. Dipoto’s issue here is one of either failing to read the room or choosing to disregard that read.

His assertion isn’t preposterous on its face: Fangraphs projects last year’s ALDS teams (Houston, New York, Boston, and Cleveland) to retain the elite rotations in the AL, ranging from around 15-17 WAR. After them is a long drop down to the Rays, Angels, and Blue Jays, all projected between 11.5-12.5 WAR. The Mariners are next at 10 WAR on the nose, with no other teams projected for more than nine wins above replacement. The use of WAR projections by one system is a crutch here, but the distance between Seattle and the second tier is more dependent on which flawed, fragile rotation holds together this year than anything else. It’s confidence that could be taken with amusement in a different room, but 17 years without the playoffs and last year’s unprecedented injuries have fans understandably disinterested in favorable internal projections.

Spin rate: Above-average - A David Phelps cutter

Here is the far more pertinent statement to my eye. The Mariners’ most obvious time to contend in the next several seasons seems to be 2018 by capitalizing on the remaining productivity of Robinson Cano, Nelson Cruz, and, Iron Glenn willing, Felix Hernandez. If the Mariners believe that to be the case, it seems it would behoove them to focus on any incremental upgrades available, and nowhere is an upgrade more seemingly possible than in the rotation. Dipoto has stated repeatedly his contentment with the starters he has, and we have an example of the problem with blocking AAA players who have proven all they need in the minors - just ask Daniel Vogelbach.

A healthy Marco Gonzales could blossom into the pitcher he was once expected to be. Ariel Miranda could optimize his pitch selection and continue to bedevil hitters with his pop-up generating wiles. Andrew Moore could continue his progression and establish himself as a dependable back-end pitcher in his age-23 season. The problem is one of those things will have to happen for Seattle to have playoff hopes this year, and they won’t have time to figure out which one in-season. Even if a signing temporarily pushes Gonzales to the bullpen and the others to the minors, it seems likely that injuries will force others into action regardless.

Spin Rate: Exceptional - An Ariel Miranda fastball

On the playoffs...

I think it’s in every manager’s job description to state they’re a playoff team before the season. What else is he going to say?

Spin rate: Average - A Chase De Jong fastball

On the minors...

This section is a doozy, and tougher to evaluate without knowing who the Mariners are getting calls about. We know that players like Edwin Diaz, James Pazos, Art Warren, and Matt Festa are drawing interest, while rapid developers Nick Neidert and Emilio Pagan were already moved. Additionally, the new front office has had success in turning around former top talents left over from the previous regime. Less than two years ago James Paxton was the guy who couldn’t beat out Nate Karns for the 5th rotation spot at the start of 2016. He was joined in AAA to start that year by Mike Zunino, whose progression into one of the best catchers in baseball seemed nigh unthinkable after 2015. Tyler O’Neill’s development into a top-100 prospect came thanks to adjustments made by the coaching staff that led to a healthier approach at the plate.

When the organization has shipped the majority of the universally recognized talent away, however, it’s tough to laud the players being developed as more desirable in particular than, say, Minnesota or San Diego. The White Sox could outdo the Mariners in any trade they attempted to put together, but they are not trying to win right now, so they’re not receiving offers. Teams will always be interested in other players, but the fact that Seattle has shown a willingness to deal from their farm repeatedly seems to have a larger role than anything.

Spin Rate: Above average - A Felix Hernandez changeup

This is less of a boast and more of a reasoned explanation. Naturally the Mariners are more bullish on their system than those outside of it. Of course, when you trade prospects and those that remain are injured, the regard people hold that system in will fall. For the Mariners to rise up in those rankings, they’ll have to prove it and unearth some hidden gems.

Spin Rate: Low - A Jean Machi changeup

Alright, take five, Jerry.

Spin rate: Elite - A Nick Vincent fastball

On Felix Hernandez...

This isn’t a single quote but a series of them contained within the linked article, but the sentiment is clear. Dipoto is calling out Félix Hernández. The statement is gentle, but it’s public. By stating confidence in the rotation “if Felix can give us the 25 starts or more that he gave us in 2016,” there’s no denying Félix is being put on the spot. Since Dipoto has taken over, Hernández has missed around 25 starts, and seen his productivity take a tumble even when he’s been on the field. The King’s work ethic is less than legendary, but given his near lifelong dominance it’s hard to say it wasn’t working. Of course, the reason Félix is so run down is in no small part due to that decade of service he gave to the Mariners while they were mired in futility. It’s a tricky place to be for both parties.

Dipoto is correct that the Mariners need Félix to be healthy for them to have a shot at success in 2018 as constructed. The King is Seattle’s highest-paid player, and unlike the Dodgers, Seattle won’t be able to endure paying a player $20+ million not to play. Evaluating Félix in that fashion misses the mark for me personally, however. Mariners fans have had precious little to look forward to since 2001, but for most of that time, we’ve had Félix. I don’t think I’m alone in the sentiment that no small part of why I so desperately want the Mariners to make the playoffs is for the opportunity to see Félix Hernández pitch in a playoff game. The idea that that dream may never come true is sadder than any 81-81 projection or 30th overall farm system.

What Dipoto said was neither vicious nor inaccurate, but it was jarring in the sense that it’s something we’ve never heard said before by the team, publicly, about Félix: He wasn’t good enough last year and he needs to be better. It was true after 2016, but the message was softer, more nuanced, with deference to the King we all love. This year we saw tough love instead. It’s unfair to his past but it’s true of his present and future.

Spin rate: Eternal - My stomach, right now

The Mariners are, as LL’s Warden of the North, Kate Preusser, remarked to me recently, banking on confidence they haven’t earned. That’s a dangerous game to play. If they’re right, this team will lift a weight every Mariners fan is carrying on their shoulders and we will look at the front office as the light at the end of a nearly two-decade tunnel. If they’re wrong, well, it might be their last mistake in Seattle.