Note: The Mariners are currently under investigation by MLB regarding Dr. Lorena Martin’s charges of racism and sexism in the organization. For background on this situation, our site statement, the most up-to-date news, and to offer comments and discussion on this subject, click here. Additionally, due to the lack of value in speculating with our limited insight on the accusations from Dr. Martin, in this article, we are focusing on the baseball-specific claims made by the front office.
Is trustworthiness an important skill for a General Manager? I’m not sure what the answer is. When considering the the Most Effective GM’s in MLB in terms of putting together winning baseball teams, trustworthiness isn’t exactly their calling card. It could almost be argued a deceptive public profile is par for the course; however, as fans, it is frustrating to feel disconnected from the decision-makers, even if it may ultimately be true. Jerry Dipoto, with his podcast and regular appearances on local radio stations, has long been skilled at bridging that gap, even if it often walks a line. Prior to last season I examined some of Dipoto’s statements and attempted to gauge their spin rate. This offseason, however, has provided the greatest test yet in the affable GM’s truthiness, and so I have again set out to measure some of his most contentious and memorable statements.
To judge these statements fairly they should be taken in context with their time. It would be fair for Dipoto to claim something at one point and something different at another if circumstances have changed. Often, while the details have been fuzzy, Dipoto has given the groundwork of information to the public and followed it up with actions that back his word. But, even with our limited knowledge, sometimes a statement is clearly bending the truth the moment it is made. For example, my favorite MLB Network bit on SoundCloud, from 2016:
Other times, a claim is made that is almost immediately counteracted, and while it may not have been an outright lie at the time, it was deceptive nonetheless. With that in mind, let’s appraise some quotes.
“A tear-down, you’re just selling off anything that is not nailed down. I think when you take a step back, there’s a potential of doing some things smaller with the hope that a step back promotes two forward. A tear-down is just ripping it to the studs and moving to the back of the pack and hope that over the course of the next 5, 6, 7 years you can build forward. We will not do the latter. It just doesn’t make sense where our roster is. But anything else is certainly in play for us.” ~ Jerry Dipoto, October 2nd, 2018.
To understand the plan you must first know the definitions of the words within it. One way Dipoto pitches his claims is by defining his statements a certain way, and this is a crucial one. A tear-down, in his eyes, is a scorched earth effort like the White Sox, Astros, Padres, or Cubs. Instead, the Mariners will hold a few pieces, supposedly, and the team’s desire to do “anything else” will likely include Mitch Haniger and Marco Gonzales.
Verdict: Unless we see Haniger dealt, I think this vagary has aged well. The Mariners have not gone full teardown, nor have they made moves to gut the upper levels of the organization in favor of a low-level influx. Pending future moves, this is true for now.
“We’re open-minded to different ways we can get better, but what we’re hoping to achieve is to reimagine our roster to look at it in terms of what is our quickest path to a championship club.” ~ Jerry Dipoto, November 6th, 2018.
For all the quotes pulled from interviews this offseason, this is the byte I’ve seen most frequently cited. “Reimagine”, he said, not “rebuild” or “retool”. It was in response to rumors that Seattle was considering a full teardown of their roster, and Dipoto took issue with the suggestion.
Sources: The Mariners are considering a full-fledged teardown this winter. If trade market is strong, they’ve told teams they’re willing to move just about anyone. And if that happens, they have indicated they’re willing to wait a few years to build a competitive team again.— Jeff Passan (@JeffPassan) November 6, 2018
As much as I’d like to give this particularly notable quote a whole batch of Pinocchio’s, Jerry slyly dipped into his bag of tricks and pulled out the “if you say every possible thing, it’s hard to say you were lying, per se” card, which famously rolls off the tongue. In that same interview, Dipoto notes, while discussing the possibility of targeting Nelson Cruz for a free agent reunion, “Our direction might be different in two, four, six weeks than it is today.” While that’s far from a full exoneration, it does reference that the team was still exploring its options.
Verdict: It’s not Jerry’s biggest whopper, but there was plenty of spin on that ball. A day later, the Mariners would trade Mike Zunino to the Rays, and exactly two weeks from the day of the interview James Paxton was a Yankee.
