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Notes from the Mariners Town Hall

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[extremely Pink voice] please, please, don’t leave me (Mariners season ticket holders)

jerry dipoto expressing he does not actually know how tall all the prospects are off the top of his head
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

A hallmark of Jerry Dipoto’s tenure as GM has been his desire to be a “glass door GM,” prioritizing transparency and communicating his vision openly to the public. He’s made himself available to answer questions at FanFest, other ballpark events like Baseball Prospectus Night or our own Lookout Landing night, and on the Wheelhouse podcast, where fans are encouraged to submit questions. This Wednesday Dipoto hosted a Mariners Town Hall meeting where the general public (but especially season ticket holders) were invited to come out to T-Mobile and listen to Dipoto pitch his vision, after which they could ask questions—this time, unscreened (which might have not been the best idea, more on that later). For regular LL readers, a lot of the information presented during the Town Hall (and thus, in the article, although I will try to condense as much as possible) will be familiar, so feel free to skim, but as a vehicle to re-engage a fanbase that might not follow the minors closely and sees only rising costs and losing records, the pitch was effective.

Dipoto draws criticism from some corners as a “snake oil salesman,” a huckster spin-doctor who swears it’s Seattle’s only choice, throw up your hands and raise your voice (monorail!). And to be fair, he was in salesman mode during the event, appealing to a group of mostly season ticket-holders drawn by the lure of free parking and complimentary drinks and sandwiches as well as a question-and-answer session. But first, the pitch: Dipoto spoke for a solid hour, starting with recapping his first three years as GM and the attempts to field a competitive team, and describing the process of the decision in September of 2018 to embark on the rebuilding process after meditating on the question “Can we be competitive in the AL right now?” The answer to that was a resounding no, and not only because of the Astros—who Dipoto describes as “the most talented team I’ve ever seen in 31 years in baseball”—but also because of the Twins, Rays, and Athletics, all of whom the front office saw as teams on the rise to enter a competitive window.

From there, Dipoto moved into breaking down the “waves” of players currently in the system, beginning with the major-league pieces that the front office sees as franchise building blocks for the future. The core three players, as we know, were originally Marco Gonzales, Mitch Haniger, and Edwin Diaz, although moving Canó’s contract and receiving what they view as a future franchise star in Jarred Kelenic in return made moving Díaz necessary. The MLB-level players who Dipoto took special care to mention as part of the future:

  • Marco Gonzales. Beyond his performance on the field, Dipoto spoke about Marco’s durability, ties to the region, and leadership qualities as reasons he’s considered a franchise player.
  • Yusei Kikuchi. While admitting Kikuchi has been “wildly inconsistent,” Dipoto reinforced that the club believes in his talent and said that Yusei gets a “hall pass” considering the transition year he’s been in, both professionally and personally.
  • Omar Narvaez and Tom Murphy. It isn’t surprising to hear Narváez tagged as a franchise player, but Dipoto spoke about Tomar (he did not use that portmanteau, to clarify) as a unit, noting that the two were the best offensive tandem at catcher in MLB this year, and declaring that with these two, along with Austin Nola and Cal Raleigh, “our catching situation is better than it has been in years,” which is akin to saying “this bowl of oatmeal is better than the fifteen years I spent eating twigs and leaves” but is true nonetheless.
  • Austin Nola. Another surprise inclusion when thinking about the team of the future and maybe an indication to Nola that he should get a real estate agent to help him navigate the frightening Seattle housing market, Dipoto said that the entire coaching staff was impressed by Nola’s “phenomenal makeup” coming out of Spring Training, but lamented “if only he could hit.” Nola’s bat has been a pleasant surprise but he’s most valued as a “mature, built-out, work-oriented leader” whose role will be holding down first base until Evan White is ready, at which point he will transition to a super-utility role (extra-super-utility, since Nola can play catcher).
  • Daniel Vogelbach. Much time was spent discussing Vogelbach’s “great personality,” which isn’t quite as ominous as it sounds, but almost.
  • Mallex Smith. “Projects to be here for the foreseeable future.” Hmm.
  • Dee Gordon. Like Vogey, most of the time spent on Dee was in praising him as a clubhouse leader, specifically as the leader of the African-American clubhouse contingent, which Dipoto noted is “the most diverse clubhouse in the majors.” (Hold for fact-checking, please.) Dipoto spoke outright about the club’s commitment to diversity: “We’re proud that we have ten African-American players in a game that definitely needs them.”
  • Mitch Haniger. Dipoto called Haniger “our best player,” and praised Mitch as a leader in the clubhouse, although one who leads by example more than exhortation.
  • J.P. Crawford. Dipoto accidentally skipped Crawford’s page on the giant page of notes he was reading from and had to go back and do him later. He noted J.P.’s improvement on defense and the way he stepped up in late May/June when the rest of the team was sagging a little, and called him a “foundational piece” and the “shortstop of the future.”
  • Kyle Seager. It doesn’t sound like Seager is headed anywhere, although whether that’s by dint of design or a consequence of his contract, it’s hard to say. An interesting anecdote about Seager, who I have wondered about as far as how invested he is in the rebuild. Dipoto and Seager were walking in from the parking lot a while ago, discussing the reset, and Seager told him, “I’ve been here a long time. Someone needed to do this a long time ago.”