“Two years from now things would have looked awfully bleak.” ~ Jerry Dipoto, December 6th, 2018 / “We feel like we rode the roster we had for as long as we could ride it, and if we waited one more year it was likely going to be too late to get out from under some of what we were working with in terms of long-term contracts and an aging roster that needed to be reset ... if we would have waited and tried one more year with that core, we might have been in a position where we’re unable to do any of what we’re doing now, and stave off what might have been a ten-year rebuild for a much shorter reset” ~ Jerry Dipoto, December 19th, 2018.
Reiterating a point made on a couple occasions, Dipoto is referencing here the sense that, had the Mariners not hit the reset button this offseason, they might have found themselves in a hole for the next five to ten years with far less hope. The implication, in large part, is that another year of aging for Robinson Canó and Jean Segura in particular would likely render them severely difficult to trade. I would add that waiting another year accelerates Mike Zunino and James Paxton towards their final years of club control as well. Whereas 2017 was a disaster on nearly all fronts, leaving Seattle with almost an entire roster at the nadir of its value, 2018’s campaign meant the Mariners could at least pitch several players to other teams as proven upgrades for a sell-off, even if they “couldn’t” upgrade themselves enough.
The trouble is that the conundrum is mostly self-fabricated. The Mariners are not a financially destitute organization, and with a steady revenue flow that would not preclude them from spending a bit more than their already strong 2018 payroll to augment their roster. Unfortunately, that is not what the organization was willing to do, and while it is disappointing, it was not unexpected.
Verdict: With their self-imposed financial restrictions in place, it is understandable to see the recent uptick in financial flexibility as a slate cleanser. Whether Dipoto is responsible for the frugality or it is ownership’s financial commitment is unknowable.
“If [building a championship-caliber roster] means in 2019 we field as competitive a team as we can while earmarking and gathering talent, we’re not looking to rip our club down. We’re just too talented to do that.” ~ Jerry Dipoto, November 6th, 2018.
The veracity of this particular statement dwindles the longer it carries on. Seattle hasn’t fully ripped the foundations out, but has taken just about every other piece of construction out, leaving just a sturdy Haniger-embossed base. While the talent they’ve added is indeed of the more medium-term variety, it’s unequivocal that the team is weaker in the short-term at this point, even if their long-term health is trending upwards. The final quote seals the deal, largely when juxtaposed with a quote from just this week:
“I guess the easy answer is we won 89 games and we did so with a team that probably wasn’t an 89-win team.”
The Mariners were talented, and they were in a difficult spot, but they have proven not to be too talented to dismantle, and odds are they weren’t a month and a half ago either.
Verdict: There are more harmful deceptions out there, but with regards to the future of the franchise this was a fairly strong 180.
“The only player we’ve acquired in the past month who might be pressed to get on the front side of that window is Jarred Kelenic, Everybody else should be making their way toward Seattle, if not immediately, then certainly by midseason of 2020. That was the timeline we were trying to set up.”
This is not false on its face. Between the players acquired this offseason and those showing promise in their system already, virtually every player has the same 2-3 year window of expected arrival. To lazily reference having written this once before, the Mariners’ top slate of acquisitions all fits the window referenced above:
A bit of both. So many ways this can/will go awry, but if you're timelining the acquired/top prospects, you've got...— John Trupin (@JohnTrupin) December 3, 2018
Crawford+Sheffield+Swanson = 2019
Dunn+White+Lewis+Fraley+DTW+Bishop+Curletta = 2020
Stowers+Kelenic+Gilbert+Raleigh+Julio(?) = 2021
And ~no money on the books. https://t.co/GeONfsQ57s
The unspoken elephant in the room is that prospect development is not a linear process, and while Seattle has heavily overhauled their development to escape the disaster that was the Jack Z era, they’re entirely unproven when it comes to turning top prospects into MLB talent. The closest examples might be Tyler O’Neill, who took off after receiving new instruction in 2016, or Nick Neidert, who developed into a top-100 prospect before being dealt to Miami. Everything about the Mariners’ “step back” is contingent on them not only no longer being an abyss where prospects go to die as they were from 2005-2015, but actually being one of the better development groups in the league.
Verdict: The timeline checks out if things go right. I am not inclined to call it a lie, but it is important to recognize it as optimistic. The distinction that lends this credence, ultimately, is that they seem to truly believe in this window, as their moves all indicate.
“Whether we were No. 30 or somewhere in the final couple (of organizations) is up to interpretation. We feel we just went from somewhere in the bottom five to somewhere in the top 10, and that’s a pretty swift move in about a month.” ~ Jerry Dipoto, December 6th, 2018.
Organizational rankings are a clumsy tool. Much like WAR evaluations, while they get us a close approximation to reality, there are error bars on the sides. Those error bars are typically smaller than any other means of measurement or evaluation that we have, which is why we use them, but there is still a range. With all of that in mind, it takes some Hollywood accounting to put the Mariners in the top-10 based on the information we have. Seattle has three players in MLB.com’s Top-100 in Justus Sheffield, Jarred Kelenic, and Justin Dunn. They have another couple players who could make a Top-100 list for one or more of the public lists - Evan White and Julio Rodriguez - and a former Top-100 player in Kyle Lewis who could get back into that conversation with a healthy, resurgent season in 2019. Logan Gilbert, Braden Bishop, Josh Stowers, and Sam Carlson round out a group that is at least arguably a top-10-in-MLB top-10 prospects list. The trouble is the depth of the system has suffered as much or more than the cream of the crop.
If you were so inclined, you could count players like JP Crawford and Dan Vogelbach as “prospects”, as both have eclipsed their rookie status but have effectively yet to debut in full due to inconsistent use and/or injury. Doing so, however, invites other teams to include similar players, which balances things out. Seattle has a two-wave group in their farm right now, with a group in AA-Arkansas and another in Low-A-West Virginia that is not surrounded by players who have shown impact MLB talent as of yet.
Verdict: The internal data Dipoto and the front office has may indicate otherwise, but from where we sit, this is stretching the truth.
“We are very much looking forward to next year’s draft and the international market and even the ability to continue to look at the idea of turning veteran players into young players.” ~ Jerry Dipoto, December 7th, 2018.
Fun as it would be to parse the body language of Dipoto to determine whether he’s REALLY looking forward to next year’s draft and international free agency, the part of the above quote we’re concerned with is the latter portion: turning veteran players into young players. Seattle has traded en masse from their farm system in recent years, and while the failures of player development over the past decade are well-documented, Dipoto’s consistent churn harmed the second tier of the system as much as the cream of the crop. When Dipoto took over the Angels he was charged with creating a contender and, ownership mandated mega-deals notwithstanding, he took a similar tack to chipping away at his farm for upgrades both meaningful and marginal. We’ve never seen Dipoto run a rebuild, nor a “reimagining”, nor whatever this may be referred to, so it’s particularly tough to auger if the team will give its youth the time needed to grow.
The only deal that could be considered a “sell” move in Dipoto’s past came during his tenure as the Diamondbacks interim General Manager in 2010, dealing RHP Dan Haren to his future team, the Angels, in exchange for LHP prospect Tyler Skaggs, veteran LHP Joe Saunders, RHP Rafael Rodriguez, Anaheim’s recent 2nd-round pick, RHP Patrick Corbin. Haren was as advertised for a year and a half before flagging, while Corbin has had a disjointed but strong career thus far, more than satisfying the hopes Arizona could’ve had in the deal.
Thus far this offseason, we’ve seen Dipoto deal largely from the depth of his MLB roster, with a notable exception in LHP Michael Plassmeyer moving to Tampa Bay in the deal to reel in OFs Mallex Smith and Jake Fraley. Seattle needs depth as much as they need star power, and with only a few veterans left, their options for acquiring them grow slim. To reach their 2021 target of reentering competitiveness, they need as many chits as possible to try and succeed.
Verdict: The players moved thus far have been young and old, but only two minor leaguers (Plassmeyer and reliever Noah Zavolas) have been dealt out of the 12 players moved this offseason. It remains to be seen how Seattle handles their remaining veterans, and whether they prioritize prospect return or salary relief once again. They’re close to the truth, but seeing money eaten for more talented return would be an encouraging final touch.