From the team of the now, Dipoto then moved on to the farm system, noting that in just one year the Mariners system moved from the 30th in baseball to the 6th, and first among all AL West teams (although Texas is right behind them at 7th). He credited the development staff, specifically praising Brian DeLunas’s pitch development program and Carson Vitale as field coordinator, mentioned the advanced technology like Trackman, Rapsodo, and Edgertronic cameras, and said he’s grateful to learn every day from the development staff. From there, Dipoto offered an abbreviated overview of the farm system, going in waves:

Wave One: Players already at, or very close to, the major-league level, with Dipoto’s comments, where applicable/interesting:

  • Justus Sheffield
  • Justin Dunn
  • Kyle Lewis
  • Shed Long, who they’re going to try to use in a “Mark McLemore” role for the time being
  • Jake Fraley: “tremendous person” and an asset to clubhouse culture
  • Braden Bishop: almost always “the best defensive player on the field”
  • Taylor Gilbeau: “unafraid strike-thrower” with a “bat-missing changeup”
  • Eric Swanson: will be strictly in a bullpen role moving forward; they feel his stuff plays best when he can just air out the fastball

Wave Two: the 2020/2021 players, listed in probable order of MLB appearance

  • Evan White: “You will see him in 2020 unless something goes wildly wrong, and I think we become a really interesting team with him.” Has a chance to make the big-league roster out of camp.
  • Logan Gilbert: Dipoto, who noted Gilbert is Top 10 in almost every pitching category in MiLB, called him “one of the more prepared and intelligent players I’ve ever been around” and said “I’d be wildly disappointed if you didn’t see him next year.”
  • Jarred Kelenic: “was the same player everywhere we sent him.” One of two players below Triple-A with 30 doubles, 20 homers and 20 stolen bases (the other is the Dodgers’ Jeter Downs). “There’s no one who has more of an intense need to win and show you how good he is.”
  • Cal Raleigh: Thanks to Tomar, Raleigh will be granted as much time to develop as he needs.
  • Julio Rodriguez: Calls Julio a “loving” teammate and “our funnest prospect” and says “I feel he will be at the center of great things.” Notes that Julio is moving faster than anyone expected. (Except maybe Julio.)

Wave Three: 2022 and beyond

  • George Kirby, Brandon Williamson, Isaiah Campbell: The top three 2019 draft picks, all college pitchers, are expected to begin 2020 at Modesto together. Juan Then might be in this group as well. That rotation will be...nuts.
  • Noelvi Marte: “The most phenomenal August I’ve ever seen a player have.” Noelvi will be headed on the Julio track out of the DSL this year; first to Peoria for the High Performance Camp this fall, and then on to the rookie leadership development camp this winter. Fans eager to get a peek at Marte in person should be able to do so this spring.
  • Austin Shenton and Milkar Perez: the answer to the question “what comes after Kyle Seager?” both players will compete for the long-term third base job (side note, interesting that there was no mention of Joe Rizzo anywhere, although maybe Dipoto just skipped him in his notes like he did with Crawford). Shenton is familiar to most who have been following the farm but Perez was a surprising name. A 17-year-old who just completed his first season in the DSL, Perez shows “advanced feel to hit,” an assertion backed up by Perez’s strong K:BB ratio and .274 average. Provided both continue to develop at the same rate, he and SS Noelvi Marte will be paired moving up through the system.
  • Jose Corniell: This was the most surprising name, since Corniell, a July 2 signing of this year, hasn’t even played a DSL season yet. The club feels he will be a quick-mover, though, thanks to a super-projectable frame, a smooth, fluid delivery, advanced feel to pitch, and a fastball that already touches 94 at 16 years of age.

Relievers are People, Too

Dipoto highlighted Aaron Fletcher, Sam Delaplane, and Joey Gerber as three quick-moving arms with a chance to make the club in 2020.

*

After this roster rundown, it was time for questions. The questions...were mostly bad, I am sorry to say. The phrase “Your opinion is yours and it cannot be wrong” was given a fair amount of play. One requested Dipoto give heights for all the different prospects; another wondered if Vogelbach might lose weight like Seager did and become a better runner (Dipoto’s answer to this was gentle, and a little heartbreaking). A great many questions were asked about ticket prices, and while that’s a fair question and I hope was noted by decision-makers in attendance, Dipoto basically said ticket prices aren’t his call. This did not stop three more people from asking about it.

Several questions were asked about Scott Servais’s job security and whether or not Dipoto’s friendship with Servais was a factor, a question Dipoto answered graciously and at length the first time through, and more testily and tersely each subsequent time. The managerial role, he explained to the gentleman wishing for the second coming of Lou Piniella, has changed; it’s more of a collaboration now, less one person calling the shots. Players, too, have changed; when given instruction, they don’t automatically obey, but rather ask why. (This statement was met with a huff of great disapproval as the invisible specter of millennials raised its kombucha drinking head. Add “blind obedience” to the list of things millennials have killed.)

The best question was from a woman who asked if there was a moment Dipoto felt his plan coming together. His response was at Spring Training this year, shortly after pitchers and catchers reported, and watching the line of pitchers in Sheffield, Dunn, Kikuchi, Gonzales getting their work in and realizing how far the rotation had come.

Other things covered in the questions: Sam Carlson (shut down because by the time he was ready to face live pitching there wasn’t enough time to ramp him up slowly, so he’ll start fresh this spring); Atlantic League rule changes (Dipoto is in favor of most of them except moving the pitching mound back); the juiced Triple-A ball (Tacoma will start keeping their balls in a humidor next season, so sadly it doesn’t sound like the balls will be changing). No one asked anything wacky of Dipoto, which was a little disappointing, but [gestures at shed full of axes to grind]. If they do this again, I hope people will be encouraged to write their questions on index cards, as that encourages people to be brief and stick to one question (the person who wanted to know player heights was reading his questions off a sheet on a legal pad), and I also hope the moderators will actively work to include questions from younger folks (of which there were only a few in attendance) and women, who tend to be a little more shy about raising their hands. And also have a representative who can talk about ticket prices, since that’s something that’s clearly on people’s minds as the long journey towards contention continues.